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Candy, Toys Decades-Old Christmas Traditions

xmas.jpgBOONE–Harmonicas, dolls and candy were the hot Christmas items for children in Northwest North Carolina in the early 1900s.

xmas2.jpgRecords from the Ward General Store located six miles west of Boone, documented the spending patterns of Watauga County families between 1911-14.

The records were used to recreate a section of the store on display in Appalachian State University’s Appalachian Cultural Museum.

Holiday shoppers at the Ward Store wouldn’t find shelves filled with toys. In many cases, toys were a do-it-yourself item.

“People usually would buy the china head of a doll, make a body and then sew the head on to the body,” said museum director Charles A. Watkins.

Food not grown in the mountains, such as oranges, and candy were considered holiday treats, according to Watkins.

“When we obtained the general store we obtained a three-year run of business records,” Watkins said. In addition to holiday sales, the records document the everyday spending patterns of area residents.

“The two biggest selling categories were chewing tobacco and candy,” Watkins said. “They sold a tremendous amount of candy. We assume it’s because most of the customers were farming families, and their diet was pretty bland. Candy was one way to spice up their diet.”

In addition to harmonicas and mouth harps, clothes were a big holiday purchase in the early 1900s as well.

“I’m sure the same cry was heard then as we hear today whenever a gift turns out to be clothing,” Watkins said.

Having a Christmas tree in the home wasn’t a widespread tradition in the mountains until the 1930s or later, Watkins said.

The trees were more commonly found in churches, which was the first organization in the mountains to adopt the practice of decorating and displaying a tree indoors.

The traditions celebrated in the mountains were a mixture of German, English and Dutch traditions brought by those who settled the area.

The Germanic character Belznickle, whom Watkins describes as Santa’s evil sidekick, was known by many young children who feared getting switches instead of goodies if they had been ill behaved during the year. “He was not the kind of guy you wanted to have visit you on Christmas Eve,” Watkins said.

In addition to the Ward Store, the museum has other displays documenting life in the Northwestern Mountains. These include a profile of the descendents of a former African-American slave from Wilkes County, a moonshine still, everyday furniture of Appalachian homes, NASCAR racing, the Land of Oz theme park and the skiing industry.

The Appalachian Cultural Museum is located on University Hall Drive off Hwy. 321 in Boone. Museum hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. A nominal admission is charged. The museum is closed on Mondays. For more information call (828) 262-3117.

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First Picture Caption: Appalachian Cultural Museum Director Charles A. Watkins helps preserve mountain heritage. Watkins stands in a replica of an early 20th century general store that operated in Watauga County

Second Picture Caption: Harmonicas and candy were common Christmas gifts in the early 1900s. (Photos by University Photographer Mike Rominger)