LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Christmas has always been popular in Arkansas with a long history of celebration and commemoration back to its earliest days.
The first Christmas celebration in Arkansas was by traveling Jesuit priests at the Arkansas post in 1698. Christmas has remained a popular holiday in the state since then.
Arkansas was one of the first states to recognize Christmas as an official holiday in 1838, shortly after it achieved statehood. This was before the United States made Christmas a national holiday in 1885.
Arkansas designated the Christmas holiday as Dec. 25 based on the Gregorian calendar. Despite this, some in the state, especially in remote areas, celebrated what was called “Old Christmas” on Jan. 5, the Julian calendar date for the holiday.
In those 19th century times, Christmas was more a community celebration than the family-focused event it is today. Historian Martha Williamson Rimmer, quoted in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, points out that this included fireworks and gunfire.
The practice also included drinking, which, coupled with fireworks and guns, led to some incidents, including a fire in Gurdon in 1885 begun by sparks from fireworks. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that the fire destroyed one store and damaged others.
The same source reports a story by Robert Brownlee in 1837 and quoted by Joleen Linson, education coordinator at Historic Arkansas Museum, about rowdy Christmas festivities.
“He talks about people coming out of the woods and into town who were ‘fighting and swearing and using the Bowie knife freely,’” Linson said, quoting Brownlee, “’…there was one man killed but no one took notice of the fact.'”
The sound of a cannon
At the peak of this era, the city of Little Rock fired a cannon on Christmas morning in the 1840s. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quotes the recently arrived Hannah Knight who did not enjoy the morning cannon fire: “The report was so heavy that it broke nearly all the glass in the windows. We tried to hunt up someone to be responsible for the damages, but it was no use. That was my first acquaintance with Christmas in the South.”
It was not all gunpowder-based mayhem, however. In Van Buren County, Clinton had its first day of operation of its new cotton gin on Christmas day, 1840.
Christmas was understandably low-key during the Civil War, but its celebration was restored after the war ended in 1865. With it, Arkansas shifted in Christmas traditions to what we would now recognize as the more traditional Christmas celebration, although not without some classic Arkansas mayhem.
Queen Victoria sets the trend
One of the factors in the change of celebration was the impact of Queen Victoria, the it girl of her time, on American culture. She had brought many traditions from Germany’s celebration of Christmas into her life in support of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who moved to England from Germany to marry her.
The Christmas tree became associated with the queen, so Christmas trees became popular. Gift-giving and having a turkey or some bird for the holiday meal were also part of the Victorian tradition.
Eggnog vs. temperance
As was eggnog, and Arkansas apparently loved its eggnog. The Division of Arkansas Heritage reports eggnog was served in Arkansas saloons and bars and businesses in the late 1800s to great acclaim.
The eggnog tradition conflicted with the growing temperance movement of the time, which labeled Christmas nog “a deadly foe to all mankind” and “arch-fiend and enemy of the human race.” The problem was that those who had taken the temperance pledge would put that aside for a glass or two of eggnog during the holidays.
Reportedly, many holiday-season accidents were attributed to over-indulging in eggnog. Despite this, the drink remained popular throughout the temperance movement and prohibition.
Not to say that Christmas was one long cocktail party. An interview by the Division of Arkansas Heritage with a woman who attended a one-room schoolhouse in the early 20th Century tells of them practicing for the Christmas recital. The community would turn out to hear students sing and recite poems they had memorized.
The Bauxite bank
Finally, an Arkansas Christmas tradition story would have to include the legend of Joseph Eddy “Joe” Broadway and his Bauxite bank robberies (plural) from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Broadway lived in Bauxite and robbed a bank branch there three times beginning in 1964. He was caught after the third robbery and sent to prison, along with his partner.
When Broadway was home on Christmas furlough from Cummins prison in 1969, he tried to rob the branch again but wound up getting into a shootout with a guard and a bank employee. He fled, escaping to Missouri where he was captured six months later.
Broadway was given an additional 10 years, apparently without any further Christmas furloughs.