Gale Hill Christmas Story

An impression of Gale Hill at Christmas (without trees) by Jasper Burns.
(Other portraits of Gale Hill have been done by Jaquelin Ann Guillot and Mark Hamilton Caskie.)


Based on the reminiscences of Elizabeth Coalter Bryan Williston (born 1871), Jane Bell Dabney Grinnan Gladding, and Jane Bell Dabney Jones (born 1877)

The three families of grandchildren always came to Gale Hill to spend Christmas.

The first to arrive were the Dabneys from Charlottesville, nine miles away. They came by train and were met at the Proffit depot. "All there, Doctor?" asked the conductor as the train stopped and Dr. Dabney, Mrs. Dabney, and their seven children got off. "Well, happy Christmas to you, sir." They found at the station a buggy and a wagon full of hay to carry them over the mile of snow-covered road to Gale Hill. It could scarcely be called a road; it was all deep ruts and holes and so narrow that it was impossible to avoid either getting into a hole or driving over a tree.

The Bryan family, including eight children, came from Key West, several miles in the opposite direction and across the Rivanna River. "Tom, hitch up the carriage and saddle Fidget and Fax," said Captain Bryan. When the roads were heavy with mud or snow, they had to drive very slowly. Then the river had to be forded. The oldest boy would ride his horse into the river to test the current and look for holes or quicksand. The other bank was steep and muddy, but Tom was a good driver and the horses dependable. Once across, they drove across the low grounds, forded the meadow branch, went through the gate by the tobacco barn, and climbed the hill to the front yard gate, held open by one of the little black boys. As the carriage neared the north porch, part of the old house built in 1775, the children became more and more excited.

Next came the Minor family from Windieknowe. Uncle Will, Aunt Lizzie, and their five children would pile into their odd-looking carriage which the children all called "the ambulance." It also had to cross the river and could be seen coming from quite a distance because old Jerry, one of the horses, was white as snow.

As each family arrived at the north porch, they were greeted by Grandpa and Grandma Minor, Aunt Sally, and Aunt Mary. Grandpa would exclaim, clapping his hands, "Welcome, Welcome, Merry Christmas!" and Grandma and the aunts would say, "The Philistines are upon us! The Philistines are upon us!" Then Grandma would add, "Come out of the cold children, lady apples under the table!"

Everyone would rush into Grandma's bedroom in the new part of the house, which was built in 1857. This room was twenty-two feet square with a very high ceiling and was used as a family sitting room in winter. There was a huge open wood fire in the fireplace, with brass andirons and red brick hearth and a big mantle piece above. And sure enough, there were plenty of lady apples under the table.

While the parents were chatting, the children would steal away to the kitchen to see what was for supper. Aunt Harriet was the cook and well-beloved by all, but she would chase the children away, threatening to pin a dirty dishrag on whomever she could catch.

After supper, everyone pitched in to decorate the house. Running cedar, mountain laurel, and other evergreens were twined around ropes. The bannisters were twined and all the windows hung with wreaths. And garlands of evergreen were hung on all the pictures and portraits. The whole house was beautiful and fragrant.

The highlight of Christmas Eve for the children was hanging up the stockings. Each stocking - twenty in all - had to have a name pinned on it. Then it was off to bed - the oldest boys in "the office" out in the yard, the rest tucked away in the big house, and a big fire blazed in every room.

Christmas morning always started with a happy race to see who could sneak up on whom and say "Christmas Gift" first. Almost always, old Mammy Patty would beat everyone else to the punch. The children would sneak downstairs and try to catch Kate or Aunt Harriet or their parents, but almost always they were too slow. Even Grandma and Grandpa would say "Christmas Gift" as soon as a child would open their door a crack to catch them.

Then it was off to the stockings, stuffed with candy, nuts, raisins, and firecrackers. Each child also got a toy or two including a horn, and the older boys got Roman candles and sky rockets. And everyone got an orange in the toe of his or her stocking, a rare treat in those days. The boys would gather outside by a heap of live coals and set off their firecrackers. By now, everyone was up and gathered for breakfast in the big basement dining room at the big table. Grandpa would sit in his old Windsor arm chair and read the Bible, for much too long the children thought. Then he would say, "Who is ready to go and get the Christmas tree?" Of course, everyone was. The little wagon was waiting hitched up and one of the big girls would drive it with the little children. Everyone else walked with Grandpa until the right tree had been found. The older boys would take the axes out of the wagon and chop away, with Grandpa directing them just how to do it. The tree was a big symmetrical cedar. It was loaded into the wagon, with the top and sides spilling over, and all would follow it merrily back to the house where Uncle John would set it up in front of the bay window.

The parlor doors were now shut and no child was allowed into the room until four o'clock in the afternoon. The children went back into the woods to collect red berries which were strung to decorate the tree. Then they would amuse them selves in any number of ways: skating on the ice pond, sliding down the snowy hill on split-bottom chairs, checking on the progress of Christmas dinner, and, especially, trying to sneak a peak at what was going on in the parlor.

Malvina Terrell
Malvina Terrell (1798-1880)
("Aunt Mal")

Meanwhile, the adults were decorating the tree with lady apples stuck on thorns, sparkling balls, and other ornaments which were kept year after year by old Aunt Mal in her bonnet box. The children would see the servants sneak into the parlor with bundles under their aprons and the mystery and anticipation grew as the day wore on. At three o'clock, it was time for Christmas dinner. It began with oyster soup, then came a huge turkey at one end of the table and a ham at the other end. And, of course, a variety of vegetables plus corn bread, loaf bread, butter pickles, and lots of extras. Dessert featured plum pudding, mince pies, coconut and lemon puddings, wine jelly and pound cake, and homemade ice cream.

Finally, the big moment had arrived and everyone, including all the servants, headed to the parlor. The big double doors were swung open and there stood the beautiful tree, sparkling with lighted candles and ornaments and hanging with unwrapped gifts. There were dolls, pocket knives with tops tied to them, pairs of skates, aprons, firecrackers, gifts of all kinds for everyone. Everything was hung on the tree except for really heavy presents, such as the gun that each boy would receive once in his youth.

But before anything was handed out, Aunt Mary made her way to the piano and everyone joined in singing Christmas carols. Uncle Will led everyone as they sang "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and many other classic songs of the holiday. Meanwhile, the children impatiently gazed at all the presents, wondering which was for whom.

Finally, the uncles cut down the presents and distributed them. Uncle John cut off a knife and said, "For William from Uncle Will and Aunt Lizzie." Every boy got a knife. Uncle Ran took down a doll "For Lizzie from Uncle Will and Aunt Jen," and Lizzie was happy. A new cap for Grandma. A muffler for Grandpa. Tobacco and pipes for the men servants and firecrackers and goodies for the boy servants.

Finally Mammy Patty would announce from her corner, "Humph, I ain't heared my name yit." Then a nice head handkerchief was taken down for her.

The boys would head outdoors for more fireworks and everyone rushed to the verandah to see the display. By now it was bedtime for the younger children, but the older ones and the adults stayed up for dancing. All of the aunts could play the piano, and they took turns at it. But Grandma would only allow the old-fashioned square dances such as the lancers, curtsy, cotillion, and coquette. The last dance was always the Virginia Reel and this ended the very best day of the year for the Gale Hill grandchildren.

The festivities continued for a week or longer, until school opened again. There was visiting around the neighborhood and parties to attend. And with twenty children about, there were plenty for games of all sorts and a party every day.