Sumter recently celebrated our own version of Christmas past with two enjoyable events, “Carolina Backcountry Christmas” at the Sumter County Museum and “Old-Fashioned Christmas” on Main Street. But what were the holidays really like, back when Sumter was Sumterville and no one had ever heard of iPads, Furby (I didn’t even know he was back!), gaming consoles, or any of those, well, things that keep showing up on Facebook’s login page?
Our history-based community events are interpretive in nature and to some degree must incorporate modern technology, so can we really know how our ancestors celebrated the holidays? Truly, it could not always have been the way it is today!
We’ve been fortunate to have dedicated community historians through the years, people who help us reach back to those days when Sumter was in the process of becoming the progressive city that we live in today. Coach Sammy Way maintains the Veteran’s Museum at the James E. Clyburn Intermodal Transportation Center, developed the “Hands On History” programs at Sumter High School and the Sumter County Museum, conducts downtown tours, writes for The Item, and in many ways keeps people connected to the history of a remarkable little town that, sort of like Topsy, “just growed.”
Until he was “promoted to glory” in 2006, we had a lot of wonderful years with “Mayor Bubba,” the late Wilson Ashby McElveen (born in Sumter in 1928)—a dedicated public servant who loved his hometown with his whole heart, and maintained an extensive archive that can be seen today at the Museum.
And before them, there was Miss Cassie Nicholes.
Miss Nicholes (1898-1987) was a Sumter native, best known for her 45-year career as an educator who taught Latin, French, and English in a number of South Carolina towns. She was also an active advisor for extracurricular activities at Edmunds High School and, following her retirement, served as correspondent and Features Editor for The Sumter News—a weekly paper published from 1967 to 1972. In 1975 and 1981, the Sumter County Historical Commission compiled two volumes of Miss Nicholes’ articles as Historical Sketches of Sumter County. Volume II contains a delightful reminiscence of a “Family Christmas,” undated but apparently from the late 1800s. Attributed to Irene Bryan, a brief excerpt reads:
“Sisters and brothers detected an air of secrecy as ‘Mother’ and ‘Aunt Mary’ worked feverishly on gifts while the children were out playing. When one came into the house under the pretext of getting a drink of water or a toy, objects were quickly hidden under the folds of the long full skirts or aprons—the fashion in those days.”
Ms. Bryan’s sister Abbie added that the house was decorated with “holly leaves and berries, sprays being placed on the mantel, the table, and over the pictures—anywhere it was possible to attach a twig.”
According to Ms. Nicholes, many gifts in those days were procured from the catalog of J. Lynn & Company and included such selections as sheet music, pocket knives, rosebud stick pins and rings. Ms. Bryan then describes the “exciting nine-mile drive to Sumter” where on Christmas Eve the children spent the quarters that they’d worked for and saved since harvest time. As still happens today (at least, I hope it does!), the children also left refreshments on the hearth for Santa.
On Christmas morning, a much-anticipated stocking stuffer was a fresh orange, “precious because it was possibly the only one the children would see for a whole year.” Gifts included fruit, nuts, candy, and such practical items as scarves, caps, mittens, pen wipers and an assortment of other handmade items. All of this was followed by Christmas breakfast, consisting of country sausage, hominy, batter cakes, and molasses.
In the evenings, the extended family gathered at Grandmother’s house for a festive dinner of turkey, rice, ham, macaroni and all the trimmings, followed by coconut and mincemeat pies. Afterward, family members exchanged gifts once again, and then the family gathered around the piano for a long evening of enthusiastic caroling. The celebration ended with a small fireworks display, and then it was off to bed for everyone.
Miss Nicholes wrote with a certain nostalgic wistfulness that people seem to miss something vital in the frantic modern rush of preparations and expensive gifts. “Family Christmas” was written at least 40 years ago, and I wonder what she would think of how we do it today, when so many people do all their shopping online, our kids spend Christmas afternoon plugged in to some new electronic device, and caroling—or any kind of real “family time” apart from the holiday feast—is pretty much a thing of the past.
You might consider taking some time this holiday season to think of those simpler days—and perhaps even encourage the family elders to reminisce, because when they are gone, those memories will go forever with them. Aside from (we hope) some great stuff, you may possibly gain a new appreciation for your loved ones.
From the staff at the Swan Lake Visitors Center…
Note: Historical Sketches of Sumter County (Volumes I & II) is available at the Sumter County Museum…and of course, at amazon.com, but the ones at the Museum cost a LOT less!