A Fleming family Christmas

By Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 12/12/18

In the late 1800s, Christmas always meant a major celebration at the Fleming family’s Hibernia Plantation and guest house.

Things were busy all year round with the never ending duties required …

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A Fleming family Christmas


In the late 1800s, Christmas always meant a major celebration at the Fleming family’s Hibernia Plantation and guest house.

Things were busy all year round with the never ending duties required on a working farm but come late fall and early winter when other farm families could take a breath and maybe rest a minute, things kicked into high gear at Hibernia.

In mid-November, the May Garner began landing at the dock more frequently to disembark paying guests come to spend the winter enjoying the gracious hospitality of Frederic and Margot Fleming. These old friends came every year accompanied by trunks and portmanteaus straining at the seams with vast Victorian wardrobes.

Every day the guests were served three meals with the occasional special picnic requested for a day jaunting up Black Creek or a men’s hunting excursion. Added to all this cooking were the special treats for the holiday celebrations with fruit cakes and plum puddings heading the list.

By the 1890s, Fredrick and Margot’s little girls, Margaret “Mardy” Seton and Mary “Bubbles” Augusta, were both under 10 and just of an age to be more involved in all the activities.

They perched on the big table in the pantry adjoining the kitchen and carefully watched while their mother and one of the cooks chopped piles of candied fruit shipped all the way from Boston. When the pudding was assembled, each girl took a turn with the big wooden spoon always careful to stir clockwise for good luck. Then the pudding was wrapped in muslin, tied up with a string and hung from the rafters until the Christmas feast.

The holiday celebration commenced a few days before Christmas when family and guests were dispatched into the woods to forage for greenery to be transformed into decorations. Branches of Holly and Cedar were wedged behind the huge family portraits and smaller paintings so that each was surrounded by festive green and red. Boughs of orange trees laden with fruit adorned the top of every table.

Small cedar branches were tied together with twine for garland to drape every doorway. A huge cluster of mistletoe, shot out of a tree by father, Fred, was hung over the front door. Huge Magnolia branches clustered in the corners of every room.

Come afternoon, the Jacksonville Flemings arrived by riverboat. Uncle Frank and his wife, Lydia, with their children Frank Jr., Seton and Elizabeth came laden with gifts.

Before daylight Fred and Frank’s families opened gifts in their upstairs private parlors then joined the guests for the first official event of the day – a short walk down the dirt road to the Episcopal Church built by and named in honor of the girls’ grandmother, Margaret Seton Fleming. They sat quietly as their father read the prayers, joined vigorously in the singing and when the ceremony concluded, they helped Aunt Tissie distribute candy and presents to the children living on Fleming Island.

Later everyone traipsed down the road to visit Mrs. Brown’s house to see the latest Victorian fad that was soon to become tradition – a Christmas tree. It was a long leaf pine so tall it touched the ceiling and dripped with tinsel and colored glass balls especially hand-blown in Italy.

The Christmas feast started near dark and the long dining room table truly groaned with the bountiful abundance. Beef roast was mainly a northern tradition but surely everything else that swam, flew, walked on four legs or grew in the area was on that table and in lavish quantities.

After dinner they shoved the furniture in the big parlor against the walls, rolled up the oriental carpets and the dancing began. Former Fleming slave, Pompey, played a mean fiddle and the Virginia reel was the dance of choice.

Later, family, friends and neighbors gathered on the front lawn to watch Roman Candles launched from the dock explode over the St. Johns River. Firecrackers popped all around and each little explosion reflected in the still water.

Since it was the first time the children had been still all day, most fell asleep in the grass or a soft lap and were carried inside to bed marking the end of another perfect Fleming Christmas.


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