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Ghosts of Arkansas’ Christmas past

Submitted by Rachel Wright on December 3, 2013 – 2:05 pmNo Comment

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Christmas in Arkansas is based on traditions, but where did the traditions come from and has it always been celebrated that way, and how was Christmas celebrated over 100 years ago?

Documents record Arkansas Christmas events as early as 1837. Traveler Robert Brownlee arrived in Little Rock, Ark. on Christmas Eve and woke the next morning to gun shots and canon fire. He wrote in his memoirs that no one seemed to care, it was just how they celebrated and at least one man was killed.

The Historic Arkansas Museums’ website also has information about Hannah Donnell Knight, who moved from New York to Little Rock and wrote to her family about the events on a Christmas morning in the 1850s. She was awaken by canon fire on Main Street and said it was so loud windows in some of the houses broke.

British traveler William Featherstonhaugh, wrote about a party he attended in Little Rock’s early years – a dance that lasted all night and had more men than women. He wrote that the land lord said, “one hundred men and three women. Everyone had a great time, and only a few shots were fired in fun.”

The Yule Log was another tradition. According to the Historic Arkansas Museum, slaves were allowed a break the week between Christmas and New Year, but would still have to prepare a fire for their masters. They would find a huge log before Christmas and soak it in a creek and when it came time for Christmas they would burn that log, allowing a longer break.

Celebrations quieted down after the Civil War.

In the early 1900s, Little Rock butcher Alex George would dress up Christmas Bulls with garlands of flowers around their necks and other decorations  to make them “dressed up, fit to kill.” In the 1990s, the museum tried to celebrate with a Christmas Bull by renting a bull to dress up (but not kill). History interpreter Starr Michell said they were unable to dress the bull because it had been dehorned and would not let anyone near it.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Christmas tree and presents would not come until Christmas Eve when the children were in bed. Michell said parents would put the tree up that night and children would wake to lights and presents.

The first reported Christmas tree in Arkansas was in Fayetteville in 1839. A German put up a tree and decorated it with wood carvings and wax ornaments.

A more recent tradition is the Historic Arkansas Museums 46th annual Christmas Frolic on Dec. 8, with dancing, gingerbread and hot cider.

“Some families have made it their tradition to start Christmas,” History Interpreter Jane Keathley said. The Museum makes its own malt cider for the Christmas Frolic. “Getting ready for Christmas Frolic makes everyone (at the Museum) so happy,” Michel saidl.

Eggnog is a tradition that has European heritage. On Dec. 13, the Museum will have their 9th Ever Nog-Off. TheNog-Off allows people to share and make eggnog from historic recipes.

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