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A History of Christmas in Davidson

by | Dec 22, 2023

Christmas celebrations in Davidson have changed greatly over the last century or so. In a 2001 interview with the Lake Norman Times, Van Lear Logan recalls that in her mother’s day Christmas was very simple. As toys were expensive, there weren’t too many under the tree.  Instead, the holiday centered around the family, the church, and, not to be forgotten, the food!  Oranges were a real treat, and there was one in the toe of every stocking. Other treats were fruitcakes and tangerines.

The holiday often featured “foolish pie,” a Davidson tradition that was made with meringue, whipped cream, orange slices and maraschino cherries. There was a rivalry among town women as to who made the best pie. Christmas was celebrated with fireworks, and on one occasion, a firework went astray and set a cotton bale on fire. Starting in 1921, the Presbyterian church hosted a Christmas Eve service that included a visit from Santa and gifts of fruit and candy for the children of the congregation.

By the time Van Lear Logan was growing up in Davidson, colored lights were strung across Main Street. Occasionally, these lights stayed up until Easter, and they were renamed Easter eggs. Very few houses boasted outdoor lights, but there was one house on Main Street, visited by all, that showcased lights all over, a Santa on the roof, and a manger scene and carolers in the yard. Sometime during the 1950s, the town stopped hanging lights, replacing these with a permanent tree on the village green.

Alex Beam, founder and longtime manager of the Davidson Christmas Parade (now the North Mecklenburg Christmas Parade), which started in 1982.

There was not much opportunity for shopping in Davidson, so trips to Charlotte to look at the decorated stores and go shopping were common. Sometimes, this trip included taking in a movie and having dinner at the S&W Cafeteria. Gifts included bicycles and stereos, and, one year, antique dolls handed down from the mothers and dressed in clothes made from scraps.

The Presbyterian church continued with its Christmas Eve service, by now held in the dining room in Chambers Hall. According to James Puckett’s book Olin, Oskeegum & Gizmo, this was discontinued when a group of young college faculty members and their spouses complained that this was a secular occasion and was contrary to the rules of the church. The congregation agreed, and Santa was replaced by the Christmas Eve service.

Another Presbyterian tradition was the White Gift Service, directed by the young people and featuring a nativity pageant and the collection of food, wrapped in white, for the needy. According to Van Lear Logan, in the early years, a lack of young people resulted in the pageant having “only one angel, two at the most, and the number of shepherds was governed by how many young people were left after the wise man quota was met.”

James Puckett describes one of the most memorable pageants he participated in. While he was in high school, his brother John was Joseph, one of the best roles. As the shepherds approached the manger, one of them looked up, smiled at John, and said ‘Bite me, Puckett.” John, at first stunned, began to laugh uproariously and the laughter soon spread. Luckily the sanctuary was soon darkened for the entrance of the kings, and by the time they reached the altar, things around the manger had settled down.

When we moved to Davidson in 1979, things were still fairly simple. There was an annual parade down Main Street, including bands and other marching groups. Living on South Main, we had a birds-eye view of the proceedings, including one of our favorite groups, The Rod of God Twirlettes. For churchgoers, much of the festive season centered around the church. The college held an annual Christmas Vespers service of lessons and carols, which still continues today. Shopping still required a trip to stores in Concord or Charlotte. Not many houses were lit, but most featured natural garlands and wreaths with an occasional Williamsburg fruit fan above the front door. And parties abounded – sometimes several in one day. The after-Christmas sale at the Village Store was a must. I always arrived first because all I had to do was walk across the street. For several years after we left in 1989, I was still able to participate because proprietor Irene Blackwell would ship me an assortment of things she knew I’d like!

The religious aspects of the holiday remain today, including Davidson United Methodist’s outdoor live nativity, complete with live animals. The church also holds a Cookies with Santa event earlier in December. All of the local churches hold Christmas Eve services. The North Mecklenburg Christmas Parade still comes down Main Street. More than thirty years later, however, other things have changed exponentially. The “permanent” Christmas tree on the green was felled by Hurricane Hugo and has been replaced. Not only are homes all lit up, but they feature huge lighted blow-up figures of all sorts.

Doggie Fashion Show, Christmas in Davidson (Courtesy of “Our State Magazine”)

There is the annual cookie crawl and “shop local” Saturday, all possible because of the increased number of stores in town. The biggest change is the annual town celebration that has become a real destination for people from near and far. In 1988, the town held its first Christmas in Davidson, a three-day event which now draws approximately 20,000 people from around the area. Among the events are carriage rides, a tree judging to benefit local charities, performances, music, food, and holiday shopping.

According to Van Lear Logan, however, some things haven’t changed. There is still a “strong sense of community, the knowledge that people of the town care about one another and look after one another.” May that never change.

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

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