TBT: Santa in a spaceship to 1953

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By: Lois Carlisle, Consulting Historian


Sunday, January 7th 2018

rocket parade float

Cola holiday traditions through time

This is part of our #TBT collaboration with Cola Today, originally published in their newsletter.

It’s December and we’ve got a serious case of the holly jollys.

Main Street
Image courtesy Russell Maxey Photograph Collection, Richland Library


Our traditions are not our own. We’re a nation of immigrants whose traditions—for the most part—originate overseas. In the South, colonists from England and Scotland brought their own ways of celebrating. In this issue: historic holidays, bougie pineapples, open flame, and Sputnik. Y’all read that right. This week, we’re taking a look at holiday traditions through the ages.

Robert Mills House in snow
Image courtesy Historic Columbia

Christmas used to be so chill.

There was once a time when December 25 really was a silent night. Aunt June wasn’t rushing to wrap 99 presents, Black Friday didn’t exist, and no one was breaking their necks trying to think of new, Instagram-worthy vignettes for their child’s Elf on the Shelf.

For the majority of the 19th century, folks were ten times more jazzed for New Year’s Eve than they were for Christmas. This is a carryover from the English who celebrated the 25th as a religious holiday. All the partying was saved for December 31st.

Gift-giving was also relaxed. Parents typically gave one or two gifts to their children. (Things like raisins, candied nuts, fancy drums, books, and baskets.)

Deck the halls with whatever you can find

Robert Mills House mantle at Christmas
Image courtesy Historic Columbia


In the 1850s, there were no doorbuster deals at the local big box store for holiday decorations. What you grew was what you had. For folks in the planter class (like those who lived at Hampton-Preston) decorations would have come from the gardens on the family estate. Pine, cedar, and magnolia were abundant in S.C. gardens, which made them abundant above mantelpieces, doorways, dining rooms + wherever else.

“But what about all that fruit?,” I hear you ask. There’s dried fruit all over Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime. Ah, yes — the Christmas citrus.

It’s 1850: You’re a wealthy planter-class man living in a high-profile house near a body of water that’s probably named after your grandfather. You’re throwing a Yule Ball (just like J.K. Rowling, but nowhere near as magical) and have invited the aristocracy from around the region. So, what do you do to display how wealthy you are? Bust out a pineapple.

Robert Mills House foyer
Image courtesy Historic Columbia

For the same reason guac is extra today, pineapples were extremely expensive throughout the 18th & 19th centuries. The majority of folks in what is now Richland County lived off the land & whatever they could conjure from it. Pineapples had to be imported from much more tropical climates. It cost a pretty penny back then to harvest the fruit, clean, pack, ship, distribute + deliver it to your doorstep.

This was true of any citrus fruit. If you could afford to give your child an orange in her stocking, you’d had a good year. If you could afford to hang hundreds of dried orange slices around your house as decoration, you’d had a GREAT year.

As far as those greeting-card-worthy arrangements meant to evoke George Washington’s holiday parties—no one had that many oranges laying around in the 18th century. Not even George.

A festive fire hazard

For lots of folks, Christmastime hasn’t begun until the tree is decorated. They would not do well in the early 1800s.

illustration of Victorian tree
Image courtesy The British Museum


Not until 1846 when a London newspaper publishes an image of the Royal Family gathered around a tabletop Christmas tree do people become interested in bringing the outdoors in. (Queen Victoria had German blood. Germans invented tinsel in 1610. Cultures mesh. Boom. Festive.)

Winsor Castle drawing
Image courtesy The British Museum

Trees remained table-top sized through the early 20th century. In the image above, we see what trees had become by 1891 — total fire hazards. Because there were no electric string lights in the 19th century, folks illuminated their trees with candles placed on the outermost branches. If that sounds dangerous to you, you’re absolutely right.

A fire bucket was never far away when the candles were lit. For obvious reasons (ie: open flames) families had to be constantly concerned about the potential of accidental fires destroying their homes.

Hampton-Preston christmas tree
Image courtesy Historic Columbia

Moving on up

Christmas parades and pageants became popular in the mid-20th century. Since 1953, the annual Carillon Christmas parade has marched down Main St. in Cola with an evergreen enthusiasm.

The parade of 1957 featured something you may not typically associate with the holiday season — rockets. Lots of rockets.

Image courtesy Columbia Fire Department collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Nearly 100,000 people crowded Main St. to watch the Lukas Equipment Company’s gravity-defying rocket blast its way through Downtown. The spacecraft stood at 15 feet tall and could reach heights of 36 feet carrying a crew of one.

…why? Because two months earlier, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and sent Americans into a panic spiral. We were a nation both totally fascinated and absolutely terrified of space. The promise of the final frontier permeated almost everything we did in the 50s and 60s. So the better question be, “Why not include rockets?” Santa’s got to modernize sometime.

rocket float
Image courtesy Columbia Fire Department collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Lukas Equipment Co.’s rocket wasn’t the only one in the parade of 117 floats — one by Mehlman’s Sight & Sound Center called Sputnik II carried a live dog. Another was captained by the Army Reserve resembled a ballistic missile emblazoned with the slogan “Peace for All People!”

…And goodwill to Martians.

If you’re still looking for something to do with the fam this holiday season, Historic Columbia is hosting holiday tours through Dec. 31. Y’all know you want to see that Victorian Christmas tree in person.

And if you’re still looking for last-minute gift ideas, Historic Columbia can help with that! A membership with HC means free house tours, discounted tickets and more fun than you can shake a table-top tree at. We love meeting new people, hearing your stories and preserving Columbia & Richland County one memory at a time.

(And if you’re looking to be more active in the New Year, why not volunteer with us? We can always use a helping hand in our historic homes and gardens.)

#TBT will be back in the new year. Happy holidays, y’all!

–Lois from Historic Columbia + Beth from Cola Today