Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

"Christmas Gif'!"

Yuletide Traditions of a Century Ago

by Mignon Wilson

Everyone in the Big House was still asleep when the back door silently opened on the brittle morning air. The scent of cedar, holly and the smoldering hickory backlog on the Christmas fire filled the house.

Suddenly, voices began calling out, "Christmas Gif'! Christmas Gif'!" Sounds of laughter and the happy voices of servants echoed through the house as they ran from room to room, greeting everyone. They were playing a game and knew that if they could see some family member before they themselves were seen, they would win an extra gift.

It was Christmas morning in Carolina, 100 years ago.

Most people received only one gift, so extra presents were always treasured. Christmas gifts were simple back then, often handmade and practical. Servants might get a warm blanket, a pair of shoes or a few handkerchiefs. Handmade brooms fashioned with wild broom grass were welcome gifts, according to Julia Peterkin, noted South Carolina writer and Pulitzer Prize winner. "No store-bought broom can sweep dust out of corners half so well."

 

LIKE TODAY, Santa Claus came down the chimney, filled the stockings and left a present for each child. Excited children found apples, sticks of candy, a few treasured raisins and the "crowning glory" - a big, golden orange!

Caroline Coleman tells us about Christmas in her book Five Petticoats on Sunday: "Santa might bring a knife for a boy, a cap-pistol or a ball. There would be packets of firecrackers, too. For a little girl, there may be a china doll or a tea set. Once in a life-time she would get a wax doll, just too wonderful to be true. Sometimes there would be a china cup with floral designs and a motto in golden letters: 'Love the Giver' or 'For a Good Girl.' These 'Christmas Cups' were cherished by little girls and would be kept for years."

Elisabeth Epting of Clemson remembers her mother's stories about Christmas. "On Christmas day everybody had to dress before you could have any Christmas doings. One of the children read the Christmas story from Luke, followed by a short prayer. Our family didn't have stockings, but there were presents under the tree. Each person gave something to every other person. Usually it was a handmade gift, maybe sweetgrass baskets or something made from broom sage. Sometimes you might have 25 cents to spend for 12 people."

South Carolina first recognized Christmas as a legal holiday in 1875. It was an occasion when promissory notes could not be collected. With legal recognition, schools, banks and offices of state government were closed. This suggests the old Puritan opposition to the celebration was less apparent, and acceptance of Christmas as a festival was becoming the norm.

The Victorians celebrated Christmas in some parts of South Carolina with elaborate festivities. For men and boys, no Christmas was complete without the traditional Christmas hunt.

 

PREPARATIONS BEGAN in late November. Kinfolk gathered from all around, arriving in buggies, carriages and even by water, since rivers made the best highways. Twenty miles was a considerable journey, and it took at least two days to go just 60 miles.

"Family members came for Thanksgiving and stayed til after Christmas," Epting says. "Sometimes there were 15 or 20 people in the house. The women all helped with the cooking and baking. Everyone sat around the fire shelling pecans and preparing fruit for the cakes. Dried raisins were shipped in barrels from Cuba, and the seeds had to be picked out before they could be used. At night, since all the bedrooms were full, pallets were put down in the parlor for the children."

Peterkin writes in A Plantation Christmas, "Cakes were baked first, scuppernong wine was drizzled over them and then they were put away to ripen. The pantry shelves had rows of jars filled with jams and jellies, pickles and preserves make of figs, peaches, apples and watermelon rinds. There were home-grown red peppers to season the turkey dressing and sausage. And of course there was liver pudding made with rice and cornmeal."

The real old-fashion plantation Christmas dinner was always a feast. Tables were loaded with the bounty of farm and forest: roast pig, sausage and spare ribs, wild turkey with chestnut stuffing, venison and wild duck seasoned with onion, butter, thyme and bay leaf.

There was black bass taken from the back waters of the rice fields, country-killed beef, home-grown vegetables and candied sweet potatoes.

And ah! - the delicious southern desserts: plum pudding; mince pies; Lady Baltimore cake with a frosting of pecans, almonds, vanilla flavoring and sherry-soaked raisins and figs; Rocky Mountain cake (that's the Lady Baltimore piled high with nuts) and pound cake. And of course syllabub, the grandfather of today's classic eggnog.

The customary dinner for black children on the plantation was cooked and served outside, writes Anne Fishburne in A Plantation Memory. "Maum Rosena and Maum Margaret would cook this dinner in big iron wash pots in the yard. There were always two big pots of rice and one of 'greens' that boiled for hours with fatback, and one or a rich goose, chicken and pork stew."

On their best behavior, the children arrived at sunset, all scrubbed clean. After the meal, cake and candy were handed out. Then the air was filled with songs as everyone played games and danced to the music of the plantation fiddler and the tambourine player.

Homes were decorated with holly wreaths, red-berried cassia, long ropes of smilax and hanging mistletoe boughs. Lovley fresh trees were brought in from the woods. Holly decorated the mantels and even the pictures hanging on the walls.

Epting recalls that "the trees were covered with paper chains made by the children and fancy English and German ornaments. Real candles were lighted on Christmas morning."

Christmas, 100 years ago. That gentle, happy season has gone forever, but the influence lingers with Christmas memories to cherish and share.

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