Merry Christmas! ‘1875 Style’

In the early days of Wake Forest College, it was too difficult for students to travel home for the holidays. This article, published decades ago, gives a glimpse of  Christmas in Wake Forest 140-years ago.

Two Days for Yule Short Even In 1875

While you’re having a very merry Christmas–two weeks of it–you might take a few moments to feel sorry for the boys who were at Wake Forest in 1875. In the first place, they didn’t have the chance to go home for Christmas, except for the few who happened to live across the street, for the Christmas vacation was only two days long–December 25th and December 26th–48 hours.

It’s not that they didn’t want more. As one grief-stricken student wrote, “There will never be a generation of students here who will rise up and call the Faculty blessed until they give us more than two days for Christmas.”

Wake Forest Different

Then, too, Wake Forest itself was a little different in 1875. The town had one store and only 14 houses. A fence, which proved to be no problem for cows and sheep, ran northward from the small campus.

The “College Building” (which stood where Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Stealey Hall is now) contained everything: bedrooms, the chapel, lecture rooms, and the literary society halls. A few oak trees stood nearby. There weren’t many people around either. The faculty was composed of six men, while the student body outnumbered them to an even 100. Even at this early date Wake Forest students enjoyed the “wholesome tradition of hard work,” and spent a good part of the day studying languages, math, natural sciences, and literature. Discipline was rigidly controlled by the faculty, and the Wake Foresters had to be in their rooms during study hours and at night.

Christmas in 1875

But Christmas was different. The books were thrown aside and the townspeople, pitying the boys who were away from home, invited them into their houses to spend the holiday together. Short jackets, “trap door” pants, and blouses gave way to black coats, white vests, boiled shirts, and gaudy ties. This unusual display of finery was prompted by the season, yes, but more so by the presence of the “ladies of the Hill,” daughters of the townspeople and of the faculty who were home on vacation from their respective “female” academies. The college building and all the homes were decorated with wreaths and candles and holly and mistletoe. Wake Forest got ready for Christmas.

On Christmas Day a service was held in the chapel with a pageant or tableaux presented by the Sunday school and a cantata sung by the choir. A great big Christmas tree was loaded with gifts and candy for the children of the neighborhood. Afterwards, everyone gathered in one of the lecture rooms or in someone’s home for a “sociable,” playing games and enjoying confectioneries. Thanks to the young ladies, the games played were, to say the least, rather genteel: charades, “drop the handkerchief,” bean bag, and “Mary had a Little Lamb.” The “Scotch Ramble,” a type of Virginia reel, was soon stopped as being too much like a dance.

“Tackey Parties”

The “tackey party” must have been a more lively affair. Under the protection of masks, bustles, and costumes, the boys burlesqued their professors and emitted most of the noise they’d been saving up since the term started. The masqueraders rounded out the already full day by parading through the town serenading the townsfolk with carols.

Still, it’s only natural to suppose that the boys also indulged in activities of a more robust nature. As Christmas was drawing near, just as it is now, they began to push the rules a little bit and started celebrating a little beforehand.

Shin-cracking games of hockey were played on the old brick-hole pond down by the railroad embankment. Practically everyone went hunting for rabbits and partridge. To quote an old alumnus, a few of the boys would “take a jugful and a fiddler and go into the woods and have a good time dancing around a big stump.”

“Night Supper”

Having a “night supper” was a favorite trick. “Uncle Isham” Holding had a farm about a mile from the college. Once in a while, some of the boys visited the place late at night to get one of his turkeys in order to supplement the bill of fare offered at the boarding houses. One night, Holding spotted someone up in a tree about to pluck a turkey from a limb.

“What are you doing here?” Holding asked.

The young man mumbled something about wanting to “buy” one. And that’s what he did. The old man concluded he had better make the most of it and accepted the price offered. Everyone had a big turkey supper the next night.

Late Christmas Day, the boys spent a few hours energetically ringing the bell, blowing the diaphragm out of their tin horns, setting all the alarm clocks in the building to go off at the same early hour of the morning, and in general making a head-splitting racket. The faculty gave the tacit “Well,-it-only-happens-once-a-year” commendation.

By December 27th it was all over. The fact that the holiday was passed was clearly emphasized by the harsh reality of impending exams. Back to the old routine.

That was Christmas in Wake Forest in 1875.

Wake Forest College, Graduating Class of 1875

(Written by an unidentified student reporter, this article was published in the Old Gold and Black, December 11, 1950.)

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