Christmas is one of the most festive and jolly times of year in Aiken County. Calendars are packed with events, performances, decorations, parties and more. Shops are adorned with holiday finery and lawns are lit with strings of tiny bulbs. We looked back at past Christmases to see how it's evolved through the years.
In the 1920s, '40s and '50s, house parties were the thing to do and go to, according to Elliot Levy, Aiken County Historical Museum executive director.
During the Depression, people exchanged gifts, more than threw parties.
“During the bad economic times, most of these people weren't affected,” she said. So those people chose to help.
A brief that ran on Dec. 30, 1925 stated that “little Ms. Hettie Sweeney entertained a number of her friends at a lovely Christmas party.” At the party, refreshments like hot chocolate and salad were served, afterwards games were played. The children were given candy in little red baskets, while guest were given “dainty gifts.”
Aiken's Jaycee Parade
Levy also mentioned that the annual Aiken Christmas parade has always been around since at least the '60s.
A factor that has changed with the parade is the route its ran on.
The event this year on Dec. 9 ran along Park Avenue, then north on Laurens Street and ending near Trinity Lutheran Home.
A route the parade took in the past, like in 1965, was starting at Park Avenue and Union Street, going west on Park to Laurens and then north to the junior high school.
Also, according to Carey Sarka, Aiken Jaycees' president and Christmas parade organizer, floats were once allowed to throw out candy. However due to accidents that resulted, the city outlawed it.
The parade's themes are only a recent addition. This year, “Cartoon Christmas” was the chosen. In the past, there has been “American Christmas,” “Country Christmas” and “Santa's Workshop.”
Christmas Tree Lighting
Today, in the center of downtown resides the tall, white, metal Christmas Tree. At one time the city's Christmas Tree was read and stood on Newberry Street, according to Adea Jackson, the city's recreation coordinator.
However, it was a hassle keeping up the tree while it was on Newberry, and there were requests to have an event downtown.
“We spoke with the city, researched options and, due to the safety concerns of some, we opted for a metal tree so that you could still see through the tree for traffic,” Carla Cloud, Aiken Downtown Development Association executive director, said. “While some think the tree is ugly, many others think it is absolutely beautiful when lit at night. And it certainly saves the City money, by not having to purchase a real tree every year.”
The city took over the tree-lighting ceremony from ADDA seven years ago.
This year's ceremony on Nov. 30 included Mayor Fred Cavanaugh asking children what they were grateful for, candle lighting and caroling.
Aiken Center for the Arts
Aiken Center for the Arts has proven for a couple decades that Christmas joy can be been spread inside the city's walls as well.
The Aiken Center for the Arts has been putting on holiday events at least since it moved from its Rose Hill Estate location to its current Laurens Street location in 1991, Kristin Brown, the center's executive director, said.
The center use to hold an event every Saturday during December. The busiest, Brown recalls, was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, sometimes attracting up to 600 to 800 people; that day the center teamed up with Chris' Camera Center to provide photos with Santa, had “silly photos” where people could stand and take pictures with a painted, wooden or cardboard figure like a Flintstone or an elf, and live entertainment.
Brown's favorite day was when different groups of piano students came to play holiday music throughout the day.
“It was remarkable one could hear 'Paco Bells' to 'Jingle Bells' (played) with two fingers,” she said.
Though the center has moved on from these Saturday events, it does continue to celebrate the holiday season. It holds a holiday store party, has Aiken Youth Orchestra perform, displays a winter exhibit and hosts winter camps.
“We find partnering with various organizations makes an event stronger,” Brown said. “We try to always partner with Aiken Downtown Development Association for their events, since we are members and their goal is to support and strengthen our downtown.”
ADDA with A Holly Day and Night of 1,000 Lights
ACA has been one of the businesses to be a part of ADDA's Holly Day, a day of ultimate downtown shopping, since its start.
As the center has changed with its events so has a Holly Day, that was held this year on Dec. 8.
Locals might know it as a wide-spread shopping, one-day event that offers discounts and in-store promotions, photos with Santa and street-side entertainment.
The day use to be a four-day event beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Cloud said.
“It originally started out as a one-day event with lots of businesses participating with door prizes, refreshments and sales,” she said. “When I came in 2006, it had morphed into a four weekend event. Every Saturday beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving, there would be entertainment downtown; however, other than the music, there weren't any real special activities with the exception of the first Saturday when Santa would visit, and kids could have their picture taken for free, compliments of Chris' Camera Center and Aiken Center for the Arts.”
While people came to listen to the music, they didn't necessarily shop. It was then ADDA gathered the ADDA's member businesses, and it was ultimately decided to shrink the event back to the one-day event it is today.
“Since that time, more businesses have begun to participate by hosting entertainers, providing refreshments, door prizes or sales. There seems to be a more festive atmosphere throughout the day, and it has become a nice family friendly event that is growing into something even bigger and better each year,” Cloud said.
Another ADDA holiday event that brings shoppers downtown is Night of 1,000 Lights. Seven years ago, a merchant suggested the idea during a quarterly business meeting.
The luminaries that line the streets are what make the night special, as they light the way while people weave in and out of the stores late at night.
“The businesses that had the initial discussion just thought it would be beautiful to have luminaries throughout the downtown for an event,” Cloud said.
The event has expanded to include more marketing efforts and the Random Acts of Kindness bags carried by elves. Night of 1,000 Lights happened on Dec. 13.
Aiken Community Playhouse
One of the oldest places in Aiken is the Aiken Community Playhouse, opened since 1952, according to its website. While ACP didn't really perform an actual Christmas play until the late '80s, its Aiken Community Playhouse Chorus, now the Aiken Choral Society, did get into the Christmas spirit. In December 1960, the chorus teamed up with Aiken Concert Band and a couple pianists performed “novelty” and traditional carols in the Aiken Junior High Auditorium.
According to ACP executive director Michael Gibbons, “A Merry Medieval Christmas” performed in 1986 was the earliest if not the first Christmas show the playhouse did. Collette Miller directed the show, and it was the first ACP show for Gibbons, who was still in high school at the time.
Ever since then, the playhouse has stayed true to the Yuletide celebration, doing such plays like “Christmas Belles,” “Dear Santa,” and “It's A Wonderful Life,” which the playhouse has done as a musical before.
“We've done 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' the most – four times,” Gibbons said. “I played the Dad in that a few years ago. My personal favorite was when we did 'A Christmas Story' three years ago. I also played the dad in that one, and my son, Parker, played my stage son, Randy.”
This year, ACP held its second performance of “Miracle on 34th Street” on Nov. 23, 24 and 30, and Dec. 1, 2, 7 and 8.
Aiken Civic Ballet
Going out of downtown, the Aiken Civic Ballet has been around since the '70s and so has its production of “The Nutcracker.”
The first time the ballet swept open its doors was at the Junior High School Auditorium on Dec. 5 and 6, 1970. And that first time, “The Nutcracker” was performed to an over 1,000 plus audience and considered “a smash” and “highly well received” by Carl Crosby, the ballet director at the time.
The ballet puts on a Nutcracker Tea that allows people to come out and socialize with the dancers.
It's an original idea that's been going for at least the last four years, Diane Toole Miller, owner of the Crosby-Miller School of Dance, said.
“The Nutcracker” was performed on Dec. 7, 8 and 9, while the tea was on Dec. 1.
Christmas Craft Show
Something that has been occurring for 42 years is the Christmas Craft Show. While the event seems to have always been held at H. Odell Weeks Activities Center, it use to be a one-day event. However, that did not last long, as somewhere in the '70s – its first decade – it shifted to being the two-day event is currently is.
The number of vendors has fluctuated from being 148 in 1979, 220 in 1994, 116 in 2005 to 142 that showed on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Christmas in Hopelands
Aiken has had Christmas in Hopelands since 1991.
More than 100,000 lights will be twinkling in Hopeland Gardens until Dec. 27.
The event use to be smaller and with just white lights, said Kiersten Warfield, recreation program coordinator.
“The first colored light was Rudolph's red nose,” she said.
The city's goal for the event is adding more animated and colorful displays, since people have shown favor towards those.
Throughout the years, Christmas in Hopelands has added more concerts, a second refreshment stand, shuttle buses, a second drop-off point and has opened the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and The Doll House.
“We add as much as we could,” Warfield said. “It's beautiful (and) a great way to get in the Christmas spirit.”