As the staff at Belle Meade Plantation packs up Christmas decorations every January, we begin thinking about the next year’s Christmas exhibit. This year we chose to do something very different from the past few years. We decided instead of focusing our Christmas exhibit on one holiday celebration in the history of Belle Meade that we should interpret the evolution of Christmas celebrations from the building of the Belle Meade Mansion in 1853, to the year the Mansion opened to the public as a museum in 1953.

Telling the stories of Belle Meade and Christmas over a period of 100 years can be quite a daunting task but we were up for the challenge. We all learned a great deal in preparing for this exhibit over the past ten months.

In 1853, Christmas was a holiday many Americans simply ignored or celebrated in a very different way compared to what we know of modern Christmas. In the plantation south, Christmas was a time for planters to relax after the year’s harvest. They entertained friends and family throughout December. Grand feasts were held at Christmas and in some houses, Santa Claus brought the children small gifts on Christmas Eve. Enslaved people were given time off to be with their families and big celebrations were held at the slave quarters with music, dancing, drinking, and feasting. Many planter families had no Christmas trees, lavish decorations, or lavish presents wrapped in festive paper. After the Civil War, all of that would change.

By the 1880s and 1890s, Southerners had begun to accept new ideas in the celebrating of Christmas. Shops throughout Nashville began to sell elaborate holiday decorations imported from Europe. Many Shop owners placed ads in the Nashville newspapers for appropriate Christmas gifts for ladies and gentlemen. Many ads contained images of French porcelain baby dolls, hide covered hobby horses, and child sized carriages and furniture. Gone were the days of exchanging small often homemade gift at Christmas. Southerners began to reap the benefits of industrialization and mass production.

At the dawn of the 20th century, many families had elaborate Christmas trees, festive holiday parties, and the exchanged expensive store bought gifts. By the 1920s, Christmas trees boasted new electric lights, the old fashioned red poinsettia turned pink, and Christmas carols were played over the radio in many living rooms.

During the years of the great depression and two world wars, Southerners continued celebrating Christmas even though times were hard. Christmas trees were a little more bare in the 1930s and during the second world war, Americans rationed their metal and Christmas trees were decorated with no electric lights, glass ornaments with no metallic silvering, and brand new plastic ornaments from Japan.

By 1953, when the Belle Meade Mansion opened for public tours, members of the APTA, decorated the mansion in the old antebellum style of the 1850s with simple green decorating mantles, glowing candles, and festive music from the piano. By 1953, the celebration of Christmas came full circle at Belle Meade.

Come and visit Belle Meade this holiday season and experience 100 years of Christmas.

By John Lamb, Curator of collections

 

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