Moment of Indiana History

An “Old School” Holiday Tradition

School children in pioneer Indiana enjoyed one holiday tradition that teachers will most likely be thankful they no longer have to endure.

engraving of pioneer school house

Photo: from A History of Edgar County, Illinois. Published by Wm. Le Baron, Jr., & Co. in 1879

On Christmas Day, pioneer schoolchildren had a tradition of "barring out" their teacher until he or she produced treats.

With Christmas trees and ornaments now appearing in stores in October, it’s hard to remember that in early Indiana, Christmas day was not a day off from work or from school. But school children did enjoy one holiday tradition that teachers will most likely be thankful they no longer to have to endure.

“Barring out” the teacher was a practice in many schoolhouses in pioneer Indiana. Children, especially the older boys, who were often as strong and fully grown as their teacher, arrived early on Christmas morning and barred the front door, and every other entrance to the building, against their teacher, who then was supposed to agree to provide some kind of holiday treat for the students.

One teacher in the town of Nashville, Indiana, found out that refusing to go along with the custom could be painful. The man arrived at his school on Christmas day to be met with a demand for treats from his students; when he refused, several older boys, along with several of their parents, picked up the teacher, tied him up, carried him down to the stream, and gave him a last chance to change his mind before he was dunked in the freezing water.

The teacher refused to yield to threats and was on the verge of a cold soaking when a more sober-minded citizen intervened. Negotiations produced a promise from the teacher that he would treat his students with apples and candy, and the entire crowd proceeded to the general store, where he was compelled to buy enough Christmas sweets for students and adults alike.

Another teacher in Morgan County proved wiser than his Nashville counterpart. Barred from his schoolhouse by the older male students, he proceeded at once to the local store and bought a gallon jug of whiskey. He was, of course, admitted to the school upon return, and began pouring liberal “treats” for the teenage boys. One such pupil, many years later, recalled his fate at the end of the school day. Returning home “swaggering, happy as a lark” and “loaded to the muzzle with a ceaseless fire of talk,” the inebriated boy met his father, who promptly gave his son “a dressing that he remembers to the present.”

Source: D. D. Banta, “The Early Schools of Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History, December 1906.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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