This article has been adapted from the Post and Courier's Do You Know Your Lowcountry column on Dec. 25, 2023.

Carolina’s first European colonists brought with them the holiday traditions of their homelands, especially those of England and Germany. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, family and friends gathered to enjoy a Christmas Day feast that would likely include the Lowcountry’s staple crop, rice, along with oysters, venison, ham or wild turkey, with seasonal vegetables and Charlestonians’ favorite beverage, madeira.

While Christmas Day was focused on family and church services, the 12 days of Christmas, from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5, were filled with parties, balls and weddings. Charleston’s social season had begun.

Research by historian Nicholas Butler of the Charleston County Public Library reveals that in the 1700s, fireworks were a big part of the holidays’ celebration, as was gunfire by boys who often received firearms as gifts. Butler’s review of contemporary newspapers suggests that, as you might expect, such activities often resulted in accidents and injuries.

By 1750, things had reached a point where the city passed an ordinance banning “the firing of squibs, firecrackers, guns, pistols, and other firearms” at Christmas. Though newspapers published reminders of the ordinance each December, Butler notes, the ordinance was often ignored, and local authorities turned a blind eye to such activities in White Point Garden and on the less-populated western edge of the city.

Before exchanging gifts among friends and family became a significant part of Charleston’s Christmas celebrations, many celebrated an 18th century English tradition known as Boxing Day when, on Dec. 26, the well-to-do would leave gratuities, small gifts or hand-me-downs to tradespeople and their enslaved servants. Butler references a 1759 newspaper ad in which printer Peter Timothy offered copies of a poem for sale, saying part of the proceeds would go into the Christmas Box of his enslaved assistant, Felix.

By the early 1800s, references to “Christmas gifts” began appearing in local papers. Merchant John Battker, in 1817, advertised the sale of Christmas gifts on the corner of Market and Church streets, including oranges and plantains to “make a pleasing appearance on the table,” as well as a “variety of pleasing toys.”

Undoubtedly, Battker’s toys were hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind treasures. By the latter half of the 19th century, industrialization and mass production of such things had made giving toys to children a good deal easier and cheaper, and therefore more prevalent.

Another 19th century American Christmas tradition began when, in the mid-1820s, President James Monroe appointed Charlestonian Joel R. Poinsett to be the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The amateur botanist returned home with a flor de Nochebuena and shared rootings with his neighbors. Thus began the holiday tradition of decorating with the red-leafed plant, which in America was renamed in his honor: the poinsettia.

Perhaps the most popular musical icon of the 19th century, Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, visited Charleston over the Christmas holidays in 1850. While lodging at the Charleston Hotel, Lind displayed the first locally documented Christmas tree in her room’s window, “decorated with variegated lamps, which attracted much attention,” said the Charleston Courier. Enamored Charlestonians quickly followed Lind’s lead, with decorated trees appearing in houses throughout the city.

In “The Golden Christmas: A Tale of Lowcountry Life,” author William Gilmore Simms describes a fictional Christmas set in 1852 on an antebellum plantation, including historical descriptions a Christmas tree, shopping along King Street for presents and fireworks (though today the novella is perhaps more notable for its patronizing characterizations of enslaved servants).

Christmas was also a special time in the lives of the enslaved, as most received several days off work and staged large family meals of their own, sometimes even being allowed to travel to other plantations to visit loved ones. Weddings among the enslaved were common during the 12 days of Christmas, when they could gather more freely. Often, they received articles of clothing or whiskey in their Christmas Boxes.

In the decade before the Civil War, the Dutch St. Nicholas, also known as Father Christmas in England or Santa Claus here, became a part of Charleston’s Christmas traditions, as evidenced when the Charleston Courier printed “The Night Before Christmas” in 1854.

Six years later things had changed dramatically in Charleston. Five days before Christmas 1860, the Republic of South Carolina withdrew from the United States of America. Tensions were high, celebrations restrained. The night after Christmas, U.S. Maj. Robert Anderson and his men quietly evacuated Fort Moultrie, where they no longer felt safe, and took refuge in Fort Sumter.

Christmases in the following years were subdued, to say the least. An 1863 editorial noted that most families would not be exchanging gifts amid the sounds of battles nearby, though some collected gloves and blankets for the city’s Confederate defenders.

Times remained hard for the remainder of the 19th century, with Reconstruction, the earthquake of 1886 and a string of hurricanes from 1893 through 1911. Yet, eventually, things settled down, and the city began sponsoring annual holiday parades in the early 1930s, with lots of poinsettias.

On Christmas Day 1989, three months after Hurricane Hugo practically leveled the Lowcountry, 8 inches of snow fell on The Battery. Charleston had its first, and to date only, white Christmas in recorded history — perhaps proof that anything is possible, and change remains inevitable.

Sources and for more information:

Dr. Nicholas Butler, Charleston County Public Library, Charleston Time Machine podcast: Christmas Traditions in Early Charleston, Dec. 13, 2019.
Dr. Nicholas Butler, Charleston County Public Library, Charleston Time Machine podcast: The ghost of Chritmas Past: Joy and Fear During the Age of Slavery, Dec. 16, 2022.
Heather Artushin, "A glimpse into Charleston's holiday history," Charleston Post and Courier, Dec. 25, 2023.
Shadow of Christmas Past, Walking Charleston blog, Dec. 8, 2017
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. (Image: Library of Congress, public domain)
Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887) introduced the Christmas Treet to Charlestonians in 1850. (Image: Enclyclopedia Britanica, 1862)

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), c. 1860

Marion Square fountain, Dec. 25, 1989. (Image: Mount Pleasant Magazine)