Many families look forward to their Christmas traditions all year long. Who doesn’t love putting up the Christmas tree, baking Christmas cookies, doing a little Christmas shopping and wrapping gifts to be opened by loved ones on Christmas morning?
How far back in time do your family traditions go? Some of the traditions we know and love can be traced to Arkansas Christmases past.
Christmas was first declared a federal holiday in 1870 but Arkansas was one of the first states to declare it a holiday in 1838, just two years after statehood. Many of our Christmas traditions stem from European traditions celebrating Christmas and other winter holidays. When immigrants arrived in Arkansas they brought these traditions with them.
Christmas Tree – The Christmas tree came from Northern Europe originally, but the tradition migrated to Arkansas not long after the state began celebrating Christmas. However, not everyone had a Christmas tree in their homes. Trees were more of a town event and could be found in community gathering places like schools, churches or town squares. In 1871, the Fayetteville Weekly Democrat reported that the home of C.W. Walker had a Christmas tree and many in town attended an event at his home to see the tree, which was laden with gifts. Before 1895 and the invention of electric Christmas tree lights, trees were lit with candles, making them beautiful, but a fire hazard.
Christmas gifts – Arkansas was a much more rural state in the past than today, and money that could be spent on gifts depended largely on how crops did that year. If it had been a good season, families could purchase a little more to celebrate. Some popular gifts in the 1800s included ladies’ shawls, hats and capes, advertised as direct from Paris, baby dolls, baseball bats, small knives and even photo albums.
Santa and Christmas Stockings – Santa Claus most often filled children’s stockings with a mix of nuts, hard candy and oranges or apples. Fruit like oranges were expensive and would have been a treat. Children also might receive a small gift like a pocket knife or small doll in their stockings. Instead of leaving milk and cookies for Santa, children left oats, corn and apples for the reindeer.
Christmas Dinner – Arkansans have always known how to put together an amazing holiday meal, but Christmas dinner would have looked a little different from today. Turkeys and hams were a common way to celebrate, but turkeys would have been hunted locally, and hams were from hogs raised over the summer. Christmas dinner might also include venison and bacon, or chicken and dumplings. Cornbread was typically the bread of choice since flour was more expensive than cornmeal, although splurging for Christmas might have produced fluffy biscuits instead. The only vegetables on the table would be those that had been preserved earlier in the season. Apple cider and eggnog might also accompany the meal.
Christmas Entertainment – Before films and nightly Christmas movies and specials all through December, merry events revolved around social gatherings. Many small towns held dances around or on Christmas Day. The school pageant was one of the most attended events. Children performed and then received a bag of hard candy. For some, this would be their only Christmas gift. Shooting matches were another way to celebrate the season. Along with gunfire, fireworks and even cannon fire were reported on Christmas Day. Roman candles and firecrackers were sold in local stores to help celebrate. The racket reportedly shattered windows in homes in Fayetteville and Little Rock!
The Christmas Wish Book – In the 1890s, Sears, Roebuck and Co. began to corner the market on mail order goods, from sewing machines to saddles, bicycles to clothes, they advertised their goods to rural communities, including many in Arkansas, in magazines that became famous around the holiday season. Though the first Christmas magazine wasn’t produced until 1933, families would still have studied the catalog pages leading up to the Christmas season. From 1968 to 1993, Sears issued the Wish Book each year.
What traditions will you keep or create as you celebrate Christmas in Arkansas this year?