One century ago, a dozen different Knoxvillians might give you a dozen different ideas about what constituted a Christmas tradition. There survived a few people old enough to recall when Knoxville hardly celebrated Christmas at all. Until the ’40s—the 1840s—it was just another working day. Christmas was a European oddity, like Hogmanay, or St. Dwynwen’s Day.
Then there were some who recalled the 1850s, when new-to-town Catholics celebrated Christmas, if quietly, at home and in church. Most Protestants skipped it. When these Europeans arrived with their odd holiday customs (A tree? In the house?), some fundamentalists protested that there was no mention of such foolishness—or of December 25—in the Bible.
By 1912, though, thousands remembered the 1880s and ’90s, when Knoxville was utterly amok about Christmas. As the city’s population became dominated by newcomers with different clashing traditions, Christmas turned into a noisy holiday of fireworks, gluttony, late-night shopping, public drunkenness, street violence, bowling, roller-skating, and dangerous pranks.
So the pendulum had swung one way, and then the other. By 1912, the holiday seemed to have found its center, and Christmas had become what it would be, a combination of the religious and the commercial. In terms of time and money spent, there was, of course, a much heavier emphasis on the latter.
You can walk around downtown today to familiar public places and picture the cold, wet, muddy week before Christmas. Woodruff’s—that’s now the Downtown Grill and Brewery—was a big hardware store, a gift wonderland for most men, offering 300 styles of pocket-knives, plus velocipedes, tricycles, rifles. Nearby, Hall-Stephenson Furniture—that’s the Phoenix Building, home of the Downtown Grind—offered the “Push Button” Morris Chair, an early version of the recliner, and phonographs, especially the Columbia Grafonola; you could get that in oak or mahogany. Those were the specs audiophiles cared about in 1912.
A few steps farther down the same sidewalk was Newcomer’s “Big Store,” with its 42 departments. What we now know as Mast General Store is the one space that’s most like it was in 1912. Newcomer’s advertised its first-floor “Toyland” and huge supply of dolls, but they carried everything from imported furs to “handkerchiefs in seemingly inexhaustible quantities.”
Across the street, at the future site of the Visitors Center parking lot, was Spence Trunk & Leather, “The House of a Thousand Suggestions”: shoes, parasols, suitcases. A few blocks farther was the city’s most exotic gift destination, the new Japanese Art Store on North Gay.
On Market Square, Kern’s—now Tupelo Honey, Shono’s, and the Oliver—sold chocolates, fruits, bon-bons. Peter Kern, the German immigrant who was Christmas’ greatest champion in Knoxville, had died five years earlier, but his festive legacy thrived. “Come to Kern’s,” their ad went, “if only to see the busy throngs of merry Christmas shoppers that frequent the store every day.”
It was an era of bon-bons and ladyfingers and macaroons.
Big changes were in the air. Knoxville’s most extravagant gift suggestion that year was down at Knoxville Auto, on the 500 block of State Street. There you could buy America’s most expensive automobile, the Lozier “Light Six,”—it came with an electric starter—for $3,250. If we can trust inflation-conversion charts, in 21st-century dollars that’s about $75,000.
The Knoxville Daily Journal risked alienating its lavish advertisers when the morning paper published a column touting the newly organized Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. “The SPUGs stand for the annihilation of the foolish, vulgar, wicked custom of Christmas-gift exchange,” it declared. Adherents, who included Teddy Roosevelt—he’d been Knoxville’s choice for president a few weeks earlier—wore SPUG buttons.
In cooperation with charities devoted to helping the genuinely poor, Knoxville police were clamping down on the “professional begging class” by arresting vagrants. Charities handed out cards to citizens in the street, advising them about the situation. Beggars were reportedly scarce that year.
There were some differences. Public Knoxville was livelier on Christmas Day in 1912 than in 2012. Market Square’s market remained open until 11 a.m. The post office was open in the morning, too. Newsboys swarmed the streets, perhaps more vigorously than usual. Christmas Day was the one day of the year they got their papers free and could keep their gross revenues. It was also the day the Knoxville Sentinel invited all newsboys for both papers to dinner at the posh Hotel Imperial at Gay and Clinch. About 200 newsboys showed up to be waited on by men in tails. Then they went, en masse, to see a show at the Bijou.
The live show had been a brief sensation on Broadway, “the ever popular song show, The Isle of Spice,” featuring “a bevy of pretty singing and dancing girlies.” On Christmas Day, the Bijou doubled its matinées, offering three shows in all. Across the street on Christmas Day, old Staub’s Theater was showing a brand-new play that had opened (and closed) on Broadway just days earlier, a musical show called Freckles. On Gay Street a block north of the Bijou was the Grand, which leaned more toward vaudeville than Broadway. The Grand featured a Christmas variety show of comedy and music, with a wild-sounding quintet of strings, drums, and brass, including a horn called the zobo; a guy who sculpted uncanny caricatures in clay; and Viennese acrobats, the Sandor Brothers.
The Imperial had long been famous for its Christmas dinner, but other downtown hotels rivaled its extravagance. On Wall Avenue, facing the Square, the Stratford Hotel published its Christmas-Day menu, which included broiled Spanish mackerel, salade à la Demidoff, stuffed mallard duck with oyster dressing, asparagus tips on toast, crabmeat croquettes, and Boston sponge drop au rhum. And, of course, ladyfingers and macaroons. In case the multi-course dinner got dull, the Stratford entertained its holiday diners with an orchestra and soprano soloist.
By 1912, the Knoxville Christmas dinner had gotten fancier and fancier, no longer just the humble roast turkey and dressing like grandma used to fix. Things had changed so much just in the last 25 years, they could hardly imagine the exotic Christmases of the future.