The First Modern Christmas, Part II

The origin of the Christmas Day rollerskating basketball tournament, and other holiday stories

The Christmas of 1908 was maybe the first one that looked much like what we'd later consider the "traditional Christmas." Previous Knoxville Christmases had involved major fireworks, saloon violence, mobs of people in jail. Christmas dinners, as advertised in the papers, were once exotic French-style affairs involving turtles or robins—or, for the rabble, feasts of possum or bear. By 1908, you could still buy your Christmas Bear on Market Square—Bowers' unusual butcher shop boasted four bears in stock. The Hotel Stratford, nearby on Wall, served a multi-course Christmas feast emphasizing green turtle, Waldorf salad, mangoes, Spanish mackerel with anchovy butter, and "roast loin of Smoky Mountain bear" with "sauce alamonde." But Knoxvillians' holiday tastes were changing. Turkey, which Southerners had once considered a Northern habit, was now the most popular bird on Market Square. They sent Christmas cards. They put up Christmas trees, especially cedars, and hung mistletoe, all available on the Square. Newcomer's—later location of Mast General Store—employed a live Santa Claus, and called its basement "Toyland."

And Christmas 1908 was maybe the origin of a joke that has been used by somebody's daddy every December since: "With the aeroplane perfected," wrote a Knoxville Journal editorialist, "it may be expected that Santa Claus will no longer rely upon his sleigh as a method of locomotion."

Still, you'd notice a few differences. The season crested later than it does today. Christmas Eve was the busiest shopping day of the year, and stores stayed open late. "The holiday rush kept growing bigger and bigger each day until it broke" on the 24th "into one grand storm that literally enveloped the...business portion of the city, and buried it beneath an avalanche of shoppers," reported the Journal. "Gay Street held dense throngs, and Market Square and the side streets were a mass of pushing, shoving, crowding humanity.... It was a busy day and the very Christmas spirit was in the air." The crowds, which impeded walking except in the street with the buggies and streetcars, kept getting bigger until almost 9 p.m., when it seemed to crest.

At 10 p.m., on Church Street, the new Second Presbyterian Church suddenly began ringing chimes. They kept it up for half an hour. The Journal called it "a pretty and fitting idea."

"Not until towards midnight did the streets begin to wear a deserted appearance."

Another difference you'd notice was that public events were planned for Christmas Day. The Bijou was under construction, but 2,000-seat Staub's Opera House, just across Gay Street from the construction site, was still the main theater in town, and throughout the Christmas season people packed in to see shows free of any festive intent. On Christmas Day, Staub's hosted two performances of a play called East Lynne, a popular melodrama of adultery and divorce. The day after Christmas featured a play about trance-channeling and romance called Vera, The Medium, starring well-known English-born actress Eleanor Robson. The play was new, premiered in New York just the previous month. At Staub's, Knoxvillians saw the big modern world in vivid glimpses.

And Christmas Day was bowling-tournament day, as it had been for at least a decade, but there was late word that it would be postponed: Frank Bundschu, at 73 the grandfatherly patriarch of Knoxville's bowling leagues, was seriously ill. Bundschu always hosted an extravagant all-day bowling tournament on Christmas Day, at the headquarters of the Knoxville Bowling Club, on Linden Avenue near Chilhowee Park. Hundreds attended for the games, the unpredictable prizes, and the rich German food provided by Bundschu, a retired butcher. But it didn't happen in 1908; Bundschu died on Christmas Eve.

One promising new Christmas tradition in 1908 was the Christmas Day Rollerskating Basketball Game. Hundreds came to see it at the Auditorium Rink, which was on Gay Street at Main. They played seven games in all, but the papers reported the results of only one, presumably the championship game, between the Reds and the Blues: the Reds won, 8-4, in what was described as swift, if not high-scoring, play. It was a low-scoring game for basketball, sure enough, but a laconic Journal sportswriter observed, "the playing was rapid."

It was hoped to be the first of many such tournaments, and that Knoxville might develop some reputation as a rollerskating basketball capital. "The Auditorium Rink challenges any team in the South, for a game on skates."

Prohibitionists were saying I told you so. Though Kentucky distillers still advertised in Knoxville papers, and though Knoxville's brewery was still doing good business filling orders in out-of-town markets, it was illegal to sell any alcoholic beverage in Knoxville, and had been for a full year. And in 1908, prohibition appeared to be working better than anyone expected.

"Knoxville has never known a more orderly Christmas Day," reported the Sentinel; the police called it "the quietest Christmas on record." All that might have been true, but that didn't mean it lacked the traditional yuletide murder.

The violence used to be in the saloons; beginning in 1908, it shifted to the homes. At her home in a Dale Avenue alley, near the old baseball park, a woman named Mandy was entertaining three young men, "enjoying a Christmas debauch" involving whiskey and perhaps other festive substances. At some point Robert Baker, 23, found occasion to pull out his .38 and shoot Charley Carr, 30, five times: first "in the face, over the heart, and just below the heart" before Carr turned and began running away—then twice more in the back. As mothers basted their Christmas turkeys, Carr lurched 300 yards down the street to his boarding house, but collapsed in front.

Robert Baker tried to flee, but "under the influence of whiskey, or dope, or both" he stopped and sat on the train tracks and took a nap. Three policemen found him there. He "regretted the tragedy very much," he said, but added, "there was no way out of the trouble than to shoot Carter."

It was blamed on "bad whiskey." It seemed further proof, if any were necessary, of the goodness of prohibition.