By Samantha Cook
The Christmas story in central Texas began in 1755 when the Spanish established missions on the San Marcos River. Ever since 1755, Texas has celebrated the Christmas holiday season big, because everything is always bigger and better in Texas. Modern day Christmas celebrations in Austin are surrounded by the Trail of Lights. This blog looks into the Christmas holiday traditions of the past: from oranges to Christmas giving this blog covers different elements of Austin’s historical Christmas season.
The biggest surprise we found during our research was oranges. Did you know that oranges used to represent Christmas in Austin and around the world? According to a December 12th, 1957 Austin American Statesman article, “oranges. They are associated with the Christmas season as much as are the Christmas tree and other traditional Christmas trimmings.” Historically, oranges were not grown or found outside of the Christmas holiday season, resulting in people associating them with the Christmas holiday. They were grown in Texas, California, and Florida. Another statement of the love for oranges comes from our Atkinson and Giles Families Papers (AR.S.015), “Every visitor was copiously served oranges when they were to be had only at Christmas and they provided a penetrating odor fitting to the occasion.” Along with oranges, celery and cranberries were considered a luxury during the holiday season in the late nineteenth century.
Christmas bazaars are another tradition that started a long time ago and are still going strong. An October 1977 Austin American Statesman described the bazaars as, “A tradition with churches and other nonprofit groups since who-knows-when, bazaars by any name are one of the best ideas going. They afford the seller an opportunity to make money for a good cause and the buyer an opportunity to purchase items that are often inexpensive, handmade and one of a kind.” They often sold homemade pickles and hams, stick horses and rag dogs, cookbooks and framed needlepoint, pillows and aprons, plants and pottery, Christmas stocking and ornaments and centerpieces. A unique example was once held at the University of Texas, in 1969. The University sold crafts created by their international student’s representative of their home countries. The bazaar was apparently a very big hit. (Christmas bazaar flier)
Like most of the crafts found at a Christmas Bazaar, gifts in the past were handmade. This was due to many different reasons, but one of the main ones was that there were not as many products to buy as today. Additionally, they were expensive, for example in the 1890s a gold pocket watch was $22.50, which may not seem like much today but in reality is a lot for the time. (An online conversion calculator puts that at about $611 in todays dollar.) Instead, people only gave gifts to immediate family members and made things like food and clothing. Not only were your gifts handmade but your decorations were as well. In the 1970s a couple of women (Peterson, Carrier, Medkiff, and etcetera) were creating elaborate stockings with jewels, animals, and many other decorations. A 1971 Austin American Statesman article described the stockings as, “adorned with treasures that rival any delights St. Nick may put inside them.” (AR.2009.058(131))
In the early twentieth century giving during Christmas gained popularity. There was an entire committee focused on giving. The Christmas Cheer Committee was composed of different organizations' volunteers. The Austin American Statesman said of the committee's work, ““This year various agencies and organizations are seeking to work in cooperation with the Community Christmas cheer committee to see that all needy families and worthy children of the city will be given Christmas cheer and that there will be no empty Christmas stocking at any fireside nor will there be any forgotten man or women this Yuletide.” Their focus was to support families in need by creating events for Austin citizens to donate materials for the families. In 1926 they organized the Christmas Cheer Drive of United Connell of Social Agencies of Austin that the Altrusa Club endorsed. The event worked to provide presents and food for families who could not afford Christmas. The families were nominated by different individuals who believed they deserved a gift for Christmas.
Christmas of Austin’s past is not too different than the one we see today. We still give, we still eat oranges, and go to Christmas bazaars, things just looked a little different in the past. The presents were a little different as was the food but the Christmas spirit has always been strong in Austin. This is seen in the numerous events, bazaars, and huge man-made Christmas trees. From all of us here at the Austin History Center we wanted to wish you happy holidays. (AR.R.002-Box3-Folder1-Item1)