Our Heritage

A Wake Forest Christmas

by Ed Morris // October - November - December 2021

A multitude of holiday celebrations have long been traditions on North Main Street in Wake Forest. The annual Forth of July children’s parade attracts hundreds of children on bicycles, wagons, and foot. Some who participated as kids are now bringing their grandchildren. Halloween draws over a thousand trick-or-treaters to the street to visit the over-the-top spooky decorations. But it is the biennial Christmas Tour that brings both the most visitors and the most excitement. Decorating the houses along North Main Street is nothing new. The Dr. Calvin Jones House (Wake Forest College Birthplace) has been decorated for Christmas for over half a century for the Christmas Tour. In the early years of Wake Forest College, and even prior when the family of Dr. Calvin Jones lived in the home they called “Wake Forest,” Christmas was a special time. If you tour the Dr. Calvin Jones house at Christmastime these days, you will see decorations representative of those that the Jones family, and later the Wait family, may have used for their celebrations.

While Christmas is the worldwide celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday celebrations did not come about until the 1500s. Its traditions evolved over time, mainly out of Germany and England, and incorporated many pagan traditions from those countries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, homes of wealthy people and some churches were often decorated with garlands and boughs of greenery. The Moravians who settled Salem, now part of the city of Winston-Salem, brought many of our southern Christmas traditions to North Carolina. A Moravian Christmas would have included a holiday feast, sweets, fruits, carols, music, and simple decorations of greens, dried herbs, flowers, and fruit. Calvin Jones visited Salem many times between 1803 and 1810 and may well have experienced Christmas there at least once or twice. When he and his new bride, Temperance Bodie Williams Jones, moved into their Wake Forest home, perhaps some of what Jones experienced in Salem graced their own Christmas celebrations. It is doubtful that the Joneses had a Christmas tree, but Calvin may well have seen one on his medical missions to Salem.

Take your senses back to the 1820s – the house smells of pine and cedar as the parlor mantel and side tables would have been arrayed with greenery, but no bows or ribbons. The windows have sprigs of holly or boxwood in each pane, attached with a small piece of bread dough. In the fireplace lays the Yule log, ready for a Christmas Eve fire. The Yule log was a large round piece of oak or hickory adorned with cedar, pine, and holly berries. It was customary that when making the decorative log, one would soak it in the creek to ensure a long-slow burn. Presents were not a huge part of the celebration. The children would have received fruits, nuts, and sweets. Christmas Day was a time for entertaining, and the Joneses and their guests would have enjoyed a feast of goose or turkey and ham from the smokehouse with fruit, root vegetables, and special desserts.

In the 1830s, when the Samuel Wait family occupied the house, celebrations would have remained simple. The table would have been set with the best china, the silver polished, and fresh fruit from the root cellar would adorn the table as part of the decorations and to be enjoyed by family and guests. In the Wait home, church services would have been a large part of the day. Wake Forest College was only closed Christmas Day, so the students were still on campus and family activities would most likely have included interaction with the college boys who also would have been expected at church services before enjoying a day away from classes. The college may have had a few decorations as well, mainly pine or cedar garlands and holly or pine on the doors – again, no twinkling lights, ribbons, or bows.

No matter the customs, Christmas was and is still a magical time. Children will be excited about the prospect of gifts, music, and festivities and friends and families anticipate celebrating the season together. Once again, we look forward to the holidays in the old college town. Our spirits will not be dimmed. And just as it did long ago, the Christmas tide will come and greenery will adorn the Calvin Jones house inside and out as will other homes along North Main Street.

Ed Morris

Executive director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum & Wake Forest College Birthplace.