The weather outside might not be frightful, but Charlestonians love celebrating the Christmas season just the same. This holiday guide will introduce historic Christmas traditions from days gone by and walk locals and new residents through the most popular holiday activities of today- the Festival of Lights, Charleston Christmas Market, and holiday parades- as well as some less known holiday sites to create special memories this festive season.
Christmases Past and Lowcountry Christmas Feasts
Christmas has always been a special time of year for Charlestonians, especially for the enslaved, who looked forward to a few days off at the holiday (usually the only time each year), to religious services, and to special meals and new clothes. It was the most popular time of year of weddings, since the enslaved might be allowed to gather and visit neighboring plantations at the holiday. European traditions embraced by white Lowcountry residents included “Father Christmas”, an English favorite, and Christmas trees (popularized by German immigrants in the antebellum era). Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, became popular in the 1850s alongside the Christmas tree- the Charleston Courier even printed the whole “Night before Christmas” poem, of “The Visit of St. Nicholas”, on Christmas Day 1854.
Lowcountry Christmas feasts featured bunches of locally grown greens, ambrosia with fruit and freshly shaved coconut, oranges and nuts, oyster pudding and oyster roasts, souse or hog’s head cheese, which food historian John Martin Taylor explains was a traditional holiday dish in both Charleston and Barbados, where many of our first settlers both free and enslaved arrived from. Souse is an acquired taste, made of red peppers, pig feet and other scrap meats, cinnamon, and cloves. Oyster pudding and ambrosia are still staples on the holiday table today. Dessert fixtures included sweet potato pies, custards, and souffles, and pecan pies and pralines. Savannah’s Candy Kitchen and Market Street Sweets offer pecan specialties fresh to go or packed as gift baskets.
Shopping for that special gift
Early Charlestonians adopted the English tradition of a “Christmas Box,” which historian Nic Butler explains was “an ancient custom where tradespeople and servants received small gratuities and even leftovers on December 26th . . . the custom was extended to enslaved people as well.” Often called Boxing Day, people in the United Kingdom still honor this by giving gifts to the poor. By the nineteenth century, Christmas presents became popular, and including oranges and plantains, toys for children, jewelry and thinking’s, clothing, dolls, and books.
King Street has always offered special gifts for every special someone on the list, from mince meat pies and holiday shoes in the nineteenth century to antiques, clothes, candles, and other unique treasures still today. The Charleston Courier and Mercury reported on Christmas Eve 1860 that, “King Street never presented a gayer or more lovely appearance than it did on the 24th of December. It was alive with innocence and beauty. Sweet things and pretty things were purchased with a freedom and pleasure,” and “the markets were crowded, and a brisk business was driven in turkeys, and all the multifarious things which go to make Christmas dinner . . . the misty shop windows- decked as they are in no other time.” King Street is beautiful at Christmas time, and shoppers will find hosts of local stores to buy that special something for everyone on their list- Croghan’s Jewel Box, Blue Bicycle Books, Buxton Books, Dumas and Grady Irvin Co. for men’s fashion, and the Preservation Society gift shop, to name just a few.
Each December on the weekends, the Charleston Farmer’s Market in Marion Square transforms to into the Holiday Market. Vendors have loads of locally made gifts like jewelry, artwork, gift baskets with local snacks, teas, and coffees, holiday ornaments, and plants, in addition to fresh produce to take home and use to prepare a fresh festive dinner. The market also has loads of food trucks to grab lunch or coffee to warm up, and there’s usually live bands playing- and sometimes Santa makes an appearance! Walk to King Street to the City Market, where there are more shops and vendors selling sweetgrass baskets, more local artwork, Charleston memorabilia, and clothing gifts. Don’t forget to visit the other unique shops along Cannon and Spring Street, and the corner businesses like The Flower Cottage on Elizabeth Street to support local as you shop this year.
The Grand Illumination- Light Displays
Though most people today don’t know it, these light displays follow a historic tradition of “grand illuminations” and lighting of fireworks and firing guns to celebrate the Christmas holiday and New Years in the colonial era.
The Festival of Lights at James Island County Park is a must see, with over 2 million bulbs in displays that change each year and keep guests returning to see the new installations. The Festival runs 5:30-10:00 pm from mid-November until after Christmas, and is reasonably priced at between $15 and $30 per vehicle depending on prebooking and peak evenings. Drive slowly through the palmetto lined park trails and be delighted by the holiday splendor. Kids can meet Santa free of charge in his village, and there are holiday indoor displays, a carousel, gift shops, a “build a reindeer” stand to bring home a special friend, and food trucks with holiday snacks and cocoa.
Some of the best light displays are downtown, free of charge, in close distance to coffee shops to get a hot cocoa, or bars for a special holiday cocktail. City staff line Marion Square’s palmetto trees with Christmas lights each year, and the focal point is the several story tall light tree in the center of the square. Kids love to inside the tree and spin till they’re dizzy, and it’s a favorite selfie spot. Two blocks away, the College of Charleston campus is beautifully decorated for the holiday season, with bright red bows and bows of greenery on the piazzas of the historic houses-turned-classrooms. At night, the Cistern yard glows with the Cougar Night Lights celebration- light icicles drip from the historic live oaks and Randolph Hall’s portico becomes a backdrop to a fun, musical light displays that cycle through every half hour, from 5 to 9 pm.
Experience Charleston Christmases Past- Historic Holiday Tours and Carriage Rides
There’s no better way to step into a traditional Lowcountry Christmas of the past than to visit one of the house museums for an evening candlelit tour, adorned with historic holiday ornament like mistletoe, pine garlands, and holly. The Nathaniel Russell house at 51 Meeting Street invites guests to “step back in time and witness the romantic light at the day’s end with the flicker of flame in this stately early 19th century town house. Appreciate the challenges of life before modern lighting while experiencing the beautifully lit house adorned with illuminating holiday décor.” Don’t wait too long- the evening tours offer an intimate visit with small numbers of visitors at a time so you’ll want to pre-book early. The Edmondston Alston House offers another special evening event called Christmas on the Battery. The antebellum house is decked out in holiday splendor and quests enjoy the Charleston Caroling Company, storytelling and Gullah Christmas stories with Fouche Sheppard, and a glass or wine or hot cider in the cozy courtyard.
Middleton Place Plantation offers a trip back to Christmas 1782, when Arthur Middleton returned home from Philadelphia and the British left Charleston as the Americans won the Revolution. The Grand Illumination dinner event features early American cuisine and cocktails, “torchlit gardens, warm fires, dramatic scenes and presentations, and a traditional family style meal.” Drayton Hall also offers evening candlelit tours.
For a special evening, the much-loved Progressive Dinner event returns for its 37th year. Guests begin with a cocktail reception at the Kings Courtyard Inn, and are then taken by carriages decked with holiday boughs to Circa 1886 for a three course dinner, and then another moonlit carriage ride to the John Rutledge house on Broad Street for coffee and dessert, and lastly a rickshaw ride back to the Inn.
Mount Pleasant Towne Center is a popular holiday shopping spot for its many stores, restaurants, and convenient parking, but they also offer a great throwback to the Christmases past- complimentary horse drawn carriage rides around the Center, with friendly drivers and equines decked with jingle bells (offered Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 pm in December).
Parades- A longstanding local tradition
The city of Charleston has sponsored holiday parades since the early 1930s, decked with poinsettias, a favorite Christmas plant that was introduced to the United States from Mexico by Joel Poinsett, a South Carolina born statesman and diplomat for whom the bright red plant is named.
Charleston’s Holiday Parade kicks off at 3:30 on December 5th on Broad Street, before traveling down Meeting Street to Calhoun Street. The free event features floats from local businesses, clubs, churches, and organizations, and of course, a special float for Santa. Folly Beach has their parade on December 11th on Center Street, followed by Summerville’s Christmas in the Pines parade no the 12th at 2 pm, and Mount Pleasant’s holiday parade and tree lighting that evening, leaving several options for every community. To get in the Lowcountry spirit, don’t miss the Holiday Parade of Boats (December 11th) promenading in the Charleston harbor. If you don’t have a boat to decorate, you can view the festivities from the Battery or the Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park.
The Reason for the Season
Of course, for many residents, the holidays wouldn’t be complete without a holiday service at one of the city’s historic churches, which are beautiful when they are decked out with Christmas merriment to celebrate the holy occasion. St. John the Baptist Catholic Cathedral, a stately Gothic Revival Church on Broad Street, or St. Michael’s Episcopal (the oldest church building in the city) are worth a quick visit even just to admire the decorations in the most festive of seasons.
- Nic Butler. “Christmas Traditions in Early Charleston.” https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/christmas-traditions-early-charleston
- John Martin Taylor. Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: recipes and ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina coastal plain. Chapel Hill: university of North Carolina Press, 2012.
- Joseph Dabney. The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking. Illinois: Cumberland house, 2010.
- Susannah Smith Miles. “Charleston Christmas in 1860.” Charleston Living Magazine. 13 November 2015
- Robert Behre. “Charleston’s most interesting Christmas? There are so many to choose from.” Post and Courier. 24 December 2019
- “Joel Robert Poinsett.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/poinsett-joel-roberts/
- Charleston Courier. “The Visit of St. Nicholas of Santa Claus.” 25 December 1854.
- “Cougar Night Lights.” https://today.cofc.edu/2020/11/18/cougar-night-lights-returns-on-nov-23/