THERE ARE SOME STRANGE FOLKS THAT ARE OUT AND ABOUT ON CHRISTMAS EVE NIGHT. THESE MERRY PRANKSTERS ARE SOMEWHERE IN AUSTRIA, I THINK. WHEN I WENT "SERENADING" IN A DARK COVE IN MACON COUNTY CIRCA 1950, I GUESS WE LOOKED PRETTY STRANGE, TOO.
Sometime back in the early 80’s when I as teaching an elderhostel in Tiger, Georgia, I read an editorial in the local newspaper about the banning of “ Christmas serenading” in Rabun County. Although the editor regretted the passing of “an honored tradition,” he noted that the law enforcement agents for the county had made a wise decision. He went on to say that in recent years, the “serenaders” had become increasingly reckless, and cited examples that involved “unlawful use of fire arms” and vandalism.
I guess it is obvious that serenading has nothing in common with traditional Christmas caroling. Certainly, the practice of singing of “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” outside your neighbor’s home on Christmas Eve is not commonly considered “a disturbance of the peace.” Like Bob Dylan’s song says, “The times, they are a-changing.”
As a child, I often accompanied my grandfather to my great grandmother’s home in the Cowee community of Macon County. Going to Aunt Nancy’s was like a journey into the past. My grandfather and I always slept in a feather bed in an attic filled with tin-types,spinning wheels and quilts. On one memorable Christmas Eve, I not only witnessed a serenading, I participated in it.
In the company of my cousins (Lyndon and Fred), Aunt Irene and a collection of relatives (Daltons and Gibsons), we assembled on Aunt Nancy’s porch a little before midnight. I was given one of Cousin Irene’s dresses to wear (in serenading, the males dress like women and the women dress like men) and everybody put soot on their faces. Lyndon and Fred carried a washtub and a hammer. Uncle Pratt carried a shotgun. Cousin Irene led the way with a lantern and we walked along a dark road to a neighbor’s house, the Hasketts. On a signal from Uncle Pratt, who fired the shotgun, we screamed like banshees while Lyndon and Fred beat the washtub. We kept it up until the lights came on in the house.
Later, it occurred to me that the Hasketts woke up, dressed and filed out on the porch in record time. I finally decided that they were not in bed at all. In fact, they had been sitting in the dark waiting for us. They laughed at our costumes and then invited us in the house for stack cake and hot apple cider (which had been prepared in advance). Then, we all went up on the ridge above the Hasketts house and burned a big brush pile which had already been soaked in coal oil. It lit up the whole holler and I could see other fires on other ridges around us.
The next day I told Cousin Irene my suspicions. She reluctantly admitted that I was right and confessed that she had told the Haskett’s to expect us “around midnight.”
“Why did we do it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it has been going on for a long time.”
“Why the soot and the clothes?” She didn’t know but said that great grandmother, Nancy used to serenade, too.
“Stop asking so many questions, Gary Neil. You had fun, didn’t you?”
I had to admit that I did.
It was many years later when I was teaching in a little mountain college that I finally found a partial answer to why we behaved in such a strange manner that night in Cowee. In a collection of Irish and Scottish folklore called The Silver Bough by F. Marian McNeill, I read about an ancient belief concerning the sun and “the shortest day of the year” (December 21st) In the latter part of December, according to Scot/Irish tradition, the old folks believed that the “sun’s wheel” actually stopped. Each time this happened, it was necessary to perform a ritual that would make the wheel turn again. It was then that villagers would smear their faces with soot and march from house to house making a tremendous noise with drums and bells. Beacon fires burned on the mountain tops, tar barrels were lighted in the streets in the belief that if the noise and light were great enough, the sun’s frozen wheel would turn again and spring would come.
According to Abramson and Haskell (Encyclopedia of Appalachia), variations of serenading persisted in many mountain communities well into the 1990’s. An account of a recent New Year’s Day celebration in Lewisburg, West Virginia is described as a large parade that involved “...marching through town, banging on pots and pans, using a variety of noise makers and cross-dressing or wearing other masquerades in a traditional practice of inverting the normal social order.”
The Silver Bough didn’t solve all of the mysteries. The significance of the soot and the origin of the reversal of roles for men and women came later in an English tradition called “The Lord of Misrule.” However, If you add a few old Scottish and Irish superstitions, the reason for the ritual becomes clear. I suddenly realized that my night of “Serenading” in Cowee was an unwitting attempt to bring the new year. I find it wonderful and strange that such a thousand-year-old ritual could be transplanted to western North Carolina and a cold winter night in Cowee (circa 1950).