Past Times

Long-ago Christmas held many traditions

Like this service at Raleigh’s Hayes Barton Baptist, rural residents marked the holiday with reverence and cheer in the early 1900s.
Like this service at Raleigh’s Hayes Barton Baptist, rural residents marked the holiday with reverence and cheer in the early 1900s. 2010 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

In 1961, Dallas Mallison, a historian from Oriental in Pamlico County, shared with readers memories of the traditional Christmases of Eastern North Carolina’s past.

In those days of the early 1900s, which now seem so very long ago, “the Christmas tree” party ushered in the annual Yuletide season. It was the main event or chief highlight of the entire holiday season of uninterrupted merry-making extending long past New Year’s. Not even the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving celebrations, the other two major holiday periods in those days, could compare with Christmastime.

“The Christmas tree” was one of those rare events which everyone in a small community remembered and looked forward to the year round. Today only in a few isolated instances does an abbreviated version of it continue. No other event or institution has come into being which has taken its place. The traditional family tree, observed then and now, has never equaled it in popularity or significance. ...

All during Christmas Eve the women were busy making ready the big one-room church. ...

Hundreds of home-made candles lighted up every nook and corner. A score of candles were placed on the altar, illuminating the huge cross high above it. The vestibule and front of the church were decorated with papers and tree branches and lighted up either with candles or wrapped in bright paper. ...

Not one person was forgotten at this Christmas party. Members of the adult Sunday school classes had bought fruit and candy. The ladies placed these in assorted paper bags. Huge baskets filled with these packages were crowded in a far corner under the tree. ...

Old Santa himself, in all of his mellowed splendor and glory, was always the master of ceremonies. Usually he was some benevolent elderly gentleman brought in for the occasion from some nearby community. He would make his grand entrance after the crowd had assembled, enjoying the applause of all as he walked down the center aisle. ...

In one coastal village community, there was a night when Santa was unable to make his grand entrance on time. In fact, he almost did not show up.

It seems that the women in this village had held a council and had decided that Santa’s suit was too bedraggled and had to be replaced. In those days it was customary to order many items of clothing from mail order concerns. This was done.

Then as now, the mailman got later and later in his deliveries as Christmas Day approached. The anxiety and concern of the ladies can well be imagined as the R.F.D. carrier made his final daily delivery before Christmas and the suit had not come.

What was to be done? More to the point, what could be done? The children least of all could not be disappointed. That was certain.

The ladies decided to dispatch a special messenger to the next town some five miles away from which point the mail originated. In those days the mail came in by train, and there was then a late afternoon delivery. The messenger was to return with the suit if it had arrived on the late mail.

Meanwhile the crowd was assembling at the church, unaware of the drama that was taking place. As the time for the festivities was reached and no messenger and no suit had shown up, the ladies were in a state of consternation. The minister was taken into their confidence and he agreed to fill in until the messenger arrived.

The minister was almost a Santa Claus himself. With a big shock of unruly, white hair, and a booming voice, he was tall and portly. He did his best to fill in the breach. He told and re-told the familiar Christmas story, inventing some new versions and embellishments. ...

Finally, after a delay of nearly two hours the old gentleman did appear and the long-suffering man of the frock was able to exclaim triumphantly, “Here does come old Santa Claus!”

The gift-exchanging went on as usual and the ending that night was a happy one as usual. But a tragedy of great proportions had been narrowly averted. And it was midnight that one particular Christmas eve night before the party broke up.

The threads uniting this story form a most intriguing pattern. When the messenger arrived at the post office in the nearby town, he found it closed. He was unable to find anyone at the rural carrier’s home or learn anything about the mail. So he returned.

In the meantime, the carrier knowing well the plight of the villagers, had made a special trip to deliver the suit himself. In his more than a third of a century spent in delivering the mail on the long rural route, he had often proven himself a good samaritan. Now he was a Santa Claus, too. The N&O, 12/24/1961

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