Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appalachian Christmas Traditions, History, and Legends


"Here in the mountains we had our own way of celebrating Christmas, but in recent years we’ve begun to lose some of our traditions.

Christmas in Central Appalachia, whether celebrated on December 25 or January 6, was a joyous occasion. Harvest was over, and folks sat back to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The smells of stack and applesauce cakes, fried apple and peach pies, pumpkin and mince pies, popcorn balls, and peanut butter and chocolate fudge greeted family and friends in a celebration not only of Christ’s birth but also of family, community, and self-sustenance.

The coming of railroads and coal camps brought significant changes to Christmas customs in the mountains. Christmas trees, rarely present in Appalachia because of their pagan influence, became a common sight. The previous tradition of calling for a Christmas gift, an opportunity for the poor to call upon more prosperous homes for help without the stigma of begging, was abandoned. Coal mining communities began having community Christmas trees and providing each child with a Christmas present. Families in these communities received packages of fruits, nuts, and candies well into the 1960s. Often the cost for these gifts were cut from the miners’ paychecks.

Other changes in the way Appalachians celebrated the holiday came with soldiers returning from World Wars I and II and from the public school system, which standardized Christmas traditions and paved the way to end of older individual family practices.

Christmas in central Appalachia is still celebrated in a variety of ways including some of the older activities such as shooting matches, games,Christmas pageants, and visits from neighbors and family. Legends and superstitions common to the mountains have been passed down from generation to generation, though many times their origins are forgotten. Still, mountain people have preserved the values of home and family through stories, songs, family gatherings, shared memories, and hope for the future.


Christmas is celebrated in many different ways in many different cultures. Rooted in Christian history and legend, Christmas also draws on customs established centuries before the birth of Christ. Festivals such as the Solstice or December’s Mid-Winter Festival held great religious significance for ancient cultures including the Egyptians, the Persians, the Druids, and the Romans.

Modern historians estimate the birth year of Jesus to have been between 7 and 2 BC, with the exact month and day unknown. By the early-to-mid-4thcentury, the Western Christian Church placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the East. The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity was January 6, in connection with Epiphany. The name Christmas comes from the Old English Cristesmeesse or Christ’s Mass.  Yuletide is taken from the Anglo-Saxon word Hioul.

Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations, who were later converted to Christianity.  These elements, including the Yule Log and gift giving became a part of Christmas over the centuries.  In colonial America the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas, considering it too connected to the Catholic Church, and banned it from 1659-1681 when the English governor revoked the ban.

The fir tree was introduced by Martin Luther as the Christmas tree in Germany around 1500 AD., and was brought to North America by Moravian settlers. Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, set up England’s first Christmas tree in Windsor Castle in 1841. The Christmas tree was popularized in America in 1842 by Dr. Charles Frederick Minnegrode of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. He decorated it with strings of popcorn, paper figures, gilded nuts, and colorful ribbons and paper. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in many parts of America.

A number of figures are associated with Christmas and the seasonal giving of gifts – Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch), and Santa Claus. The best known is derived from Nicholas, bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey during the 4thcentury.  He was noted for the care of children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. The modern day US Santa Claus began in New York, which was originally a Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam). Our current image of Santa as a round, jolly, old elf became standard after Clement Moore anonymously published “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”) in 1823.


Children born on January 6 are special and often develop powers for healing the sick.

Animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve as they did by the manger when Christ was born. They also talk during this time. However, it is bad luck to catch them speaking.

Water turns to wine at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is bad luck to taste it.

Trees and plants bloom on Christmas Eve. (This legend is probably derived from the English legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, a thorn bush grown from the staff of Joseph of Armethea who fled to England after Christ’s crucifixion.)

If you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Day you can hear angels sing. But, beware! If you hear them, you’ll be on your way to heaven before next Christmas.

Breads and cakes baked on Christmas Day have special healing virtues. Some folks preserved them for use in curing illness during the coming year.

Christmas Day visits to neighbors’ houses require eating a piece of stack cake or mince pie to insure good luck. Visits from twelve neighbors insure good luck for the whole year – and certainly bring a lot of people closer together.

It is bad luck for a cat to meow on Christmas Day. If it does, evil spirits will visit every day during the coming year.

Coals and ashes from the Christmas fire should never be thrown out that day, and no coal of fire or light should be given away. (The Druids believed that each individual coal represented the spirit of a dearly departed kinsman and that they protected the home during the Yule season.)

A crowing cock on Christmas Eve scares away evil spirits. Shooting off guns and fireworks also works.

Angels are so busy celebrating the birth of Christ that one hour before Christmas the gates of heaven are left unattended. Anyone passing over at this hour has a good chance of sneaking into heaven without having to give account.

To hear the chirp of a cricket on the hearth is a good luck omen for the coming year.

Eating an apple as the clock strikes midnight brings good health.

Single girls who visit the hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve can find out the kind of man they’ll marry. If an old hog grunts first, she will marry an old man. If a shoat grunts first, her husband will be young and handsome.

Christmas Day dawns an hour earlier than normal causing elder, poke, and other plants to bud and sprout. Then, the earth is again plunged into darkness and the plants wilt until spring.

Bees hum from dusk until dawn on Old Christmas (January 6). Some say they sing the hundredth Psalm, come out of the hive at midnight, and swarm as they do in summer.

Christmas Day weather forecasts the kind of weather we’ll have for the rest of the year: a warm Christmas foretells a cold Easter; a green Christmas, a white Easter; a windy Christmas means a good corn crop.

Christmas trees must never be removed before January 2; they must be down before January 6 or bad luck will follow. (Probably a result of past conflicts between Old and New Christmas.)"

“Appalachian Christmas Traditions, History, and Legends.” April 30, 2014.

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