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Simpler S.C. Christmas celebrated at birth of nation

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes your hand and whisks you away in your nightshirt from the world you know - away from the iPods and TV dance competitions and parking lots full of harvested pine trees for sale and new restaurant openings on the peninsula.

You are transported 230 years back into Charleston's second era, the time when armies clashed, when torches illuminated the path, when horse hooves trampled dirt roads up and down the eastern seaboard. For six weeks the city was under siege. The 5,000-man Continental Army was defeated, and in 1780 British troops took command and settled in for the long haul.

Prominent Charlestonians were arrested and sent as prisoners of war to St. Augustine, Fla. The Rev. Josiah Smith, Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton were among them.

In July and November the next year, captives from St. Augustine were transported in boatloads to Philadelphia for prison exchanges. Middleton was paroled but could not go home. John Rutledge assigned him to the Continental Congress where, five years earlier, he had signed the Declaration of Independence. He would serve his state in Philadelphia until it was safe to return South.

That day came on Dec. 14, 1782. The British finally were withdrawing from Charleston. Gen. Nathaniel Greene and a battalion of Continental soldiers - encamped two years at Ashley Hill, adjacent to the Middleton property, sick with dysentery and other diseases, ensuring the British did not ravage the countryside - closed in on the retreating British Army and secured the city.

Mary Middleton was pregnant with daughter Isabella when Arthur Middleton was carried away; now the baby was part of the family, the Middleton's sixth child.

Arthur, knowing of the British withdrawal plan, made the journey home in late November 1782. He was home in time to watch the British retreat. He was home to meet his new daughter. He was home after two years of fighting and prison and struggle and service.

He was home in time for Christmas.

No one knows precisely how the Middletons and other prominent Charleston families celebrated the holiday, but there are enough clues for Middleton Place staff members Tracey Todd, vice president of museums, and Barbara Doyle, resident historian, to reconstruct a plausible scenario.

Probably, there weren't many decorations. No Christmas tree (that's a 19th-century phenomenon); no piles of gifts beautifully wrapped; no eggnog or visits to a Santa Claus stationed in Marion Square. The house likely was adorned with some pine branches, holly berries, magnolia leaves and winter flowers, that's about it.

The children likely did not receive a fancy porcelain doll or the latest new game from England. They got an orange from Florida or a bon bon or a bag of freshly made ginger cookies.

For the adults there was rum. A lot of rum. Rum punch (with lots of sugar from the Caribbean). Rum straight up (made with Caribbean molasses).

Perhaps there was a Christmas reading in the small chapel. In the days leading up to Dec. 25, slaves would make their way through the house holding a container and calling out "Christmas Box!" Into the box, members of the Middleton family and regular visitors would deposit a small gift or, more likely, a "bit" or two - equivalent to an English sixpence.

A bit might also have been added to the Christmas pudding, for the children to discover.

Now, this was still wartime, and the Brits had cut off trade, so goods from Europe were scarce. The landed class in Charleston were forced to rely on local goods and likely experienced a leaner-than-usual holiday season in 1782.

On Ashley Hill, the troops languished. Young Henry Middleton, Arthur and Mary's son, only 12 at the time, might have been cavorting with soldiers, fascinated by their courage and condition. Gen. Greene and his army were preparing to move onto James Island, and any Christmas cheer would have come to them in the form of rum and an extra ration.

Henry would go on to become governor of South Carolina, then a member of the U.S. Congress, then ambassador to Russia.

All of this history was meant to be shared with visitors at Middleton Place on Dec. 18, but torrential rains forced staff to cancel the event. It was the Christmas re-enactment that might have been. It would have included torchlit paths and fire pits, chamber music and skits. Todd said the event will surely be offered again next year, with a rain date added just in case.

Arthur Middleton, who with William Henry Drayton designed the Great Seal of South Carolina, who hated Loyalists and served in the defense of Charleston against the British during the Revolutionary War, and who was made to suffer for his politics and his actions, enjoyed only five more Christmases before he died, at 44, on Jan. 1, 1787.

He is buried in an enormous tomb at Middleton Place, a reminder that freedom from tyranny and the right to enjoy a bit of holiday cheer came at a price.

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CHRISTMAS TRADITION

Christmas was important for slaves. They were granted two or three days off from labor. Special food rations sometimes were offered them, such as sugar or molasses, beef and rum. Slaves were permitted to visit friends and relatives at nearby plantations. Weddings and other celebrations often were scheduled to coincide with the Christmas season.

What follows is an account of Christmas morning 1773 from the journal of Philip Fithian, a New Jersey tutor employed on a Southern plantation. It illustrates the beginnings of the Christmas gift-giving tradition in America, a tradition that began in England when alms were given to the poor on St. Stephens Day, the day after Christmas.

I was waked this morning by guns fired all around the House. The morning is stormy. Nelson, the boy who makes my fire, blacks my shoes and does errands, was early in room, dressed only in his shirt and breeches. He made me a vast fire, blacked my shoes, set my room in order and wished me a joyful Christmas, for which I gave him a bit. Soon after he left the room, and before I was dressed, the fellow who makes the fire in our school room, dressed very neatly in green, entered my chamber with three or four profound bows and made me the same salutation; I gave him a bit and dismissed him as soon as possible. Soon after clothes and linens were sent in with a message for a Christmas box, as they called it; I sent the poor slave a bit and my thanks. I gave Tom the coachman, who doctors my horse, two bits and I gave Dennis the boy who waits at table a half bit. So the some of my donations to the servants, for this Christmas appears to be five bits. A bit is a pisterene biseected; or an English sixpence.

Source: Middleton Place

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