My mother, Annie Mae Adams Akins, grew up in Willow Spring at the turn of the 20th Century. Born in 1891, she did not remember ever having a Christmas tree in her home as a youngster; she and her siblings did hang their stockings.
Her Uncle, Lynn Adams, who operated a store in Raleigh, and her city cousins had a decorated tree, but in the country they did not. There was, however, a tree at the church where Annie’s family attended.
In the early days it was a Free Will Baptist Church; later First Presbyterian in Raleigh started a church where the Free Will Baptist had abandoned. The new church was named Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church of Willow Spring. This change suited the Adams’ family fine. Annie’s maternal great-grandmother, Effie McLeod, had come from Scotland in 1800 at the age of ten. Effie and her family had passed their Presbyterian doctrine to the next several generations, Annie’s family included.
In the winter of 1900, when Annie was nine years old, the ladies of the church went through the community soliciting donations. These funds were used to purchase gifts for the children of the church members and any others that might attend the Christmas pageant. Each was to have a present tied to the tree on Christmas Eve.
When the ladies had received money enough to make the purchases, they would go shopping. One of the men from the church would drive a horse-drawn carriage with several committee members aboard. They traveled, without bridges, over Middle Creek, Swift Creek and on north to Fayetteville Street in Raleigh. It was a three-hour trip each way; the group would be late into the night returning home, but they would have toys for all the young children.
A week before Christmas, several men from the church would seek out a large cedar tree or holly—preferably a blue cedar with berries. They would search near-by farms, hedgerows and woods until they found the perfect specimen. A stand would be made from two crossed boards enabling this chosen evergreen to stand tall and stately.
In the remaining days before Christmas, there would be socials for the teenage boys and girls to make colorful paper chains resembling rainbows to garnish the tree. A few candles would be placed on the out-stretched branches for lighting. Concealing the tree from view to add suspense to the occasion, a curtain was made from homespun and strung along a wire attached to the front corner of the church. Last of all, the items with the children’s names were tied to the lower boughs.
Christmas Eve finally arrived. Annie’s papa was able to go with them to the pageant as the cotton had all been picked and taken to the gin for baling. As Annie and her family were riding in their buggy past the empty cotton fields, a light snow began to fall giving an added thrill to the evening. Her papa said, “We may see the fields dusted with white all over again”. Upon arriving at the church, snow was still falling.
Inside the warm church heated by a wood stove, recitations were given by the older boys and girls. Following their remarks, the Christmas play was presented in which many of the younger children participated. Dressed as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels, they kept watch over a live baby representing the long-awaited Messiah. It was all so very meaningful— as if heaven came down for the evening.
At last it was time for the unveiling of the heavily-laden tree. A hush went over the crowd as the curtain was slowly drawn aside. The candles were lit; their flickering lights could be seen in the reflections of the snow-frosted windows. It was a breathtaking moment.
A man, with a long beard dressed as St. Nicholas, stepped forward to call the names of the children: a toy drum for John (Annie’s brother); a small lamp with a wick that burned for a girl named Susie; a cloth doll with a pinafore for Beatrice. Finally, Annie’s name was called: a small, tin, tea set painted with brightly colored pictures for her. It was the prettiest tea service Annie had ever seen; she could hardly believe her eyes. Happy and eager to visit with the others, she wanted to see their gifts. As Annie and her friends showed off their treasures, she could hear the adults singing Christmas carols accompanied by a pump organ.
Soon it was time to go out into the night. Every child was given a paper sack with an orange, a candy cane and a few nuts as they started out the door. As Annie Mae stepped outside, someone in the crowd said, “It’s a good night for sledding; a full moon has come through the clouds.” But Annie was not interested in sledding; she was dreaming of playing with her present from the lighted tree.
The road had turned silvery white; it was wet and slippery as they traveled the three miles home. The cotton fields were just as Annie’s papa had said, “…dusted with white all over again.” But more important to her was the beautiful tea set. For Annie Mae, it was her best Christmas ever. How do I know? I know because my mother told me so.