Clarence Nixon wrote of his father’s store in his book Possum Trot, “We stocked up with fruit in December, and I still think of Christmas when I smell oranges in the country.”
The South was a land of deep sentimentality. Family ties were close, and the hard years following the war tended to knit them even more securely. Christmas was a time of family re-dedication and a season of erasing old and irritating scars of discord. It was a period for visiting and feasting.
Celebration of the holiday was the one institution which came through the war unchanged except for the matter of simplification. Until 1915 rural observance was uncontaminated by commercialization. Simple gifts were passed around, and these, as a matter of course, came from the country store.
Much of the masculine taste in celebration ran to boisterous forms of expression. For more than fifty years the liquor barrel furnished ample cheer for all customers who could rake together enough cash or stretch their credit to buy a quart of Kentucky or Maryland bourbon, or a half-gallon of North Carolina corn. A quart of whisky was admittedly a vigorous start toward a glorious Christmas season.
For the temperate, however, a package of firecrackers was enough holiday amusement. One little nickel package of Chinese firecrackers provided plenty of Christmas joking and pranking. A favorite stunt was to explode the tiny cylinders at the heel of some humorless deacon, with the hope of starting him into cussing. Another was setting them off near a pair of mules in a storehouse yard. The number of runaways made many a good celebrant regret there was such a thing as Christmas. But there was the more pleasant aspect to this form of amusement.
Thousands of country children were happier waking up in a cold farmhouse on Christmas morning because Santa Claus had not forgotten the firecrackers and Roman candles. There were also torpedoes, which exploded with thunderous repercussions when dashed on the floor underneath girls’ feet, and Roman candles gave great gusto to the Christmas celebration.
They lifted the holiday spirit high into the air in sputtering balls of varicolored fire followed by sulfurous tails which outdid Halley’s Comet in the eyes of the backwoods cotton farmers. Sometimes they were used in sham battles, which generally wound up unhappily. But all in all, there was something in the violent cracking of fireworks that gave zest to Christmas week, and which marked the completion of one crop year and the beginning of another.
‘A Little Bit of Santa Claus’
From Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store
By Thomas D. Clark
Reprinted in A Kentucky Christmas, University Press of
Kentucky Press, 2003