Today in History

Today in History: December 25

Welcome Christmas

Nativity scene
Illuminated manuscript pages. Nativity Scene Illumination II,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. The origins of the holiday are uncertain; by the year 336, however, the Christian church in Rome observed the Feast of the Nativity on December 25. At that time, Christmas coincided approximately with the winter solstice and the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. Today, observations of Christmas incorporate the secular and religious traditions of many cultures, from the ancient Roman practice of decorating homes with evergreens and exchanging gifts at the New Year to the Celtic Yule log.

For Margaret Davis, born in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1887, Christmas brought to mind memories of the food and family that filled her parents' home between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. She recalled:

Mama killed turkeys, chickens, and…cooked cakes for two weeks….

…that was the way we spent our Christmas then, eating and dancing, and parties all through the week….

There was not so many things for children to get then, as they have now, but we got many nice things.

"Mrs. Margaret Davis,"
Grace McCune, interviewer, December 9, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Alan Wallace of Brookfield, Massachusetts, cherished his mother's tradition of making Christmas gifts by hand. When she was a girl during the Civil War, he recalled, her family "couldn't afford to spend money on anything but food. The habit stuck to her and so, when my brothers and I came along she taught us to do many things that ever since makes Christmas to me." Preparations for Christmas began, Wallace remembered, when the family went to the seashore for their summer vacation:

Half the fun of going was the finding of shells to take home to make into Christmas presents. We'd pick up the prettiest clam shells and scallop shells, a whole basket full, and then when we got back home, we'd paint them in the evenings - make ash trays, pin trays and - and - oh, yes, paper weights and sometimes door stops.

As I look back on it now I realize that some of them were pretty awful but Mother always seemed delighted with our efforts, no matter how feeble they proved to be.…

To Father and Mother, Christmas meant love and love means happiness—doesn't it?

"Alan Wallace,"
Louise G. Bassett, interviewer, December 1, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Children with tricycle and wagon next to Christmas tree
Portrait Photographs. Children with Tricycle and Wagon Next to Christmas Tree I, ca. 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

 First Passenger Train in the United States

Map of North and South Carolina
Map of North and South Carolina..., David H. Burr, topographer,
London, 1839.
Railroad Maps, 1828-1900

On Christmas Day, December 25, 1830, the Best Friend of Charleston became the first regularly scheduled steam locomotive passenger train in the United States. The locomotive made its initial run on the first six miles of track of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. Chartered in 1827, the same year that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was incorporated, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company steamed out of Charleston. The new line was designed to make Charleston competitive with Savannah, Georgia, for the cotton trade.

According to the previous day's Charleston Mercury, regular times for leaving the station would be "8 o'clock, at 10 A.M., at 1, and at half past 3." The article stated, "It [Best Friend] is said to have moved on some occasions at the rate of 30 miles per hour…When drawing two Cars with 41 Passengers, it went at the average rate of nearly 16 and where the Road was straight, at the rate of 20…per hour." This breakneck speed was achieved by a six-horsepower engine weighing three tons "exclusive of the wood and water for keeping it in continued action."

Union Station exterior
Union Station, South Carolina, circa 1910-1920.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

Over the next three years the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company became, for a time, the world's longest railway line—136 miles. The company was a predecessor of J. P. Morgan’s Southern Railway Company, which grew out of the realignment of southern railways following the Civil War.

cover of sheet music
"Oh! Mister Railroad Man Won't You Take Me Back to Alabam'?", by Henry I. Marshall, 1914.
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920