– Augusta Chronicle, 1860
One of Augusta’s oldest, oddest quirkiest celebrations seems to have faded away.
I speak of Fantastics Day, which used to be the way Augusta celebrated the Fourth of July. I can only describe it as Halloween in mid-July.
Here’s how it worked.
Beginning in the middle 1800s and continuing for about a century, Augusta children used to put on oversize clothing, then take to the streets singing and playing on Independence Day. As best as anyone can figure out, the pastime was inspired by some old English holiday tradition, although no one seems able to explain why it took root here on July 4.
There is some speculation it was an American version of Guy Fawkes Day in Britain. Fawkes was the British conspirator who wanted to blow up Parliament. When the king found out, he had Fawkes put to death and ordered the execution day to be a day of celebration.
Historians point out that other Southern towns held Fantastics celebrations at Christmas time, but Augusta – for unknown reasons – chose the Fourth of July.
A story in this newspaper on July 6, 1860, reported: “The Fantastics turned out pretty strong and more ridiculously and grotesquely accoutred than last year. They were the observed of all the observers for a time and created shouts of laughter. …”
Again in 1887, The Chronicle reported “The fantastics were on the street, the picnic parties ready, and all wore holiday attire.”
Other accounts describe how children would dress up, go to neighbors’ houses and chant: “Fantastic, fantastic, come to stay. Give us cake and we’ll go away.”
If they didn’t get cake, tricks supposedly were played.
For whatever reasons, the newspaper never seems to have run a photo of Fantastics in action, although a feature 30 years ago offered a grainy 1910 image of two children in truly gruesome costumes.
Sometime after World War II, the Fantastics tradition began to fade.
A July 5, 1949, story commented: “It was a far cry from the boisterous Fourth of July of yonder years when fireworks and the cry of ‘fantatics’ filled the air morn till night. This unique custom of wearing a false face and dressing in outlandish costume originated in Augusta … Then the custom wore off. The generation of World War I days, however, will remember when the Fourth of July in Augusta was a real day.”
The Chronicle’s famous editor Louis Harris probably put it best in 1973 when he wrote that Fantastics Day “was a strange and lovely experience for the children of Augusta each Fourth of July, but like so many colorful customs of the past, it probably is gone forever.”
As usual, Mr. Harris appears to have been correct.