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A crowd gathers for rubber chickens to be thrown off the top of Madison’s Humphrey-Hughes building in 2019 .

Christmas Capers to reenact Great Depression tradition this Saturday in downtown Madison

This vintage photo shows the crowd gathered on Main Street in the early 1930s to catch the free chickens with gift certificates attached.

MADISON – In one of the more unusual Christmas events, rubber chickens will be tossed from the roof of a Madison downtown building this Saturday afternoon. As odd as it might sound, the tradition pays homage to a real event that occurred during the great depression years to help local families — except back then it was performed using real chickens.

Hosted by the Madison Station Preservation Society, the event, called Christmas Capers, will be held Saturday, Dec. 17 from 4 to 5 p.m. in front of the former Hughes Drug Store building on Main Street.

Area businesses, including Huntsville International Airport (for a flight voucher), have donated thousands of dollars in prizes which people can win by catching one of 20 rubber chickens thrown from atop the store by Doc Hughes’ grandsons, Larry and Walt Anderson.

According to Madison historian John Rankin, the custom originated in 1925 when George Walton ‘Doc’ Hughes rented the Humphrey-Hughes property at 200 Main St. in downtown Madison. Doc Hughes opened his drug store business at that location, which he operated until 1972.

“During years of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Hughes started a holiday tradition dubbed the ‘Christmas Chicken Capers’,” Rankin explained. “On Christmas Eve, Doc Hughes threw live chickens from the roof of his business. The chickens had tags attached to their legs, and people could redeem the tags for prizes in Hughes’ store. Anyone who caught the chickens received the prizes and kept the chicken for Christmas dinner.”

Rankin stated the re-telling of the Christmas Capers through the years said it was performed mostly using live chickens. Other times, small Banty hens or even turkeys were used. “Pencils and other small items as prizes were likewise included or even strapped to the birds’ legs,” he said. “Sometimes a note was tied to the legs, specifying certain store items for the catcher.”

In at least one year, the birds were instead tossed from the platform around a 75-ft water tank at the southwest corner of Martin and Garner streets.

“One story told that a chicken flew from the store roof to land under a house at 23 Front Street. The crowd rushed over and got it, but they trampled down the fence in the front yard in the stampede,” Rankin said. “Such was the desperate times of seeking extra Christmas food and store prizes during the Great Depression.”
In recent years, the Christmas Chicken Capers evolved from live chickens to rubber chickens with gift cards from local retail stores.

At 4 p.m., the Andersons will re-enact the legend by pitching rubber chickens with gift vouchers from Hughes Drug Store’s roof.

Rotary Club of Madison will serve free hot chocolate and cookies. Madison City Community Orchestra will entertain the crowd.

The event has become a fun way to promote Madison’s historic downtown, but it also serves as a remembrance of the generosity Madison business owners displayed during difficult times.

“The Capers couldn’t happen without businesses’ continued generosity,” Society president Debbie Overcash said. “The addition of the Madison City Community Orchestra makes the event so festive with their holiday tunes. The Rotary Club of Madison keeps us warm with refreshments. Madison Police Department attends, and we greatly appreciate their support.”

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