Christmas Capers: How tossing rubber chickens off a roof in Madison became a Christmas event
MADISON – Chickens flying off a rooftop may not be the tradition that immediately comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but in Madison, it’s a nearly one-hundred-year-old tradition beloved by locals that spreads Christmas cheer and gifts to the streets of Madison.
This year, Madison residents and visitors alike are invited to gather on Main Street and be a part of this unique, local tradition on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 4 p.m.
The tradition, known as the Madison Christmas Capers, is believed to have originated in the late 1920s or 1930s by local drugstore owner Doc Hughes. Hughes would climb atop his drugstore in downtown Madison on Christmas Eve and drop live guinea fowl from the roof to shoppers on the street below.
The live birds, a type that could fly farther than the common chicken of today, added an element of excitement and surprise to the activity. Local historian John Rankin said, “That was what made it interesting is that there was a scramble. You couldn’t just stay in one place. You don’t know where they’re going to fly or for how far they’d fly.”
One story even tells of one of the birds flying all the way across the street and causing a mob to chase after it, destroying a neighbor’s newly erected fence in the process.
The chickens were indeed highly sought-after prizes. Each bird had a small prize or a gift certificate to be redeemed at the drugstore attached to it, but in the Great Depression era, the bird was a prize in and of itself. Those lucky shoppers who managed to catch one of the flying chickens had secured Christmas dinner for themselves.
Rankin explained, “What you need to know about small towns in those days was nobody had any money. They couldn’t afford anything, farmers in particular. This town was populated and grew its business by farmers. So, farmers of all races would come in for Christmas shopping once a year, usually on Christmas Eve.”
He went on, “So, the chicken toss was the only hope they might have for somebody’s chicken other than their own to be killed for Christmas dinner. Otherwise, they might have cornbread and turnip greens for Christmas dinner. That’s all there was.”
Hughes’ drugstore was one of the prime shopping spots for farmers from surrounding areas as it acted as a one-stop-shop, selling most everything except clothing. The Christmas chicken toss also perhaps added to Hughes’ good reputation as a trustworthy businessman, pharmacist, and later as mayor of Madison.
“Doc had general toys and pharmaceutical stuff. That’s why he was the ‘doctor’. People could come in and get free doctor advice but he was not a doctor, but he knew everything. He had seen every illness. He talked to people who were doctors in town,” Rankin said.
As to why Hughes started the tradition of the chicken toss, Rankin suggested, “He was a good businessman. He wasn’t just a pharmacist.”
The tradition carried on for many years and even shifted venues from the drugstore to a water tower that once stood in downtown Madison. The event is believed to have continued well into the second half of the twentieth century until Hughes’ death in the 1970s, after which, it took a prolonged hiatus. Then, in 2019, in celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial, its 150th anniversary, the Christmas Capers was revived with the help of Rankin, Debbie Overcash, president of the Madison Station Historical Preservation Society, and Doc Hughes’ grandsons, Walt and Larry Anderson.
“The mayor appointed John Rankin and I as chairmen of the sesquicentennial committee, and we arranged different activities each month in 2019, and it culminated with the reenactment of the Christmas Capers,” Overcash recalled. “We went to area businesses, the airport, and we got prizes valuing a little over, the first year, $4,000.”
The sesquicentennial committee replaced the live chickens Hughes used to throw with twenty rubber chickens. Each rubber chicken has a number attached to its leg that corresponds to a gift bag full of goodies and gift certificates from local businesses. The first reenactment was such a success that the tradition was picked up by the Madison Station Historical Preservation Society and has continued for the last four years, even getting creative and going virtual to keep the tradition alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, Overcash said, “It’s not something we plan on walking away from. It’s grown every year. Main Street is just packed with people.”
Doc Hughes’ grandsons, who still own the Hughes drugstore building downtown, are also heavily involved in keeping their grandfather’s Christmas chicken toss alive.
“Walt and Larry, like I said are Doc Hughes’ grandsons, get on top of the drugstore, and they kind of warm the crowd up by throwing Moon Pies, and then they start throwing chickens, and when you catch a chicken you just go get in line and then you get your prize,” Overcash explained.
Though details about the chicken toss have changed in recent years, it has not failed to continue to bring the community together.
According to Overcash, “The area businesses are very, very generous to us.” Each year, local businesses including Huntsville Airport, Brocks Jewelers, Belk, and more, contribute thousands of dollars’ worth of prizes to the capers. “The businesses are always very supportive of it,” Overcash said.
Hot chocolate is served up for crowds by the Rotary Club and festive, live Christmas music is supplied by the Madison City Community Orchestra. Downtown merchants are open for last-minute Christmas shopping, and Main Street is closed off for the hopeful crowds to fill the street and catch the flying rubber chickens.