Upland Chronicles: Sevier County Christmas traditions have changed with the times

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 11:29 PM

Every region, community and family has its own time-honored Christmas traditions. Baking old-fashioned stack cake and chopping down a cedar tree in the woods are memories shared by many older Sevier County residents. There are those still living who can recall the Christmas mornings of their youth when receiving nothing more than a stocking filled with candy and fruit was all they expected as a Christmas gift.

Over the years, public events that were once highly anticipated in Sevier County have passed into history as times and circumstances have changed.

Beginning in 1924, after an oval-shaped garden area was added to the center of the public square and the Sevierville Garden Club provided landscaping, a large Christmas tree was placed there in December each year. The New Central Hotel faced the area that was known by several names including the “round about,” “Run-a Round” and “teapot dome.” Public gatherings such as carol singings took place there, and benevolent organizations passed out gifts to the needy. Sevierville citizens looked forward to the lighting of the big tree each year. The section was removed in 1948 when the road was widened to four lanes; the Christmas tree tradition ended before World War II.

Another event around Christmastime that drew a large crowd was the Purina Mike and Ike Program, sponsored by Temple Milling Company and Ralston Purina Company.

The well-loved tradition was hosted by the Temple family beginning in 1948. It continued until 1968. The much-anticipated event was held in front of Temple’s Milling Company, and the crowd spread across Bruce Street and into the courthouse yard. Mike and Ike were pigs raised on Purina feed and given away in a drawing to lucky recipients who held tickets representing sales and money paid on accounts.

Special recognition was given to the oldest woman in attendance, the oldest man, all above 80 years, and the person with the most children. The event was broadcast live on Sevierville radio station WSEV after 1955, and lucky attendees won live turkeys, Mrs. Temple’s home-made coconut cake as well as meal and flour.

Raymond Patterson (1905-1959), a self-taught artist and son of well-known Sevierville photographer Edmond Patterson (1866-1954), availed his services to downtown businesses during the holidays. He painted beautiful Christmas scenes on the storefront windows of various establishments.

Other businesses, such as Robertson Brothers Hardware Store, hosted Christmastime drawing which drew large crowds to downtown Sevierville.

Beginning in the late 1950s, A.J. Lumber Company sponsored continuous recorded Christmas music throughout Christmas day on local radio station WSEV. Edna (1925-1977) and A.J. King Jr. (1920-1978) received so many expressions of gratitude for sponsoring the music, they decided to do something more for their community during the Christmas season.

In 1963, Mr. and Mrs. King purchased what at that time was considered elaborate yard displays from David Hamberger Inc. of New York, to display in their front yard. Driving past the King home in Marshall Woods became a popular Christmastime activity for families in Sevier County.

The animated displays set to music included a hammering elf’s workshop, mice sawing slices of cheese, and a lighted children’s choir singing Christmas carols.

For almost three decades, the iconic Hamberger displays were prominently placed in the King’s front yard. In 1991, Danny King, son of Edna and A.J., moved them to his new home on Maples Branch Road.

“The mice have had their heads and little tails repaired numerous times over the past several years, but they are still going strong,” says Danny King. “The King family is proud to have entertained generations of the same families with the displays.”

The first Sevierville Christmas parade was held in 1963. Organized by the newly formed Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, the parade has become an honored Christmas tradition. The Sevier County marching band has marched in the parade every year. A band member and senior at Sevier County High School in December 1963, Dolly Parton marched in inaugural parade. Although the parade route has changed to accommodate traffic patterns, it has remained a popular Christmas tradition.

In 1976, Gatlinburg hosted the first Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. The spectacular parade has traveled down the main street of Gatlinburg for 38 years drawing crowds estimated at more than 80,000.

For several decades the Sevier County Electric System installed the public Christmas light displays for Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, as a service to the community. However, the three cities in Sevier County joined together in 1990 to produce the first-ever countywide Smoky Mountain Winterfest Celebration. Using the snowflake as the official emblem of Winterfest, each city had snowflake displays.

With each city participating with winter light displays, the main goal of Winterfest was to generate tourism to keep local businesses open and encourage potential visitors to come to the Smoky Mountains year-round.

Today, Winterfest continues to thrive with local businesses crafting light displays and special events to fit in with those of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. While times have changed, the spirit of Christmas has remained constant in Sevier County. Each generation has its own special Christmas memories.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161, ron@ronraderproperties.com.