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The Christmas celebration of 1877 at Oatlands was a homemade affair, from the plum pudding cooked in the Oatlands kitchen to the handmade gifts and decorations. But Christmas was no less magical for the Carter children than for youngsters of any other era. Elizabeth (Grace) Carter Beach’s memories of that year, collected by her daughter Grayson Carter Barber, are stored in the Oatlands archive. The short essay gives us an idea today of what Christmas was like for the generation of children who grew up in the old mansion in the years following the Civil War.
As winter approached, Grace remembered, the children began spending “many happy hours” planning their Christmas lists. They looked forward to making gifts for family and friends from simple materials, some purchased in the local store but most from nature and their mother’s “Rag Bag” of leftover sewing materials. The children made sachets, pomander balls, needle cases, whistles, pen wipers fashioned from turkey wishbones, and “little dolls with hickory nuts for their faces.”
Grace remembered decorating the house with branches of magnolia from the garden,along with ivy, potted plants, and fruit from the greenhouse. The Christmas tree, mistletoe, and holly were cut last, and “it was the privilege of old Basil and old Alfred,”two formerly enslaved men who continued to work for the Carters, “to go to the Mountain, snow or no snow, and bring these in just a few days before Christmas.” As the holiday neared and excitement built toward a climax, the walls and portraits were decked with holly and ivy, and mistletoe “was hung from the chandeliers and over every doorway.”
At last the Christmas tree was placed at the back of the entrance hall, or salon.Trimming it was the highlight of Christmas Eve. The children had made colored paper chains, paper flowers, strings of small apples on red or silver thread, and many strings of popcorn, because they “thought this made the tree look snowy.”Many households attached candles to Christmas tree branches and lit them on Christmas Day. But Grace’s mother was afraid of fire, so there were no candles on the Carter tree.
Food was as important to the holiday then as it is now. Good things to eat had been prepared since the autumn in anticipation of the Christmas feast. Grace recalled thatafter Thanksgiving “the sausage was made and the hams were hanging in the Meat House. The persimmons were put in stone crocks with cinnamon and brown sugar,” and the plum pudding and fruit cakes were made.
When Christmas Eve came, the Carters followed the English custom of hanging stockings at the foot of each child’s bed. On Christmas morning the children awoke to find the stockings full of caramels, peanuts, and chestnuts, plus an orange and a small gift.A big breakfast on Christmas was followed by the delight of opening gifts in the salon, and then the main meal at midday. As Grace remembered,
Turkey and all the trimmings in front of Father, four vegetables in front of Mother. The ham and a tureen of creamed oysters on the sideboard and Alfred, Milly and Liza waited on the table and saw that everything was as it should be. Next came Plum pudding, two kinds of fruit cake, and also sponge cake… After the table was cleared the tall glasses of wine jelly (made from the pig’s feet) was brought in. This was served with pitchers of that rich yellow cream.
The house servants, such as Alfred, Milly,and Liza who had served at table,had their own stockings hung in the hall. In the evening the other workers came to see the tree and receive their gifts of fruit, nuts, candy, and small amounts of money.After such an exciting day, the children were exhausted. Rather than a meal before bedtime, they had treats similar to yogurt called bonny clabber and junket. The children called it slip, “because it just slipped down.” After evening prayers in the parlor and a last “little sliver of Turkey or Virginia Ham,” the adults also went wearily to bed. And so, remembered Grace, “ended another Christmas Day at Oatlands.”