An Old-Time, Down Home Christmas

North Florida Holiday Traditions During the 19th Century Included Costumes, Chinese Fireworks and Plenty of Eggnog

Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 1:50 a.m.

Though a 19th centu-ry Christmas may conjure up Currier-and-Ives images of horse-drawn sleigh rides through the snow, holiday revelers in North Central Florida were more likely to celebrate with firecrackers, masquerades and even a little magic.

One of the Christmas customs in North Florida towns during the 19th century was called masquerading. Based on the old Spanish custom of Carnival, the so-called masquers in their costumes, which might be of older people — both hideous and fashionable, Native American or European — went from house to house to act out various parts. Often musicians would accompany the masquers playing the tambourine or violin. Carnival in Florida sometimes actually lasted from Christmas until Lent and gave the Floridians a chance to have a long party. The masquers would send word ahead that they would dance at a certain house in the evening. The owner of the house then provided some refreshments.

One unusual custom in North Florida around Christmas involved weddings. In the late 18th century, officials restricted weddings to December in order to make it easy for visiting priests to perform many weddings at one time. One result was a number of loud parties around Christmastime that saw people dressed up in grotesque masquerades and making a lot of noise, protected by the anonymity of their disguises.

Like other towns in the state, Gainesville had its own particular Christmas customs. In the 1880s, for example, local residents fired off cannon and Chinese firecrackers to commemorate the day. Farmers prided themselves on having their chickens lay lots of eggs to supply the large amount of eggnog made in the town.

Many African Americans paraded through the town on horseback, dressed in false faces and accompanying the local band, which played marches like "Yankee Doodle" and "Put Me in My Little Bed."

On Christmas afternoon, a local magician, Dr. Bacon, gave a free magic show at Roper's Hall for the youngsters. At night, he gave a similar performance for the older children and adults. He donated the admission fee to the fund for purchasing a children's library.

All made plans to attend an elegant New Year's ball and supper at the Arlington Hotel. The local newspaper praised the meal that night and the one on Christmas Day — with some exaggeration — as one that "could hardly be equaled by Delmonico in New York City."

It was also the time of year when newspapers were full of good advice. One paper in North Florida had these admonitions:

"Don't send your gentleman adorer a gold toothpick. He may have false teeth.

"Don't buy your daughter a piano and your wife a washtub. If you reverse the order, you will do justice to both.

"Don't place your expectations of a Christmas gift too high. You may have to put your foot in your stocking to find anything in it.

"Don't give your boy a drum and forbid him beating it, nor your daughter a horse and order her not to take it out of the stable without your permission.

"Don't send your pastor embroidered slippers. To travel the strait and narrow path requires hobnailed shoes."

After the turn of the century, local author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who moved to Cross Creek in 1928, described in her book "Cross Creek" that Christmastime was busy there because that was the peak of the orange season, which demanded long hours picking, washing, grading, wrapping, and packing the fruit for shipment north.

For various reasons (preoccupation with the oranges, poverty, tradition), Creek residents celebrated Christmas quietly. Mrs. Rawlings herself gave boxes of clothes, candy, and fruitcake to her African-American acquaintances and other neighbors, but none of them usually gave presents in return at the time.

Instead, during the year they would give her gifts of wild grapes or blackberries, quail, or bass. One man studied hard about what to give her that she couldn't buy, then fixed his outboard motor, borrowed other boats from friends, set up duck blinds, and took out her party for a splendid day of duck hunting.

As she wrote about that outing: "A millionaire could not have given a finer present."

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