APPALACHIAN CHRISTMAS: TRADITIONS, FOLKWAYS AND SUPERSTITIONS
Out of the last 35 years of teaching a course called “Foxfire Christmas,” I have selected a few interesting rituals and beliefs that are vanishing. No doubt, some of the items are of pagan origin while others are a product of Appalachian culture.
“Old Christmas”: This is the name applied to January 6 which is the final day of the “twelve days of Christmas (December 25 - January 6”). This time period not only represents the day of Epiphany, but acknowledges the Julian calendar as the true record of Christ’s birth. Since the Julian calendar was still observed in England at the time when many settlers came to the mountains, they have continued to consider the later date as accurate. Consequently, many Appalachian communities spent the twelve days (and nights) going to different homes for music and merrymaking. A few still do!
Mummer’s plays: One hundred years ago, many Appalachian communities enacted a kind of mummer’s play that “traveled” from house to house. The play had about six stock characters: a Knight, a Physician, Satan, Death, etc. The actors were in disguise and dressed appropriately. Each read their speech and the action consisted of the Knight being fatally wounded, but revived by the Physician. The purpose and meaning of the “drama” is unknown. The last time I read about a performance was some 20 years ago down in Cherryville. Some historians think that these plays are pagan in origin and represent the death of winter and the rebirth of spring.
House Cleansing: This ritual has the best results if performed on New Year’s Day. The preferred weather is “cold and windy.” All of the windows in the house are raised and all the doors are opened for the entire day. The purpose of the cleansing is to allow the cold wind to carry away all of the accumulated ills of the past year thereby allowing the family to begin a new year with a purged house. At one time, the Cherokees had a similar ritual.
“Going Home” Tradition: Although this tradition is probably universal, Appalachian natives are especially prone to “go home for the holidays.” Thanks in large part to Scottish and Irish folklore, many mountain natives believe (or once did) that the dead return home at Christmas. This belief has nothing to do with the current attitude towards the returning dead. In fact, at one time, many Scot-Irish natives of Appalachia actually prepared a plate at the table for deceased mothers and fathers.
Christmas Gift! (A Game): I participated in this game as a child. The whole purpose was to sneak up on one of your friends on Christmas Day, tag him with your hand and yell “Christmas Gift.” If he didn’t see you, he was obligated to give you something ( a nickel, a pencil, a marble, etc.)
The Humming Bees: In conjunction with the animals speaking at midnight on Christmas Eve, there is the belief that hives of bees hum the 100th psalm on Christmas Eve night. (I’ve never heard it so I don’t know if they hum “the words” or not!)
Blooming Elder Bushes: I suspect that this is the Appalachian version of another miraculous bloom on Christmas Eve (midnight), the Glastonbury Thorn in England. (based on a marvelous myth about Joseph of Arimathea's walking stick). Allegedly, the hawthorns around Glastonbury burst into bloom on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Christ. Appalachia’s elder bushes are supposed to do the same thing except their blooms may occur at any time during the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Bells, Guns and Fires: Much in the spirit of ancient traditions which lighted fires and created loud noises with bells, in order to frighten away evil spirits, Appalachia still raises a rumpus on Christmas Day. It is strange to think that the firecrackers and shotguns of today are direct descendants of the whistles, drums and bells of the past that endeavored to make the sun’s “wheel” turn again.
Storytelling: As a child, I was puzzled by the practice of telling stories on Christmas Eve - especially since many of the stories were scary and might have been more appropriate during Halloween. I was wrong. The telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve is an honored tradition in Appalachia. (There was one “hair-raiser” called “Mr. Fox” which was sort of an Appalachian version of “Bluebeard” that was a favorite.)
Shuckie Beans and Baked Bread: This was the traditional food for Christmas, and the baked bread was often “flavored” with a sprinkling of ashes from the fireplace. On New Year’s Day, the traditional food is still black-eyed beans and hog jowl.