As the holidays approach, the Virginia media will occasionally report stories about historical moments in the Commonwealth’s history connected to the holidays. There are usually great pieces of reporting about the “first” Thanksgiving, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes’ offering their annual “Virginia Tax Tribute” before Thanksgiving, and retrospective pieces on the “Thalhimers Santa” in the Richmond media.
This year, I’d like to offer a piece that provides a bit more colorful history as you prepare Thanksgiving dinner or decorate your Christmas tree. Here are three “holiday” moments from rural and small city Virginia that I hope bring you a little chuckle as you fulfill your seasonal duties.
A Festivus miracle?
In 1997, “Seinfeld” aired its famous Festivus episode. The premise of the episode was that George Costanza’s father created a new “holiday” called Festivus to counter the commercialization of Christmas. During the episode, various Festivus traditions were discussed including a Festivus pole, feats of strength, and the airing of the grievances. The airing of the grievances was a time for family members to orally state all of their disappointments of the past year.
So what’s this got to do with Virginia? Believe it or not, in November 1769, the Virginia General Assembly enacted a statute providing for the commonwealth’s own “airing of the grievances.” The General Assembly decreed that on Election Day in November, the county court (the governing body of Virginia’s counties at the time) would assemble to receive oral “grievances” (yes, the statute uses the word) to be written down by the court and presented to the General Assembly. And a Festivus tradition was born!
Yes, Virginia, there is a Festivus in your past.
Who was that masked Santa?
In 1926, the Ku Klux Klan scheduled a march down Beverley Street in Staunton. In response to this scheduled march, the Staunton City Council enacted an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of a mask on a city street or other public place that concealed an individual’s identity.
On Dec. 23, 1926, the Staunton Police Department received several complaints about a masked man on Beverley Street. Sure enough, there was an individual on the street with a Santa mask (though the mask did have a band that said “Salvation Army”). Santa, who in real life was J.W. Price, received a summons charging him with violating a city ordinance.
At a Dec. 28, 1926 trial, Judge Harry May, as reported by the Staunton News Leader, found Price not guilty and remarked, “I don’t think even our city fathers intended to take Santa Claus away from us in Staunton. Even if they did, I would not be a party to it.”
Santa’s sleigh needs a body shop
Our final installment of holiday history comes from the Hill City, and is told by former longtime Lynchburg City Attorney Walter Erwin.
On Dec. 23, 2009, Erwin was sitting in his office when he got a call from an employee in risk management stating, “You’re not going to believe this.”
Santa was piloting his sleigh (a Toyota Corolla) and was a little behind schedule. Unfortunately, Rudolph’s nose wasn’t the only thing that was red that day as Santa ran through a red light, hit a Lynchburg garbage truck and was ticketed for the mishap as seen above.
Luckily Santa was not injured, though his sleigh was totaled. “No word on whether the North Pole insurance company ever paid for the repairs,” deadpanned Erwin.
While the months of November and December can be stressful for all of us, let’s not forget that they are also times of celebration and joy and even a little laughter. Happy Holidays!
John Blair grew up in Pittsylvania County. He is the current City Attorney for Staunton and previously served as the City Attorney for Charlottesville and the County Attorney for Dinwiddie County.