Friday, December 26, 2014

Snippets of Christmas past

Screengrab of vintage line drawing of Santa coming out of the chimney
A look at Santa as he appeared in the Dec. 23, 1896
issue of the Ocala Evening Star newspaper.
Credit: Library of Congress's Chronicling America website
We may like to think Christmas of yesteryear was quieter, simpler, and perhaps more solemn than today's hectic festivities. In some ways, that may be true. In others, not so much. At least not in pioneer Florida. Else, the editor of The Gulf Coast Breeze (Crawfordville) wouldn't have felt the need to issue this caution in the paper's Christmas Eve edition in 1897:

"Christmas being the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to proclaim peace on earth and good will toward men, the day should be observed in all christian lands in strict accordance with that sentiment, and never as a day of drunken revelry and carousal."

Two years earlier, in 1895, the Bradford County Telegraph (Starke) spoke of the "festivities, the hilarities, the family greetings of earthly Christmas ..." in an editorial comment about how earthly celebrations will give way to "the great holiday of heaven."

Despite the emphasis on the holiday's religious significance in these two examples, some denominations were strangely quiet on Christmas in late 19th century Florida. At least in Ocala. The Dec. 26, 1895 edition of the Ocala Evening Star offered a recap of Christmas Day services. The content is worth quoting, for it surprised me:
  • "The Baptists had no exercises at the church." 
  • "The Methodist church had no Christmas exercises."
  • "At the Catholic church the decorations were very pretty and the services beautiful and solemn."
  • "The Episcopal church was nicely decorated in evergreens for the occasion, and the usual Christmas exercises were rendered, which were very beautiful and forcible."
  • "No services were held at the Presbyterian or Christian churches."
  • "Several Christmas trees were held among the colored churches."
I'm not sure what type of celebration is referenced by the Christmas trees being "held." If anyone knows, please add a comment. 

Although the Baptists didn't have a service on Christmas Day, the church youth presented a children's cantata on Christmas evening at the Baptist hall. The same Dec. 26, 1895 issue of the newspaper had a few lines about the event, and reported that the hall was "beautifully decorated with evergreens, and the nicely arranged tree was groaning under its load of presents for the children." 

The 1890s Florida newspapers carried no shortage of ads for Christmas gifts. Just like today, the ads ranged from the simple to the loud. Examples from the Ocala Evening Star editions of Dec. 12, 17, and 20, 1895:
  • "Embroidery done to order at reasonable rates for Christmas. Cottage east of armory building."
  • "You can make twelve elegant Xmas presents to twelve of your relatives and best friends by sitting NOW for a dozen of Gottlieb's unexcelled photographs. Studio opposite Montezuma."
  • "My Christmas Slippers fit easy feet, fit hard feet, fit every taste and every pocket and are just the thing for a present. J.A. Rowell."
Economic indicators were closely watched, then as now. On Dec. 27, 1898, the Ocala Evening Star ran an article by a reporter who had canvased numerous merchants about holiday shopping. With one exception, all the merchants said business had been better than the year before. The drug store had sold out of holiday goods, and the candy store did a "huge business," 40 percent higher than the year before. As a side note, I noticed that the confectioner had run a large print ad for Whitman's Chocolates in the newspaper a few days earlier.

The sampling of vintage newspapers showed me more similarities than differences in the season, with one glaring exception. On Dec. 23, 1898, the Ocala Evening Star carried an article about holiday travel. The railroads had lowered rates for the season. On the Southern Railway, patrons paid one-third of normal fare for the return leg of a round trip. The Plant System's "Holiday Excursion Rates" advertised one-way fare for a full round trip. Granted, the Plant offer was good only in Florida, and the Southern Railway's deal covered only the Southeast. But, still. Imagine booking a flight for the holidays and seeing such a bargain pop up in your browser. What a ghost of Christmas past that would be.

The newspapers referenced in this post are from the Library of Congress's excellent Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers website. If you are a fan of old newspapers, you could spend hours there.

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