Breathitt’s Christmas Early Customs

By Stephen D. Bowling

The details of the events and customs of the Christmases of our forefathers are for the most part lost.  There are a few descriptions of family gatherings, but the vast majority of customs have been lost to time. One of the customs that did not get lost in the shuffle from the 19th to the 20th century: the Christmas tree.

A typical Victorian Era Christmas tree. Source

The custom of Christmas trees is something that we take for granted today, but for many of our ancestors, there was no need to hew down an evergreen and drag it inside to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christmas celebrations, prior to the 1890s, centered around the family meal and often included the exchange of one gift.  Extended families would gather at the ancestral home to enjoy togetherness and a festive mood.

The exchange of presents occurred before the meal in order to allow the well-wisher time to change into any clothing that they received as a gift.  Around noon, the hard work of mother and sisters would be placed on the table and the feast of the seasons would begin.

The meal would commence with the serving of the main course which usually featured a steaming plate of baked oysters. 

For much of the 19th century, the baking of a turkey or ham was reserved for the coming of the new year or for the celebration of Old Christmas on January 6th.  Families across Breathitt County and the country served the most affordable luxury that could obtain and most often that meant canned oysters.

Oysters were readily available throughout the area and were considered a delicacy.  Settlements of the estates of owners of general stores in Breathitt County always included vast supplies of canned oysters. The traditional feast was always concluded with a pudding or cake dessert.  The men would retire to an anteroom for drinks and a smoke of the pipe, while the ladies retired to the kitchen to clean up the mess.

Dr. John J. Dickey

Beginning in the late 1870s, the German tradition of placing an evergreen in the home as a symbol of Christmas began to grow in popularity. The first documented Christmas tree in Breathitt County was erected on December 19, 1881, in the Circuit Courtroom at the Breathitt County Courthouse by Mr. and Mrs. J. Rowland Day.  That Christmas a large crowd of people gathered to the Courthouse to see the strange display.  Visitors from across the county journeyed to the Courthouse on Christmas day to take part in a program of singing and lectures from local ministers about the birth of Christ and its importance in their lives. 

In 1882, R. A. Hurst also erected a tree at the courthouse to keep the tradition alive, but a miss placed candle nearly ended the life of Breathitt’s second courthouse. The 1882 fire that nearly claimed the Courthouse called a halt to the official display of the community Christmas tree until officials relented in 1884. Many families across the county began to celebrate the birth of Christ with a tree in their own homes following the first tree at the courthouse.

In 1884, a celebration of Christmas was held at the Breathitt County Courthouse by Dr. John J. Dickey.  Friends and families gathered upstairs in the Circuit Court Room in the old brick courthouse to sing songs and enjoy the Christmas holiday. 

Dr. Dickey gave the following description of the event which included the return of a Christmas tree:

December 25, 1884, Thursday

Tonight at the Court house we had a Christmas tree.  It had several hundred presents on it worth $150.  We had songs and recitations by scholars of the school (Jackson Academy), though the pieces were but few in number.  The whole thing was a grand success and very gratifying to me.  The house was full of people and everything was orderly as we wished it. …  I feel that good has been done by this work.  Praise the Lord.

Source: Diary of John J. Dickey

After the singing and recitals, Dr. Dickey shook every hand that attended the party and invited them to the Methodist Church on Sunday.  Every child and most of the adults left the party with some candy or one of the gifts from the tree.  Dr. Dickey and the people of Jackson learned the true gift of Christmas was togetherness and the joy of giving.

Since that Christmas gathering and the first Christmas trees in Jackson, much has changed. 

Gifts for the entire family were often hung on the tree among the burning candles. The tree was usually displayed in the house for about 48 hours before it was removed for fire safety. Source

The old brick courthouse that hosted the Dickey Christmas party caught fire and burned in 1886.  It has since been replaced by three others.  Oysters are no longer the mainstay of most holiday gatherings, but the many traditions of Christmas live on in homes across the county.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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