White Christmas: Recalling a snowfall that lifted our spirits

CHARLESTON - If there was ever a year in need of a Christmas miracle, 1989 was it.

Twenty years ago this week, parts of South Carolina were still digging out of the wreckage of Hurricane Hugo. Some storefronts were in shambles, church steeples were covered in scaffolding, and many houses were a mess.

A few homes still didn't have roofs, much less stockings hung from the chimney with care. For many folks, the holidays weren't shaping up to be real happy.

And then, a little help blew in from the North Pole - or somewhere.

Bryan Bryant and his girlfriend, Stephanie, who later became his wife, were having dinner at a seafood restaurant on S.C. 61. As they sat at their table near the window, Bryant noticed something out of the corner of his eye.

"At first I thought that something was burning and that I was seeing falling ash," he recalled Friday.

Soon, everyone in the restaurant noticed, the chatter growing to a buzz. And then someone said it.

"Is that snow?"

A cold front had descended on South Carolina by Dec. 22, an arctic onslaught that was blanketing most of the nation. A few days before, the paper ran a front page story speculating on what kind of wintry mix the state might get.

The headline asked: "Has South Carolina joined the Snow Belt?"

For one Christmas, at least, the answer was yes.

By late Christmas Eve, a record 8 inches or more had covered the Lowcountry. It was the first time Charleston has ever gotten snow on Christmas. In 1935 the city got a dusting on Dec. 23, but it melted within a day.

In the Midlands, only an inch or so of snow fell, but in the Grand Strand, 7 inches was recorded.

The snow stuck around long enough to spawn snowmen, snow angels and snowball fights. The streets of downtown Charleston were filled with folks taking the rare opportunity to go walking in a winter wonderland.

John Royall, owner of Royall Hardware, recalls that Christmas snow fondly. It could not have come at a better time, he said.

"We were so tired of seeing the trees on the ground," Royall said Friday. "We had 150 pine trees down around the house. It just looked so desolate. I'm a firm believer that the Good Lord sent that snow to cover it all up."

"It was absolutely beautiful," Royall said.

For days the roads were icy, the temperatures freezing. It put a damper on some last-minute shopping, but few people cared.

Compared with all they had been through that year, a little snow was more than welcome. To this day, it remains the biggest snow in recorded history for Charleston, and a treasured memory from a tough year for many.

Bryant recalled that night, how everyone in the restaurant was so excited that they ran outside once they realized what was happening.

"We stood there in the parking lot with our hands out to catch the snowflakes," he recalled. "We looked at our hands, at the sky and each other. Everyone was smiling. It really had the feel of a Christmas miracle."