Washington Christmases Past

Published 9:12 pm Wednesday, December 22, 2021

During this Christmas season, I would like to share some of the Washington Christmas traditions from the early 1900s, including those of Washington’s Edmund Harding (1890–1970), salesman and humorist extraordinaire in the book Washington and the Pamlico. As stated on the website NCpedia.org, “Harding devoted most of his time to speaking engagements…” “From 1940 until his death, he entertained groups in each of the fifty states, Canada, and Mexico, and gave nearly 5,000 talks.” “Beginning with Governor R. Gregg Cherry in the late 1940s, he was designated by each governor of the state as ‘North Carolina’s Ambassador of Goodwill.'”

Harding mentions that Washington’s atmosphere was always cheerful during the Christmas season, with stores staying open until 10 o’clock from December 1st until Christmas Day. Storekeepers that sold fruit and candy had luxuries not available at other times of the year, like parsnips and cranberries, displayed on the sidewalk in front of their establishments. “All the things for Santa Claus came from either Scott Frizzell’s Store or Willie Buckman’s.”

Edmund notes that St. Peter’s Church was famous in our part of the state for its Christmas decorations. The church women worked to make the decorations from evergreens from surrounding farms, and they assembled hundreds of wreaths. Mr. Harding recounts another holiday tradition, “From the time I was 16 until the Christmas I was 50 years old; I rang the church bell for Christmas. The Christmas peal, as it is called in bell ringing, is to turn the bell over and over again to give the Christmas peal.”

Before electricity came to town, Christmas trees were mainly dressed with homemade ornaments and candles in little holders but seldom lighted because of the danger of fire. Following the beginning of the electric utility in town, Edmund led the town’s campaign to decorate the city for Christmas. The town fathers were wary, for they believed the project was too costly and unwarranted. Ultimately, he and the superintendent of the light plant prevailed and designed the first garlands and stars which went up over Main Street. The first community Christmas tree was placed on the old Beaufort County Courthouse lawn in front of what was once the county jail. Townspeople gathered around to listen to church choirs sing familiar Christmas melodies as the tree was illuminated for the beginning of the season.

Businessmen J. K. Hoyt, J. F. Buckman, S. B. Etheridge, Heber Winfield, Jess Harrington, and Frank Bowers started the first Washington Christmas parade. Harding took charge of the procession, and “the night the Christmas lights were turned on, all the rolling stock engaged in business in and around Washington rolled down Main Street in review before the mayor.” Some years the train of vehicles reached a length of two miles or more.

Downtown Washington is no longer the center of business for our community, but many of the traditions that began over a hundred years ago are still with us today. Our Christmas parade is one of the best around, and the recent practice of adorning the boats along the waterfront has only added to Washington’s Christmas festivity.

I hope everyone has a safe and very Merry Christmas.

Ray Midgett is a Washington resident and the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project