Historic holiday brought to life at the Edmondston-Alston House

  • Friday, December 13, 2013

Nancy Mikell portrays a member of the Charles Alston family during Christmas 1960 at the Edmondston-Alston House. PHOTO PROVIDED

Christmas in 1860 Charleston was an exciting time for the people of the city. While men hailed the wisdom of secession from the United States, women and children were eagerly anticipating a splendid Christmas Day.

Christmas 1860 - an annual production of the Middleton Place Foundation - brings the Antebellum holiday to life, combining the splendor of the seasonally-decorated Edmondston-Alston House with the drama of the historic events of the day. Visitors will be guided through the candle-lit house and meet members of the extended Alston family in each room. Actors in period costume will give dramatic re-enactments of the conversations of a family filled with Christmas spirit, while on the brink war. Continuous tours are given from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, 13 at the Edmondston-Alston House, 21 East Battery, downtown.

Visitors will meet Charles Alston and his nephew, Williams Middleton, a signer of the Ordinance of Secession, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the Union, Alston’s daughter, Susan, busying herself decorating the home and preparing for the annual holiday balls in fine Victorian fashion and an enslaved family servant who is excited about the holiday but weary of secession. The tour concludes with hot cider and cookies in the courtyard.

The Charleston Mercury newspaper gives the impression Charlestonians hadn’t a care in the world that Christmas season. Little did they know the difficulties their city and its people would face in the coming war. The newspaper’s account of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession reveals a boisterous crowd filled Institute Hall on Dec. 20, 1860, with roaring cheers filling the room upon the first reading of the bill. “Slowly and solemnly it was read unto the last word – ‘dissolved’ – when men could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to the Heavens and ceased only with the loss of breath.”

Four days later, the Mercury’s Christmas Eve edition has numerous advertisements from merchants selling the accoutrements of the season alongside notices of prominent U.S. Army officers resigning their northern commissions and returning to South Carolina. The same excitement for the holiday and that particular season’s events would certainly have been felt at the home of Charles Alston. The women and servants would have shopped all over the city, gathering groceries for the traditional Christmas feast and presents for friends and family. Advertising suggests books were an especially popular gift, so too was “French candy,” such as Bon Bons, sugared almonds, cream drops, chocolate drops and cordial drops. Ads also touted teas, jellies, catsups, lobsters, “hermetically sealed vegetables and meats,” pure liquors, wines, porters, ales, segars, tobacco and oranges.

Christmas 1860 at the Edmondston-Alston House invites visitors to experience a small piece of the excitement and traditional cheer of the last opulent Christmas in Charleston before the Civil War. Tickets are $20 per person in advance, $25 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at www.middletonplace.org, or by calling 843-722-7171.

The mission of the Middleton Place Foundation, a public non-profit educational trust, is to sustain the highest levels of preservation and interpretation for the Middleton Place National Historic Landmark, its Gardens, House, Plantation Stableyards and affiliated properties, such as the Edmondston-Alston House, and their collections and programs. Middleton Place is located at 4300 Ashley River Road. Learn more at www.middletonplace.org.

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