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I really enjoy the Christmas holidays. And I enjoy researching the ways Arkansans have celebrated Christmas through the generations. While many of our Christmas celebrations bear little similarity to those of the past, others have adapted.

If finances allowed, shopping has always been a big part of the celebration. On Dec. 23, 1906, the Arkansas Democrat reported that stores in Little Rock and Argenta were crowded with shoppers. "The merchants of Little Rock," reported the Democrat, "are no respecters of persons when it comes to caring for the holiday trade." The reporter noted that "Christmas novelty vendors are encountered at every step ..."

In the days before refrigeration, preparing a Christmas dinner often involved last-minute shopping for fresh ingredients. In mid-December 1850, Little Rock butcher and German immigrant Louis George announced in newspaper advertisements that he "will slaughter one of the fattest bullocks ever exhibited in this city, and will have the beef for sale at his stalls in the Market-house on Christmas morning." Interestingly, George concluded his ad by inviting shoppers to observe the bull: "The bullock will be paraded in our streets previous to being slaughtered."

Liquor dealers did a great deal of business during the holidays. A Little Rock liquor store owner, B. Bernays, bought newspaper ads in December 1865 proclaiming, "If you want to have egg-nogg for Christmas, you ought to buy my real Jamaica rum." With the Civil War having ended only a few months earlier, Little Rock residents had plenty to toast with cups of strong eggnog. And 19th-century Arkansans were often generous with the rum.

In the autumn of 1825, the fledgling territorial capital of Little Rock welcomed the opening of a tavern by Nicholas Peay, a recent immigrant from Kentucky. Later that year, Peay boasted that his eggnog--which was said to be therapeutic for the sick--included six dozen eggs, vast amounts of sugar, and from one and a half to two quarts of whiskey. Cream was added to top off the cup.

In 1867 Clara Dunlap of rural Ouachita County had more than eggnog on her mind. She had recently buried two young children, stolen away overnight by an unknown illness. She wrote her family back in Alabama that she was saving eggs for eggnog, and she was reassuring her remaining child that Santa Claus would visit again as usual.

Fireworks have been associated with Christmas for generations. The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1867 that "the morning of Christmas day was ushered in by continuous discharges of divers [diverse] descriptions of ordnance improvised for the occasion. "

Revolvers and shotguns were fired into the air, and in 1840s Little Rock a cannon was fired on Christmas morning. Recently arrived Hannah Knight was not pleased: "The report was so heavy that it broke nearly all the glass in the windows. We tried to hunt up someone to be responsible for the damages, but it was no use. That was my first acquaintance with Christmas in the South."

"Firing the anvil" was another noisy feature of Christmas in early Arkansas. Anvils, the heavy metal blocks used by blacksmiths to shape metal objects, usually had a small indention in the bottom. Celebrants placed an anvil upside down on the ground and filled the small hole with black powder. A fuse was inserted, and a second anvil was placed on top. When detonated by the lit fuse, a bright orange flash was followed by a deafening roar, and the top anvil was hurled several feet into the air.

Boys and men lit firecrackers with abandon, and Roman candles later came into popular use during Christmas revelries. A 1912 Christmas night celebration in Pine Bluff grew boisterous when streetcar employees at a Main Street tavern divided into two groups and began warring with Roman candles: "Time and again the linemen hurled fireballs from 20-shot Roman candles into the ranks of the insurgents who held firm and returned the fire with deadly effect. Coats were spotted where the fiery balls stuck and the battlers were forced to duck and dodge to prevent facial disfiguration."

Before the Civil War, enslaved Arkansans were often given a holiday on Christmas day. Some slave owners suspended work until the yule log in the fireplace was totally consumed, a practice that slaves exploited by cutting a green log and then soaking it in water prior to putting it on the fire. John Brown, a Camden merchant and planter, celebrated a quiet 1853 Christmas at home, but not his slaves: "It is a human[e] as well as a wise regulation to allow them a few days as a Jubilee, and they enjoy it. All are brushing up, putting on their best rigging, and with boisterous joy hailing the approach of the Holy days, while we are in some degree relieved of the particular oversight of them. So all are happy."

Arkansans born before World War II often tell of community events being their main Christmas celebration. A family might have a Christmas tree at home, and children would certainly hang their stockings with anticipation, but a Christmas Eve social at the local school or church was warmly remembered. Fred Starr, a teacher, legislator, and writer on Ozarks topics, described a rural north Arkansas Christmas Eve when the family made its way by wagon to a one-room school "where the cedar tree will be decorated with holly berries, mistletoe, strung popcorn and red crepe paper ..." After a large dinner, Santa would appear on the scene and distribute "the sacks of candy, nuts and apples into eager little hands that seldom grasp such luxuries ..."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at

Editorial on 12/17/2017

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  • Foghorn
    December 17, 2017 at 10:16 a.m.

    Is this some sort of joke? Or was the article intended to land as ‘horrific ways in which ARkansans used to celebrate Christmas?’ Including accusing actual slaves of ‘exploiting’ an horrendous ‘tradition?!’ If the latter, the headline is extremely misleading.