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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Mississippi County Christmas Festivities in 1860

Cairo & Fulton Railroad Schedule, 1860, Ogden-Bird’s Point spur.
Charleston Courier, issue of January 6, 1860, page 3.
Cairo & Fulton Railroad Schedule, 1860, Ogden-Bird’s Point spur.

Residents of Charleston, Missouri observed the holiday season on January 2, 1860 with a grand Christmas ball at the Charleston Hotel, hosted by Mr. Bob Holeman. This event followed another grand soiree held at the County Courthouse on Christmas Eve. The editor of the Charleston Courier , George Whitcomb, described the muddy streets and roads as barely passable. Nonetheless, he noted “a more brilliant assemblage has seldom been seen in Charleston.”

Among the notable attendees were Thompson Bird and others from Bird’s Point on the Mississippi River and the venerable Col. Abraham Hunter. The party featured dancing, and the supper “was got up in Bob’s best style, and did credit to his skill as a caterer of Christmas cake and knick-knacks...”

This celebration was impossible just a few years earlier, and the reasons point out how historical events depend on earlier local, national, and international events.

Forty years earlier, few celebrated Christmas. Puritans in the early days of settlement had suppressed celebrations of the season, noting that the actual birth date of Jesus was unknown and that the timing of its celebration coincided with pagan festivities at the winter solstice. Conspicuous celebration of the holiday rarely occurred prior to the mid-1700s. Those who did commemorate the date did so by behaving more like we do today on New Years’ Eve—with noise and indulgence in drink.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is oftentimes credited with popularizing a traditional Christmas after its publication in 1843, but this is only partially correct. The view of the holiday began to change with the publication in 1820 of author Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman, in which he extols traditional celebrations of Christmas at a fictional estate, Bracebridge Hall. Irving earlier wrote about and promoted the role of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, in his 1809 fictional work, A History of New York. Irving continued to promote the role of St. Nicholas in the holiday throughout his life. The larger role for St. Nick was also assisted by the 1823 publication of Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

Britain’s Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert also popularized such German traditions as the Christmas tree. A drawing of the royal family around their decorated tree appeared widely in 1848, and within a year some urban Americans purchased and decorated trees.

So, these literary and media events began to make celebrations of Christmas acceptable. There is one last part of the Charleston celebration that would not have been possible a few years earlier. Mr. Whitcomb emphasized that Thompson Bird and others had come from Bird’s Point, 12 ½ miles east. Col. Hunter lived on the Sikeston Ridge in West Prairie, 10 miles west of Charleston. On muddy roads in winter, none of these people would have attended a party in Charleston. However, the Cairo and Fulton Railroad completed a new branch from Bird’s Point, through Charleston and other sites, to Bertrand, and on to Ogden on the Sikeston Ridge. As Whitcomb noted, “Heretofore the people of Big Prairie, … there being no way to get to them—or they to us—but by going round through Benton, up one hill and down another, a distance of some forty miles; but now the Cairo and Fulton Road has [placed] one of the very best portions of Missouri within twenty minutes of Charleston [and] forty minutes of the river…”

So, I hope all of you have as joyous a holiday as did these long-ago residents of Charleston. Happy Holidays!

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.