Christmas with a bang at the Carter Mansion

Published 12:07 pm Friday, November 25, 2022

BY CHAD A. BOGART
There’s no denying that Christmas is indeed the most joyful time of the year. The hustle and bustle stirs up the spirit, and everyone seems to be in a cheerful disposition. So many events in Elizabethton bring our community together during this special season from the downtown open house and the lighting of the Fraser Fir to the return of the skating rink in Covered Bridge Park and of course the ever-popular Christmas parade. Christmastime is the perfect time to visit Elizabethton because it showcases the very best our community has to offer.
However, our modern celebration of this joyous season would have appeared very different to how our ancestors marked the holiday. In the earliest days of America’s colonial past some colonies, including Massachusetts, outlawed the celebration of Christmas. Early Puritan beliefs found no celebration of the birth of Christ in the Bible; therefore, it had no place in their own life. Fines were even issued to anyone appearing to lighten their workload or participate in any games or merriment on December 25.
As time progressed so did the view of Christmas and the celebration of it. By the mid-1700s the Carters of Virginia, relatives of our very own Col. John Carter of the Carter Mansion here in Elizabethton, were celebrating the birth of Christ with a month-long array of feasts, foxhunts, balls, and church services. One way of celebrating the holiday that was prevalent among all social classes was the discharging of flintlock rifles and muskets in a custom known as the firing of “Christmas Guns.” The Christmas festivities at Nomini Hall, one of the Carter properties in Virginia, included a ball given by Mrs. Carter for her friends on Christmas Eve when “guns were fired throughout the neighborhood, and early on Christmas morning, guns were fired all around the house.” In fact, a commemorative volley of musket fire was the usual manner in which all significant occasions were celebrated in early America. It was the fireworks of the 18th century.
This custom prevailed through the years with the mountain families of Appalachia firing off their rifles to celebrate not only Christmas but also New Year’s, The Eighth of January (Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans), Independence Day, weddings, birthdays, and just about any other celebration one could think of.
For years the time-honored tradition of firing Christmas Guns, which harkens back to our community’s 18th century beginnings, has been part of the lighting of the Fraser fir which is the official kickoff to the Christmas season here in town. However, this year it will not be included in the celebration… something our ancestors would find very odd at such an occasion worthy of a good musket volley.
If you want to experience the firing of Christmas Guns, you can witness it firsthand during the annual Christmas candlelight tours of the Carter Mansion the first weekend in December. Those wishing to attend the tours may register at tnstateparks.com/parks/events/sycamore-shoals. The Carter Mansion is operated by Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park where the 18th century historical interpreters still celebrate Christmas with a bang.

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