The Ice Bear
Paradoxes of the holiday, and what may be the oldest description of an East Tennessee Christmas
by Jack Neely
Christmas in Knoxville is full of surprises. One is that, a century and more ago, Christmas was celebrated loudly, mischievously, and often violently, with fireworks, Christmas-eve vandalism and Christmas-day saloon fights. On police blotters, Dec. 25 was dependably the most dangerous day of the year.
Another surprise is that, even longer ago, Christmas was hardly celebrated at all in East Tennessee. And when it was, it was sometimes an astonishing spectacle.
Several years ago I set out to the library to find descriptions of Christmas in Knoxville 200 years ago. I went through a few old diaries and reams of old newspapers—some issues published on Dec. 25—and found no mention of any public celebrations, holiday sales, or even holiday church services. None of the many ads in the papers suggested anything about Christmas gifts or suggestions for Christmas dinners. In my perusal of a half-century of December newspapers, in fact, I found the word “Christmas” nowhere at all. For Knoxville’s first half-century, there’s no solid evidence that Christmas was ever even a day off. Business was transacted as usual. The only thing obviously special about Dec. 25 in those days was that it was often listed as a day when year-end debts came due.
From other sources I came to understand that it wasn’t just Knoxville that didn’t have the Christmas spirit. Before the mid-19th century, many Americans had little personal knowledge about Christmas except as a weird and reputedly licentious European holiday; and some of those who did disapproved of it, because of its Catholic and/or pagan associations. Evidence that the founders of Knoxville celebrated Christmas at all is scarce.
My conclusion was that Christmas wasn’t celebrated consistently in Knoxville until about 1844. By then, Christmas had already caught on up north, largely thanks to the writings of New Yorkers Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. Irving had some fans here, but Tennesseans apparently weren’t all that inspired by his famous descriptions of English Christmases. We may have shrugged off Christmas until the American publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol —in 1843. Maybe it took a negative example—Ebenezer Scrooge, who’s mentioned in some early Christmas editorials—to motivate us. By the mid-1840s, even some Knoxville slaveowners, anxious to avoid Scrooge’s reputation, gave the fellows a day off.
In the last few years, however, I have run across a few stray references to Christmas before 1844, suggestions that the holiday was not entirely unknown to early East Tennesseans. Both news items appear as afterthoughts, several days after Christmas Day. One, from the American Whig and Knoxville Enquirer on Dec. 31, 1828, was an essay called “CHRISTMAS,” by a writer who wanted to be known only as “T.”
I can understand T’s interest in anonymity. The guy wasn’t much of a writer. Citing a nearly incomprehensible poem, the essay is mainly a garbly criticism of stinginess, gossip and hypocrisy. It does deal some with treatment of the poor, a focus of the early Christmases elsewhere in England and in the parts of America where Christmas had caught on. It hints at some hesitation at embracing the boisterous European holiday: “It is not the intention of the writer at present to justify Christmas frolicks and sporting parties as worthy of the civil community.” That’s the only overt reference to the holiday heralded in the article’s title. And without reference to anything local, it’s not certain whether the article was written by someone in the Knoxville area.
Much more specific, distinctively local, and even a little gamey, is one even earlier reference to a local Christmas in the four-page weekly Knoxville Gazette. A few weeks after the holiday itself, George Roulstone, the Boston-born founder of Tennessee journalism, ran a small page-three item describing one particular holiday dinner.
The early article’s reference to Christmas is only parenthetical, and may have been intended to be tongue in cheek. And it’s appropriately bizarre. If Dolly Parton wants to treat patrons of Dollywood’s annual Christmas extravaganza to a genuine old-fashioned East Tennessee Christmas, based on a rare account of an actual pioneer-era Christmas in Tennessee, she may want to read this rare description carefully.
“For a few weeks past the weather has been colder than ever experienced in the memory of the oldest inhabitant,” went the Gazette .
“On the evening of 22nd December, the Tennessee River was entirely clear of ice; on the evening of the 23rd, the ice was moving down in great bodies; on the 24th, the river was passable for foot and horse; on the 25th (Christmas) Mr. Silas Dinsmoor, agent to the Cherokees, and Samuel R. Davidson, commanding at Tellico Blockhouse, gave a dinner on the ice to a company of gentlemen and ladies.”
The river through Knoxville was then known as the Holston; assuming the party was near the fort near the Cherokee settlements known as the Tellico Blockhouse, the frozen-over river was probably what was later known at the Little Tennessee, in the area we now know as Tellico Lake. The ruins of the blockhouse on the shores of the lake are visible near the reconstruction of Fort Loudoun, and make for an interesting day trip.
What may be this area’s oldest description of a Christmas observance continues: “Contiguous to the place of entertainment, two quarters of a bear were barbecued, where the ice was felt to be in thickness sufficient to bare [sic] fire enough to have roasted an ox, without being materially weakened by the heat.”
Roulstone saw that early Christmas as a demonstration of an interesting physical principle. It’s unclear whether there would have been any celebration of Christmas in 1796 had the river not been frozen over. Maybe Messrs. Dinsmoor and Davidson thought of the mysterious European holiday as an opportunity for a memorable stunt that might even impress the newspaper-reading folks over in Knoxville.