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An Ever-Green Christmas

As the question, “What are you doing for the holidays?” begins to spread over the land, here are a few past glances at Christmas Day as experienced by Kentuckians and others represented in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Despite their lack of TV, video games, opening day movies and other distractions, it is surprisingly easy to empathize with their preoccupations and reflections.

One concern, of course, was the weather.  December 25, 1844 in Caswell County, North Carolina, dawned “a most Beautiful clear & pleasant morning,” according to one anonymous observer, “the ground a little crusted tho the Sun shines Bright and warm at 9 oclock in the morning.”  Closer to home, Bowling Green’s John Younglove recorded the temperature at sunrise on Christmas Day as part of his faithful meteorological record.  His readings ran the gamut from a frosty 6 below zero in 1878 to a rainy 54 degrees in 1889.

Some Kentuckians have made Christmas Day doubly memorable: for example, George W. Shanks and Catharine Johnson, both of Galloways Mill in Warren County, chose December 25, 1881 as their wedding day.

George Shanks & Catharine Johnson marriage certificate, Dec. 25, 1881

For those in military service, unfortunately, December 25 might be barely distinguishable from other days.  “There was not much here in a Christmas nature,” wrote Army dentist Bill Fulton from Fort Knox in 1942.  “Here we are in the Army and know nothing else.”  But Marshall Cole, serving in the Philippines in 1944, found himself having a better Christmas Day than he expected, thanks to gift boxes from the Red Cross and fresh turkey for dinner. 

For children, letter writing more commonly took the form of communiques to Santa Claus.  Saint Nick’s replies to young Maggie Nicholls of Calhoun, Kentucky, however, looked like they might have been ghostwritten by a Victorian parent.  “I will try to get to your home Christmas,” he promised.  “If you will straighten up I will be sure to come.”  And in 1881, her gifts arrived with instructions to take good care of them, love her parents, and “always sit still at the table.”

Santa’s note to Maggie Nicholls

Other Christmas Day letters gave their writers a welcome opportunity to reconnect with those dearest to them.  On December 25, 1865, a young man in Union County, Kentucky, replied eagerly to a letter from his father, with whom he had been out of touch for almost two years.  Bringing him up to date on his teaching and preaching duties at two small churches, he reflected on the “demoralization in society that is quite visible everywhere,” with increasing crime and intemperance and a decline in church attendance, especially outside the South. 

On December 25, 1848, Ann Rowan Buchanan, the daughter of John Rowan of Federal Hill (“My Old Kentucky Home”) penned a letter to her mother from Cincinnati.  The weather was gloomy and cold, and her husband appeared unwilling to let the holiday interfere with his business activities.  Nevertheless, Ann’s heart was full.  The mother of three boys under six years of age, she found joy in their eager wait for Santa and their excitement at finding their stockings full.  Remembering her own girlhood Christmases, she had resolved to continue the tradition.  The “cares and troubles of life may break us down,” she wrote her mother, but “one verdant spot still remains ever green, which blooms to the grave, a Christmas day in our childhood.”  For her children, she would “do my best to make them happy on this day that may be a green spot in their hearts in after years as it is in mine.”

Click on the links for finding aids and other information about these Christmas Day items in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The Earth Yawned”

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

John E. Younglove; Joseph R. Underwood

The earthquake that struck Haiti two years ago today reminds us that generations throughout history have experienced the physical and psychological destruction accompanying this violent act of nature.  For example, from December 1811 to February 1812, four major quakes originating along the New Madrid fault in what is now Missouri caused extensive property damage, landslides, and geographic upheavals so extraordinary that for several hours the Mississippi River appeared to reverse course.  Some of the responses of Kentuckians to the New Madrid earthquake can be found in the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.

In Bowling Green, druggist John E. Younglove preserved the comments of old-timers who had experienced the disaster.  The earthquake “was felt here for several days,” they remembered, “the houses shaking so much that the dishes in the cupboards and shelves rattled and caus[ed] great consternation among the inhabitants of this region.”  Many citizens were so terrified “that they met in the churches for Prayer and supplication.”

In February 1812, Joseph Underwood wrote to his uncle in Barren County from Lexington where, he reported, “the repeated shocks of earthquakes have alarmed the timorous inhabitants of this place.”  A man told Underwood that his wife had not eaten anything for days.  “I suppose she was under the dreadful apprehension of being swallowed up by the opening of the earth.”  Stories circulated of night watchmen hearing “aerial songs,” voices from above “which seemed to portend an awful desolation,” but Underwood suspected only “a base attempt to impose on the credulity of the people, who are now ready to believe in and wonder at miracles.”

Twenty-five years after the quakes, Betsy Taliaferro passed by the town of New Madrid on her steamboat journey from Louisiana to Versailles, Kentucky.  She feared coming near “that awful place” where “the earth yawned,” and found it “scarcely improved” since the disaster.  The real tragedy, however, was not property damage but damage to the human psyche.  “What must the inhabitants have experienced during that awful period!” Betsy wrote in her journal.  “That the inhabitants were horror stricken is not to be wondered at, but that they were anything but lunatics afterwards is.”

Click on the names to download finding aids for the above collections.  For more about our collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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