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Memories of Christmas: Celebration was smaller in 19th Century

Celebration was smaller in 19th Century by Tom Dillard | December 22, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

It is believed that Jesuit priests held a Christmas Eve Mass at Arkansas Post in 1698. In the more than 300 years since that celebration at a tiny outpost of the French empire, Arkansans have celebrated Christmas during times of prosperity and peril, peace and war.

In 1838, Arkansas Territory recognized Christmas as an official holiday, one of the early states to do so. The federal government recognized Christmas as a holiday in 1885.

Christmas remained a somewhat subdued holiday until after the Civil War. I have the impression that the Fourth of July was celebrated much more publicly and boisterously than Christmas.

Some early Arkansans, especially in the more remote parts of the state, were said to celebrate both Christmas day and what was called "Old Christmas," meaning Jan. 5, the date assigned to Christmas under the old Julian calendar.

Throughout the 19th century, Christmas had both a public and private face. It was customary in many settlements, especially in rural areas, to have a "community tree," where festivities included a gift exchange, perhaps a musical entertainment of some sort and a community-wide potluck meal.

Martha W. Rimmer, a Little Rock historian who has published an outstanding article on the history of Christmas celebrations in Arkansas, has described a community celebration in Monroe County as perhaps typical: "Two sisters, Bessie and Addie Branch, from Holly Grove, in east Arkansas near Clarendon, remembered their Christmas Eve celebrations in the 1880s, centering around the huge holly tree that reached to the ceiling in the two-story town hall. Decorated with candles and strings of popcorn and cranberries as well as its own red berries, the community tree was the location where everyone placed gifts for friends and relatives. No one in town had his own individual tree at home; only the children's Christmas stockings were put up at home for Santa to fill."

Those stockings were the center of attention for children on Christmas morning. It was customary to include fruits and other treats that we take for granted today but were rare gifts before the modern era -- usually an orange, perhaps a coconut, and all kinds of nuts, sticks of candy and small toys.

The late Peg Newton Smith of Little Rock once described her Christmas stockings from the 1920s as "lumpy with surprises." She recalled that the stocking "always contained an orange, which was then a great treat; if times were good there was a shiny silver dollar in the toe. During Christmas week you'd savor each segment of your orange, carefully taking the thick peel to the kitchen where it would be minced to flavor some delicacy or made into marmalade, and you'd find time to rub your silver dollar on the carpet to make it shine even more."

The late Pauline Hoeltzel of Little Rock was born on Jan. 1, 1900, in one of the many families of German immigrants who settled in 19th century Arkansas. Her family celebrated Christmas for a month, beginning on Dec. 6 with St. Nicholas Day and running through Twelfth Night, the evening of celebration before Epiphany on Jan. 6. Vividly, she recalled the strong aromas drifting from the kitchen. She told of how her family experimented with new foods, including Karo corn syrup and Jell-O. The Christmas when she first ate a new concoction known as the Waldorf salad was especially memorable.

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."

​Eggnog was an important holiday drink in the Hoeltzel family as it was throughout the state. Being of German heritage, the Hoeltzel family served an alcoholic eggnog -- a recipe that has survived to this day.

​Clara Dunlap of rural Ouachita County had more than eggnog on her mind in December 1867 as she planned for Christmas. 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.

The Civil War brought interruptions to Christmas celebrations. Fathers and brothers were often away in the army, funds were in short supply, and religious services were often interrupted. The 1863 celebrations in Little Rock, which had been captured by the federal troops the previous September, were subdued, with some churches being commandeered for military purposes.

Little Rock's Christ Episcopal Church, located in the heart of the city at Fifth (now Capitol) and Scott streets (where it remains today) reopened on Christmas 1864. The building had suffered during its tenure as a hospital, but parishioners painted the interior and decorated it with evergreens for its Christmas day reopening.

Christmas was not celebrated so solemnly in the warring armies of the Civil War. Arkansans, like 19th century Americans in general, consumed a great deal of liquor, and drinking in the military ranks was legendary.

One 16-year-old Missouri lad was appalled by the drinking among Arkansas Confederate troops stationed in Mississippi: "But Christmas, that first Christmas of the war, was unhappily, the most noted illustration of camp dissipation. On that occasion, everyone got beastly drunk -- officers and men, the whole army indeed, as far as I can remember! ... my brother and myself were about the only sober men in the regiment and spent our time carrying men to their tents."

Among the many innocent families that suffered from the war were those forced from their homes. One such family was the Hermanns of western Washington County, German immigrants who tried to stay neutral during the Civil War. By late 1862 the situation was untenable, and the Hermann clan fled their homes for the safety of Missouri.

Traveling under federal army protection, the family trekked through Prairie Grove to Fayetteville and then on to Missouri. One of the Hermann wives wrote in her diary: "We left Prairie Grove on Dec. 24 and reached Fayetteville that same day. We camped near a spring at the north end of that village, where we spent Christmas Day ... Looking up at the star-studded sky on Christmas Eve, our memory saw again the lighted Christmas trees in our distant Fatherland."

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

NAN Profiles on 12/22/2019

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