On this Christmas, WUWF is digging into the archives to revisit a 2006 conversation with historian and story-teller John Appleyard about what the Christmas holiday was like in the Pensacola area around the turn of the 20th century.
About 100 years ago, Pensacola was a bustling, prosperous city with a diverse population of about 25,000 people. Appleyard says the different customs of the city’s residents became amalgamated in the overall celebration.
Some of the basic traditions today were occurred then, but were practiced differently. For example, “People didn’t go down to the corner and buy a tree ready on the lot or buy one in a box and take it home and set it up. They went out into the woods. They cut their own tree,” Appleyard said. And, since most of Pensacola 100 years ago did not have electricity, the trees were lit with little six-inch candles in metal cups. Other decorations included some blown-glass ornaments, mostly from Germany and Austria. Holly was also part of the Pensacola tradition. After the tree was decorated, the man of the house was responsible for gathering a bucket full of sand to sit by the tree. This was an absolute necessity to guard against fire from the candles.
As for food, Appleyard says it was a long-term, well-planned event, without all of the conveniences of today. “You have to remember now that these women were not working on a handsome electric range or brand new chef’s gas range. They were working on a plain old, wood or coal cook stove, and controlling that oven to do these things was a work of art.”
At the time, turkey as a main course was generally enjoyed by more affluent Pensacolians. Most residents tended to serve duck, goose, or ham. And fruitcakes were a popular part of Christmas, with women baking enough to share with their friends and relatives. Another Christmas tradition for turn-of-the-20th-century Pensacola was to exchange hand-made gifts.