Wednesday, November 25, 2009



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.


  1. I'm told that our local Freewill Baptist Church still does a Christmas play with mummers' element -- the Devil pulling a sick man out of bed.

  2. Gary, Absolutely fascinating!

    And, in my neck of the woods with both sides of the family very traditionally small-town (and holler-bred) fine Appalachians not one of those traditions is something I've witnessed!

    We still do "belling" though, but that is done on the honeymoon night of a couple. The neighbors bell them until they come out and serve up something to drink.

    Our family didn't pick up black-eyed peas until we moved to Florida for a while. But we always had some kind of pork and one of the side dishes would be boiled cabbage with money in it (don't do this now because the money isn't silver...we have old silver coins we save just for New Year's dinner). It's said to bring good fortune financially in the new year. My sister's husband poo-pooed the money in food thing. He said it was nasty. She didn't do it a few times and each time they had bad years. From there on, money and cabbage every single year.

  3. Such an interesting post Gary. Granny and her sister still see who can call the other first on Christmas morning to say Christmas Gift-and I always hear shotguns being fired around my community-neat to know how it started.

  4. I love the money and cabbage meal and wish that I had included it in the list. I did hear about "washing your money".....dimes, I think, and then using the water in cooking and to water plants, but then, as you mentioned, the money is now debased. There are other things that are really vague that had to do with apples, and hazel and juniper, but I just heard about them. Yeah, Tipper, the Cove where I live still honors the noise. Shotguns all night. I also remember "shooting the anvil," but I don't know enough about it to describe. I don't know if they used gunpowder or carbine.

  5. I meant to say "carbide" which I something I do know about. You put a little lump in a metal can with a stopper, spit on it and put the stopper back in. That was an impressive BANG when I was a kid.

  6. One difference I noted between your "cleaning day" and the way we did it further south was that our cleaning took place on New Year's Eve so as to get all the dirt out so things would be clean for the New Year. The implication was that your house would be the whole year what it was on New Year's Day, so it was a good idea for it to be as clean and fresh as possible. Also, Mama would NOT do her wash that day because it meant she'd be sick all year. One year she threw caution to the wind and was consequently sick the whole year. She never let that happen again!

  7. Yeah, I did a revision on that one this morning after I went back and read some accounts. I found it both ways (as I did for dumb suppers), but the New Years ritual definitely makes more sense. I looked up the Cherokee reference again and it said that they sometimes simply burned the house.

  8. Just found your blog.
    Love it...I will be following some of your reading suggestions...this area I now live in is rich in lore and history.

    I'm happy to have found someone with your skills to have done the "footwork" for me, directing me toward the reading I am interested in!
    Thank you!

  9. I used to shoot the anvil when I taught blacksmithing at Penland. You put one anvil upside down on the ground and fill the concave part of the base with about 1/2 pound of black powder. Put another anvil, right side up, on top of the charge with a fuse coming out between the two anvils. Light the fuse and run like hell! There's nothing like seeing a 150 pound anvil flying up about 20 feet in the air.

  10. Dave,
    I'll probably use your description of "shooting the anvil(s) in an additional article on old Appalachian Christmas traditions. I vaguely remember a John Parris article on the practice some 30 years ago.

    you are invited to my reception at City Lights this Friday, December 4th at 7:00. You will probably hear a lot about "lore and history."

  11. This is an excellent post. I just found your blog through Appalachian History. I think we have similar interests. My mother was English and it's been interesting to find some of her traditions being practiced in these mountains. Mincemeat, for example--my elderly neighbor taught me to make it. My mother made it from scratch when I was small, but later switched to store-bought. She never thought we'd be interested in making it, I guess. So my Appalachian neighbor showed me how.

  12. I guess in the interest of safety I should add a caveat about shooting an anvil. The blacksmiths associations have banned the practice since it is possible for shrapnel to come off the anvil not to mention getting hit with a 150 pound flying piece of metal.

  13. Gary my friend you are just "the master" of Appalachian history! This was just awesome !!! :)

  14. I love your chicken in the manger scene. Heard
    a story, read by the author on NPR, that revolved
    around the notion that God is a chicken... it came to the protagonist in a dream. I enjoyed
    everything you had to say about traditional Appalachian Christmas.

    john q

  15. Good Heavens! If God is a chicken, what does that make Tysons and Col. Sanders? Yes, I found that manger scene on Google.

  16. I don't think God is a chicken. But Colonel
    Sanders? Kind of looks the part.