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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Greetings in "Charlestonese"

In the spirit of the holiday season, I would like to highlight a vintage Christmas greeting card in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. Greeting cards are sent to family and friends for the emotion they express, to convey gratitude, or to note special events in our lives. Greeting cards card can also evoke memories of a special time or experience in our lives that we shared with our family, as in the case of the recently donated greeting card.     
After reading about the Anacostia Community Museum’s recent exhibition on Lorenzo Dow Turner and his groundbreaking research on the Gullah dialect in her local Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper, the donor recalled a box of old Christmas greeting cards in her possession spoofing a dialect called “Charlestonese.” 

Front view of Christmas card, n.d.

The cards belonged to her grandmother who was born in Walterboro, South Carolina, about 1936. The front of the card reads “Christmas Greetings in ‘Charlestonese’ . . . Language of the Lowcountry.” The inside includes a greeting in “Charelestonese” and a dictionary of “Charelestonese” words and their meanings. On the back of the card is the translation of the greeting card in Standard English.

"Charlestonese" greeting inside of card.

The donor wondered about the origins and purpose of the greeting cards. “Perhaps these cards were printed as a spoof of ‘Gullah’ by local white people calling the language ‘Charlestonese,’” she assumes. She believes her grandmother probably found the cards humorous and decided to purchase them but never used them since the family is Jewish.

Dictionary of "Charlestonese" words and their meanings also located inside card.

We are unable to confirm whether the cards were created to mock the language of Gullah people or were just a spoof of a local vernacular spoken by both blacks and whites. However, we do know that the speech patterns of the Gullah were dismissed as “baby talk” or simply “bad English” by some scholars before the research of Lorenzo Dow Turner established Gullah as a Creole language.

On the backside of the card is the translation of the "Charlestonese" greeting.

As an archivist, what I find most fascinating about this Christmas card is its power to evoke fond recollections of two distinct languages that the donor heard while growing up: the Gullah of her grandparents’ domestic help and the Yiddish of her paternal grandparents. During this holiday season how wonderful it is to know that a slightly humorous Christmas card can spark memories of other cultures and languages, all now part of the American experience.

Happy Holidays to All! 

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum Archives


  1. I agree, that's an awesome post! I like how the Christmas messages were written in "different" way and have some translation to it. Unique and special. That's how it was.
    Merry Christmas