Tuesday, November 24, 2009



Since my grandparents were Scot-Irish and products of a farming culture that was saturated with folklore, old traditions and colorful superstition, my childhood was different from that of my classmates at Sylva Elementary. I was raised in a house where people talked about black Irish curses, prophetic dreams and folk medicine. As a consequence, I experienced a culture that was remarkably different from the one that I encountered at school. I drank boneset tea for the croup, wore an “asafetida bag” in the winter and helped my grandfather treat our cow for the “holler-tail” (an ailment that causes a cow to stop giving milk) by splitting her tale with a knife and pouring epson’s salt in the wound. It worked.

When my grandparents visited their kinfolks (my grandfather’s “people” in Macon County and my grandmother’s relatives in Big Ridge, Jackson County), I saw, heard and experienced a world that was already vanishing: family reunions, all-night “sings,” baptizings, hog killings and epic canning events - a kind of life style that my playmates at school knew nothing about. This was especially true of the Christmas season.

The first time I heard of “first-footers” was in Big Ridge. I was told by some elderly Pruitts that Christmas Day could be dangerous. This was especially true of the first visitors to your home on New Year's Day. The first person who set foot across your threshold would determine the kind of life you had for the rest of the year. Red-headed people (especially women) must be avoided at all cost since their visit would bring a year filled with discord and bad luck. However, dark-haired visitors would bring happiness and prosperity.

I guess it stands to reason that if so much depends on red-headed or brunette visitor, the best thing to do is to “hedge your bets.” My relatives in Big Ridge always invited several dark-haired friends to an early breakfast. It didn’t matter how many red-heads showed up after the first-footer had come and gone, the future was now assured. You would have good crops, healthy children and domestic bliss. I was told once that this practice probably dated to some ancient, forgotten war in Ireland or Scotland when the red-headed invaders conquered the dark-haired inhabitants and made life miserable for everyone in that region.

I heard references to “dumb suppers” for years before I finally encountered a detailed account of one from an old fellow in Avery County. Essentially, it is a ritual (the baking of a small cake of cornbread) carried out on New Year’s Eve by young women (usually four in number), and as the name suggests, it is conducted silently. In addition, the participants prepare and bake the bread while walking backwards. All of the ingredients are measured with teaspoons and the baking is concluded on the stroke of midnight. All of this is done in the belief that if the ritual is conducted correctly, the four young women will see the face of the man that they will marry.

In some versions, the husband-to-be’s face appears in the plate in which each young woman is eating her cake. In other versions, the specter of the husband appears in the room or knocks at the door. I once heard a version of a dumb supper in which the husband appeared, picked up the knife that the women had used to cut the cake into four pieces and vanished. Two years later, when one of the young women was married, she was subsequently stabbed by her husband. Of course, he used the knife that vanished at the dumb supper.

There is something a little eerie about many of the old Christmas/New Year’s Day rituals that deal with foretelling the future. Frequently, there is the suggestion that some knowledge is best left alone. Certainly, that is true of the old belief that the animals talk to each other at midnight on Christmas Eve. There are many stories about curious farmers who hide in the barn and wait for midnight only to learn that the animals talk to each other ....but any luckless human who hears them speak, runs the risk of hearing them discuss his impending death.

Obviously, many of these superstitions originated in old pagan beliefs that have been inadvertently woven into the fabric of Christmas and New Years. There are hundreds of them that are ancient tales about the Winter Solstice ..... the night in December when the two worlds (the real and the supernatural) are so close together that visitors cross the boundary and“strange events occur.”

I guess I should note that some accounts of dumb suppers are radically different from the one I have described. In Kentucky, there are three young women, not four. Further, the whole affair sounds more like a seance than a Christmas ritual.


  1. Fascinating! I'd heard of holler tail around here but not the dumb suppers of first footers.

  2. I think these legends are fascinating, too. Until I read what you wrote, I hadn't realized how much of the Scots-Irish background of my father's parents influenced my childhood...the stinky poultices to ward off colds and other home remedies--such as the heated salt sock for soothing earaches that none of my classmates experienced. No wonder I grew up feeling I belonged only on the fringes of society. These are certainly thought provoking.

  3. Asafetida bags were foul concoctions. There were a lot of herbs chopped up and packed in the bag ...usually one of those little cloth sacks for smoking tobacco. I guess a staple was wild onions and garlic. When I did my practic-teaching at Cullowee High School, I remember a little mountain kid sitting in a class with an asafetida bag on, and he was surrounded by the children of college professors who looked on him with disdain. I felt a considerable amount of empathy for that kid.