A Christmas Custom

By Eilene Lyon

Sometimes I like to imagine the ways our pioneer ancestors did things differently than we do today. Of course, the list is long. One tradition I ran across in several county history books comes from the late 18th and early 19th century.

Practiced at “free schools” in rural areas at Christmas, the custom had several names along the lines of “barring the master.”  Schoolboys used this method as a means to extort treats from the teacher.

“The day before Christmas the terms of the treat, usually gingerbread, cider and apples, were written out and laid before the teacher for his approval or rejection. If rejected, the next morning found the schoolroom in possession of the larger boys, the doors and windows well barricaded, and supplies of fuel and provisions laid up for a long siege. The demand to open the door by the teacher or directors was answered by a demand to sign the protocol.”

Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

The teachers who faced such insurrections probably relented in many cases, but they could also be recalcitrant, or worse. The students weren’t always very nice, either. In 1798, a teacher named Dunlevy in Warren County, Ohio, succeeded in thwarting the schoolboys’ efforts.

“He was opposed on principle to treating, and he had served in so many campaigns against the Indians that he had imbibed a spirit which knew not how to submit or suffer defeat. After having been driven from the window by long handspikes, with which he was several times severely struck, he retired for a time.

Returning, he ascended, unobserved by the boys, to the top of the chimney, made of ‘cat and clay,’ and very large. He suddenly descended down the chimney, though a brisk fire was burning. The boys, astonished at his appearance from this unlooked-for point, capitulated with as much coolness as, under the circumstances, they could command.”

The boys tried again with reinforcements at New Year’s, and many locals turned out to watch the siege. Dunlevy succeeded again, ramming a large log through the schoolhouse door. “There were no more attempts to bar out Francis Dunlevy. Another teacher, who succeeded Dunlevy…not long after was barred out, and treated the boys to a gallon of stew.”

Wikimedia Commons

A teacher named Latimore in Cambridge, Ohio, used the school’s chimney for a different tactic, with less success.

“He got a ladder, and was soon on the roof, covering the chimney with clapboards off the roof. The boys did not long stand the smoke within, but bounded out and secured the ladder before Latimore could get to it, and they had him treed. After they had marched around less than seven times, he demanded that he be let down and he would comply with their terms.”

Latimore’s colleague in another part of town had a real fright in his barring episode.

“On the day before Christmas, Lowry, whose school was in the basement of the old Methodist Protestant church, found the door barricaded and the boys in possession. He had refused to agree to the terms.

He soon found an unprotected point, by an entrance through a trap door, from the church above, which he opened and bounded down into the room, and demanded surrender in terms as imperious as old Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga, when he demanded the surrender of the fort in the name of the ‘Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,’ but the besieged didn’t surrender.

They pounced onto Lowry, and, opening the door, took him down the hill, overlooking the stone quarry, and, taking him by the arms and legs, they proposed to swing him over, counting ‘one, two, three,’ and then, if no cry of surrender was heard, to let him flicker, but he cried ‘Cavy.’ The school was resumed, and the gingerbread, cider and apples passed around.”

Abandoned quarry near Utica, Indiana. William Alden (CC) on flickr.com

In eastern Indiana, a former student named Curtis H. Clark recalled an especially stubborn schoolmaster. “I remember on the Christmas of 1834 the big boys was going to make the master, as we called him, treat to the apple cider and ginger cakes or they would duck him in the creek nearby. Christmas came and with it all the big boys and girls, and it was very cold and the creek was frozen over solid.

Everything went well, until near noon a big fellow by the name of Ned Felton, stepped up to the master and handed him the written demand, and if not complied with the result. He was determined he would not treat.

At a given signal the big boys closed in on him and carried him to the creek, cut the ice and asked him if he would comply with the terms. He says, ‘no; I will drown first.’ Four boys, one at each leg and arm, gently let him in the cold water. It took the third immersion before he agreed to comply with the terms.”

As one writer concluded, “This was a custom of barbarous days, and is happily now no more, but it was no more barbarous than is the custom of hazing, now practiced in the host colleges of the land.”

Certainly it was a far cry from the 20th century practice of students giving an apple or other gift to the teacher!

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

Feature image: The Locust School in Highland Township, Winneshiek County, Iowa (E. Lyon 2012)


Lynch, Martha C., editor and publisher. 1897. Reminiscences of Adams, Jay and Randolph Counties, p. 204.

Sarchet, Cyrus P. B. 1911. History of Guernsey County Ohio Vol. 1. B. F. Bowen & Co., Indianapolis, Indiana, p. 121.

The History of Warren County, Ohio…1882. W. H. Beers & Co. Chicago, pp. 436-7.

40 thoughts on “A Christmas Custom

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  1. Oh my! I bet some of those farm boys would have been pretty big! Not sure I would have liked that. What about the female students? Did they participate? Did they do the same to female teachers?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I noted that the 1834 story mentioned female students. Earlier than then, female teachers were not very common. I expect that the smarter teachers just gave in to the demand. I’ll bet the large farm boys really were quite scary!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Of course times have changed. Can’t say I’d support the tradition nowadays. We had a student last month expelled for pointing his finger in the shape of a gun 👈🏻 at a teacher. It was all caught on the surveillance cameras and stills printed for his court hearing. ‘Tis the world we’re in now I suppose. The suppressed intolerance of the tolerance movement is wound pretty tight in some places. PC is a superficial time bomb.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I wonder how this custom would be covered by our cable news cabal!

    This is the first I’ve ever heard of such a thing being done, but I have to say . . if I had been a teacher back then, I’d have let everyone know ahead of time that we were having a “treat day”!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh yes, I have read all those! I don’t recall all the stories, though. I’ve visited a couple Ingalls historic sites, and I have the book Prairie Girl, but only read a little of it.

        Liked by 1 person

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