By Hardy Jackson
Thanksgiving was hardly over when it began. Regional magazines – Southern Living and such – started arriving with detailed instructions on how to have a “traditional Southern Christmas.” Newspapers chime in with “Feature” articles on the topic.
On Facebook and in chat groups, internet friends swap recipes and ideas, all in an effort to make sure what is done “down here” ain’t like what they are doing “up there” – and you know where “up there” is. It is a pretty hard sell.
Our churches and denominations mark the spiritual side of the season in ways similar to churches and denominations outside the region.
Meanwhile, on the secular side, where you would think our “Southerness” would show, it doesn’t.
No, when all is said and done, our Christmas looks pretty much like Christmas in other parts of the country – without the snow.
But it wasn’t always that way. Once Christmas in Dixie was marked with customs and practices unique to the region. What happened? Let’s look back a bit.
By the time Christmas came to these shores, it was already established in the English countryside as a mid-winter festival for farm folk. The harvest was in. The cider had hardened and the new beer was ready. It was cold enough to slaughter livestock and there was fresh meat. So they cut what greenery remained, decked the halls, laid out the feast, and had one last merry time before winter descended.
Europeans brought these traditions to America, and people from the British Isles who drifted across the South carried folkways with them. They also brought some of the more subtle, social aspects of the seasonal celebration. In early England, Christmas was marked most enthusiastically among the lower classes, who used the opportunity to engage in activities frowned upon by their “betters.” That practice came to the South as well.
For example, on Dec. 25, 1796, indian agent Benjamin Hawkins, down close to the forks of the Coosa and Tallapoosa, wrote disapprovingly of how he was visited by a party of slaves who had been released from their work to have “a proper frolic of rum drinking and dancing.”
During antebellum times Christmas became a significant slave holiday, one that often lasted as much as a week and required the master to provide considerable food and drink. Although some slaveholders resisted and their slaves passed the day as any other, some masters used Christmas to reinforce their paternalistic role in the master-slave relationship, by granting their chattel gifts (food, drink, and, of course, liberty) that only a master could give.
White southern yeomen farmers celebrated Christmas in ways strikingly similar to those found in Europe of centuries past. Not only was there the usual pre-winter feasting, but in a climate that was still warm enough for outdoor activity, it was common “for a crowd of young men to band together, with guns and every sort of instrument of music, or of noise, [and] go ‘Christmasing’ among their neighbors,” from whom they demanded “a treat,” – usually of the alcoholic variety.
Southern towns and cities witnessed a variation on the same theme, as bands of people – usually men, usually young, usually drinking, and usually from “the lower orders” – wandered about the streets, making merry and making mischief.
Well into the late 19th century, these boisterous celebrations continued, but as the region changed, so did Christmas.
The post-bellum “New South” imposed a commercial culture on Dixie, and the region’s rising middle class abhorred all kinds of rowdyism. Although this new bourgeoisie did not go after Christmas per se, its general approach to civil conduct was to restrict activities that threatened peace and good order. To do this, many supported Prohibition, which put a crimp in alcohol consumption, and dampened the festivities. Also contributing to the calming of Christmas was the growing influence of Evangelical religious groups, which adopted Prohibition as a cause and declared that merry making was sinful.
Meanwhile other forces were beginning to have an impact on the way Southerners celebrated Christmas. Although the commercialization of the holiday was nothing new, during the late 19th century, increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns elevated gift giving to a national passion and made Santa Claus a commercial icon. In short order Christmas became a national holiday, one whose critical elements – trimmed trees, carols, Santa, and such – could be found in every region of the country. Including Dixie.
Today Southerners still add a few distinctive twists to the season – we buy and shoot more fireworks and hold more parades. But for the most part the modern South is solidly within the national mainstream when it comes to celebrating Christmas.
If you are looking for evidence of the Americanization of Dixie, there is no better place or time to start than Christmas day.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.