Christmas seems ancient, doesn’t it? The Biblical story is literally ancient, and there seems to be something old fashioned about most of the ways we celebrate the holiday. Chances are, we’ll see somebody in a tophat and scarf before the season’s over, if only on a TV commercial. Most of us have never seen a one-horse open sleigh, much less dashed through the snow in one, but we will hear a song about that, and perhaps even sing it, several times this month.
No one today remembers a time when we didn’t have Christmas trees and presents and Santa Claus and candy. Even our great-great grandparents knew about all that.
But there was a time when most of America didn’t celebrate Christmas in a regular way. In colonial times, many Protestant settlers considered it a Catholic holiday, with some Old World baggage. It was banned by the Puritans of Boston.
Knoxville was sort of like that. In the city’s earliest days, it’s hard to find a single reference to Christmas, and it’s hard to prove that early settlers like William Blount, James White, and John Sevier ever paid any attention to that date on the calendar. We know that Dec. 25 was a regular working day. In fact, it was a day that annual bills came due. That’s probably just a coincidence, in that Dec. 25 signifies the last week of the year, and you’d better not wait any longer to pay up.
It’s not that they weren’t religious, though it’s true that most early settlers probably weren’t churchgoers. In fact, some of Knoxville’s early Presbyterians probably frowned on Christmas, too, especially those of the fundamentalist perspective. The Bible includes no mention of Dec. 25 as anything special. Some strict literalists celebrated the Last Supper and Easter, but not Christmas. They might have heard of Christmas, but thought of it as we think of Guy Fawkes Day, something both foreign and old-fashioned.
That changed radically in the 1800s, and it changed by degrees: partly due to immigration, but also because of two very influential works of literature.
Reading the first quarter-century of Knoxville newspapers, Christmas always passes without mention, and items make it clear that stores are open on Dec. 25, when there are sometimes unfestive sounding meetings and other events. That changes suddenly in 1820, when the Knoxville Register suddenly notes that they’re taking the day off.
Why the change of heart? Was it a Scroogelike awakening?
Maybe sort of. The previous year, 1819, saw the publication of a book called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Never heard of it? You’ve probably read parts of it. It may be the most culturally influential book published in America before Mark Twain. It’s by Washington Irving, a New Yorker who spent much of his adulthood in England. The book of short pieces includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Halloween favorite about the Headless Horseman, and “Rip Van Winkle,” a classic known even to children who don’t read much, because it’s been reinterpreted in cartoons and other media. That same pocket-sized volume, often known as Irving’s Sketch Book, includes several stories that included descriptions of the traditional English Christmas, and some of them were quoted with fascination in the Knoxville Register in early 1820.
It was later that year, on Dec. 26, that the Register ran the apology, “Yesterday being Christmas, the hands in this office did not work; in consequence of which our paper is deferred until this evening.” It seems to be the earliest evidence that anybody in Knoxville ever regarded Christmas Day as a holiday.
But it sounds like it wasn’t much of one, and it was never a universal thing. It’s hard to tell whether many other businesses closed for the day. Legal documents suggest the courts and government offices were still open on Dec. 25. There are a few more references to Christmas in the papers, including a humorous poem from 1824 that suggests at least some familiarity with the old European custom of begging for alms on Christmas.
This is a day of mirth and fun--
About the streets all classes run.
And ask for gifts, as though the day
Was made that we for alms might pray.
It goes on. The fairly cynical anti-begging poem is signed only “Castigator,” and the line “for the Knoxville Register” may suggest it’s local in origin.
But then Christmas seems to die down again. Reading papers from the 1830s, it’s not clear that the holiday was remembered every year.
But then in the early 1840s, Christmas came roaring back, bigger than it had been in the 1820s. Why Christmas returned, this time to stay, is a matter for speculation, and there are several suspects. In late 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, and the odd ghost story turned out to be an extremely influential book. That was in England, but it spread here, too. Nobody wanted to be a Scrooge.
Perhaps a bigger factor, and one that made it stick, this time, was the arrival of lots of newcomers, many of them from Catholic countries in Europe, especially Ireland and Germany, who brought their own Christmas traditions. German immigrants began arriving in the 1830s, many of them refugees from oppression and instability in central Europe, and by the late 1840s, were changing Knoxville’s culture. Among them were musicians, beer brewers, candymakers. They brought their own Christmas traditions, including this really peculiar one that involved cutting down a small tree and bringing it inside. The German Christmas tree caught on quickly, and every Christmas Eve, a new crop of them, harvested from nearby forests, would arrive on Market Square in great heaps, and sold quickly. (That was one of the big differences; in the 1800s, nobody decorated a Christmas tree before Dec. 24. And they never had a chance to get tired of it.)
One of the first to introduce Christmas toys was John Ricardi, an Italian immigrant who had a “saloon” on Gay Street in the 1850s and ‘60s that sold liquor and beer as you might expect, but also ice cream and candy--and “Toys by the Thousands,” including Italian dolls and toy soldiers.
But if downtown retail of that era had a Father Christmas, it was a jolly, stout fellow with a big mustache named Peter Kern. A German refugee of the Revolutions of 1848, he arrived in Knoxville during the chaos of the American Civil War, and first with a German partner, began baking bread and making candy, and opened a retail shop at the front of his factory on Market Square. He and his German-born wife, Henrietta, loved holidays, especially Christmas, and offered the public everything they needed to celebrate it: Christmas candy, Christmas cakes, toys—and even fireworks. Back then, it was a Christmas tradition to detonate.
Peter Kern was popular in Knoxville, so popular that in 1890 he was elected mayor—certainly our last mayor with a German accent.
One of the surprises of the old-fashioned Christmas, especially as known in the decades after the Civil War, was that it was a very public extravaganza. Downtown’s stores were open until midnight on Christmas Eve. Market Square was still open on Christmas morning, when some were still buying Christmas trees. Several downtown churches had morning mass or services, and if you attended, you’d probably see members of other denominations in the street. There were Christmas-Day dances, and for years even a Christmas-Day bowling tournament. And the vaudeville theaters all did big business on Christmas Day, often with an extra matinee show.
Most of the remnants of Knoxville’s very Victorian Christmas season are long gone, but one distinctive building remains: Peter Kern’s toy store, ice-cream parlor and soda fountain, bakery, and candy factory were all contained in the building he built in 1876. Today, it’s home to the Oliver Hotel, the Oliver Royale, and Tupelo Honey. We’re lucky it’s still there, at the southwest corner of Market Square, alongside Union Avenue.
Today we have many ways to celebrate the Christmas holidays in Knoxville. If you’re planning a weekend get-away, afternoons with visiting relatives, celebrations with life-long friends, or the creation of new family traditions, you'll find something for everyone this season!