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Antebellum Christmas Traditions in Lexington

Christmas traditions in pre-1860 Lexington were a little different than what they are today. For farming
families, late December was a time for cleaning up after the harvest and preparing for the rest of the
season. They had an abundance of food supplies on hand and the smokehouses were stocked with
freshly smoked ham, sausage, and other pork products. The livestock was well-fed and ready to be
butchered. They would most likely have had some extra money in hand from selling their marketable
crops and livestock. They would have bought luxuries such as sugar, coffee, spices, oranges, and
coconuts for use in the holiday feast.

Fox House Mantel

December days were also good for clearing new fields and for cleaning up brush along fence rows. This
provided kindling and wood for fires and also trimmings of greenery such as holly. Bonfires were
common at Christmas time as the days were short and farmers burned excess brush. Europeans also
celebrated Christmas with bonfires as a way of dispelling the darkness and welcoming the Christ Child.
Also common on Christmas Eve was the firing of shotguns. This tradition is mentioned in Edwin Scott’s
“Random Recollections of a Long Life” originally published in 1884 but reflecting on memories from the
1820s-30s. This tradition was later continued into the 20th century with shooting off fireworks or
firecrackers.

 
Families would visit each other during the season and since traveling even short distances was very
difficult, the visits would often last several days. These days and nights would be filled with feasting,
gathering around the fire, and general merriment in each others’ company.
Gumdrop TreeTrees were common decorations in homes as they were the European symbol of life. Cedar trees were
popular as were red-berried holly trees. They would have been brought into the house on Christmas Eve
and decorated with small candles, strings of beads or popcorn, and gingerbread men. Often thorny
bushes or sparkleberry branches were cut and decorated by affixing candied fruit onto their points. This
practice has evolved into creating gumdrop trees. Gingerbread cookies in all kinds of meaningful shapes
were often given as gifts to family, friends and acquaintances. The pinnacle of the celebration of
Christmas for most Christians would have been attending Midnight Christmas Eve services at their
church. That night, the children would have hung their stockings (socks) from the mantle of the
fireplace. They would awaken the next morning to gifts. These gifts mostly consisted of fruit, cookies,
homemade gifts or small toys that could fit into the stockings. Other small gifts may have been placed in
and around the tree branches.
At the Lexington County Museum we enjoy interpreting many of these old Christmas traditions. The
Friends of the Museum will be decorating some of the houses in the traditional manner and visitors will
be able to see the houses in their Christmas splendor at the Museum’s Christmas Open House on
December 13th from 1 pm to 4 pm and during regular tours from the 15th through the 23rd.

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