Christmas in Old St. Mary's

Kennedy Abell, now 90 years old. Kennedy Abell, now 90 years old.

Nearly 100 years ago, Christmas in St. Mary's County was merry and bright but it was hard, too.

Kennedy Abell, now 90 years old, remembers.

"Times were tough," Abell said, who was born and has lived in Leonardtown all his life. "There wasn't a lot of money and food was hard to come by."

He and his family, three siblings and his mother and father, had to work hard to make ends meet. His father was cashier at First National Bank of St. Mary's on the town square and his family would eventually come to own and operate the Hotel St. Mary's but life could still be a struggle.

"We all saved money for Christmas just to be able to buy something for ourselves," Abell said. "My mother was a great cook and she made cakes to earn a little extra money for Christmas.

"So we had about 15 cakes around the house that we couldn't eat but it was income."

Very few people had money in St. Mary's County at the time to have a large and prosperous Christmas celebration, Abell said.

But then, things turned around for his hometown when the Navy built Patuxent River Naval Air Station in 1943.

By then, his family's business at the Hotel St. Mary's was full of guests, mostly people coming to work at the fledgling base.

"They had no place to stay so they always had reservations with us," he said.

"The base was salvation for St. Mary's County."

There still wasn't much money for Christmas presents or celebrations, though, his parents did manage to get him a gift he'd never forget.

"We rarely exchanged gifts with each other," Abell said. "But when I was 13 years old I got a small electric train.

"I could hear my brothers setting it up for me in the next room."

It was the kind of gift he had dreamed about.

"It was the biggest thing I had gotten in my life," Abell said. "I was excited."

Even in times when money was scarce, he could remember the budding commercialization of Christmas

He could remember a man dressed as Santa Claus sitting out on the porch of a long-gone department store on the square.

"The first time I ever saw Santa Claus was at Morgan's Department Store," Abell said.

A gifted and prolific sketch artist, Abell has drawn historic representations of the old town square during Christmas for posterity's sake; he has also put them into video YouTube presentations which he narrates.

Such a repository of history is he, that he is in demand for elementary school classes to teach them about a time when Leonardtown had more horse-drawn carriages than motor vehicles.

In his day, Christmas was a time for church.

"We went to church at old St. Aloysius Church," Abell said. "Everyone went to church; it was the celebration of Christ."

Christmas was also a more social affair, Abell said, and not just focused on opening presents on Christmas Day as many do now.

"It was families getting together," Abell said. "And there were more house parties."

House parties and Christmas time social dances were a mainstay of yuletide celebrations, he said, since there were few other options available.

Hardly anyone ever traveled, he said.

Christmas dinners had a true St. Mary's County flavor.

"You had your Christmas treats of stuffed ham and fried oysters," Abell said. "Back then we went to more dances; we met people we hadn't seen that year.

"When you gave gifts back then, they were gifts of appreciation. Everybody knew everybody."

Whatever people had to do without back in the old days of Christmas in St. Mary's, they did not lack for snow, ice and cold weather.

St. Mary's often transformed into a winter wonderland all those decades ago.

"Breton Bay would freeze over," Abell said. "I'd go out and ice skated on it.

"There was much more snow and ice in those days."

Despite the much colder temperatures the close-knit communities of St. Mary's would take advantage of the wintery conditions to have what fun they could and make it a social occasion.

"We used to stay out the whole day" when frolicking in the snow, Abell said.

Breton Bay would freeze so solid that commercial boats which frequented the wharf at the end of Washington Street had to be unloaded by trucks driven out onto the ice, Abell said.

One intrepid town resident fashioned a kind of ice sail boat that had rails allowing him to ride out onto the bay instead of a hull, Abell remembered.

The hills at St. Mary's Ryken High School and leading down to the wharf made for fantastic snow sledding, he said.

"We used to tell the state highway people not to plow it too good," Abell said of the wharf hill. "People would go out to play in the snow as a community, not so much now.

"Back then it was fun with friends."

For more local stories from the County Times newspapers, visit or find a copy on local news stands.

One of Abell's sketches of old Leonardtown during Christmas. One of Abell's sketches of old Leonardtown during Christmas.

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