On this Christmas 2020, WUWF is presenting an encore presentation of a 2006 interview with historian and storyteller John Appleyard, who died in October of this year at the age of 97. During his lifetime, Appleyard wrote dozens of books and delivered countless talks about Pensacola’s past.
In this conversation, he talked about how Pensacola residents celebrated Christmas around the turn of the 20th century.
According to Appleyard, Pensacola was a bustling, prosperous city, about a hundred years ago, with a population of about 25,000 people.
“It was a diverse population and many of these people had come bringing their own Christmas customs, which became amalgamated in the overall celebration,” he said.
Some of the basic traditions today were in place in the early 1900s, 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.
Back then, it was dad’s job to set up the tree in the room and put up the lighting.
Since most of Pensacola didn’t have electricity 100 years ago, the lighting consisted of small six-inch candles that were put in metal cups and attached to the branches of the trees, with other decorations put in place around them.
“A decoration then would have been, in part, the importation of blown-glass ornaments coming primarily from Germany and Austria, although the idea of strung popcorn and other things of that kind was very popular then,” said Appleyard. He added that holly was also part of the Pensacola tradition and such greenery would be cut and placed around the home.
“A number of the people who lived here in that time had come from Virginia. The famed the Virginia creeper was a very ubiquitous thing in Virginia, so friends would send big boxes of this greenery to Pensacola and the ladies would take it and stream it above the windows and the doors,” he said. “It was a very colorful thing and a very lovely addition to the entire house.”
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 turkey as a main course was generally enjoyed by more affluent Pensacolians. Most residents tended to serve duck, goose, chicken or ham, and a few might have enjoyed venison.
What the women did to pull off the holiday feast was to plan ahead, especially for the popular fruitcake.
“A hundred years fruit cake as a big part of Christmas and you just don’t go into the kitchen this afternoon and whip up a fruit cake, it’s a work of art that tooks weeks and weeks of the various elements going into it,” said Appleyard, noting that they baked enough fruitcake to share with their friends and relatives.
Additionally, handmake gifts and visiting with each other was popular at the time.
Getting back to the Christmas dinner feast, Appleyard says it’s hard to believe the extent of the menus, which some of the more affluent families would publish, “There must have been 25 different different courses from beginning to end.”
For the women of the day, it took a lot of planning and a lot of effort to make such a dinner happen.
“You have to remember now that these women were not working on a handsome electric range or brand new chef’s gas range,” said Appleyard. “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.”
Additionally, special arrangements had to be made for preserving their holiday food, including multiple cakes and pies, in those days before refrigerators.
This interview with John Appleyard was originally recorded in 2006.
Appleyard died in October. He was 97 years old.