It may be hard to imagine Christmas without Santa Claus or Christmas trees, but these traditional symbols of winter's main festival were unknown during much of the Lowcountry's early colonial history. As with so much of Charleston's complex social tapestry, it was immigration that wove these iconic fixtures into Lowcountry life.
Before the mid-nineteenth century, Christmas was primarily a welcome day of rest in the Lowcountry for both white landowners and their enslaved black workers. It was an especially welcome time for blacks, as it was one of the few times during the year (for some, the only time) when they were allowed by their masters to travel away from their home plantations to attend spiritual gatherings based on African harvest festivals, long celebrated at the same time of year in ancestral homelands. And many of them benefitted from the centuries-old British tradition of the "Christmas box" of food and clothing presented to workers on the day after Christmas, which we still call Boxing Day.
For an agrarian society built mainly on the English seasonal calendar, Christmas was the last of the great quarter days of the Lowcountry's agricultural year, when rents were due, debts were settled, and the year's productivity was measured. (The other quarter days were Lady Day on March 25th, the beginning of the agricultural year; Midsummer Day on June 24th; and Michaelmas on September 29th.) It was a time for landowners and small business owners to wrap up their year with feasting, music and church services marking the traditional birthdate of Christ. The services were almost exclusively Protestant-based, since Catholicism, with St. Nicholas among its pantheon of saints, was banned in South Carolina until 1790. No written evidence survives of him in the Lowcountry until well after then.
It was the arrival of German and Scandinavian immigrants that brought many of the traditions we most strongly associate with Christmas, including the German Tannenbaum - the traditional fir tree that had been erected and decorated in western European households for centuries. The practice became firmly attached to the Lowcountry's holiday when the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind arrived in Charleston for an 1850 concert and on Christmas Eve placed just such a tree in the window of her hotel room. The Charleston Courier called it a "forest tree...decorated with variegated lamps that attracted much attention." Dutch immigrants, meanwhile, brought with them their beloved Sinterklaas, their version of Saint Nicholas, the bestower of gifts (and the occasional lump of coal).
By the time of Lind's concert, much of what we attach to the Christmas holiday was in place, including special sales presented by merchants and the giving of gaily-wrapped gifts piled under a festively decorated tree. And Sinterklaas had evolved into Clement Clark Moore's portly and jolly old elf, wishing "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."
Happy holidays from all of us at SINHG!