Popular Christmas Traditions in Appalachia
Early Appalachian Customs
As children, my parents both lived in parts of Ohio that are in America's Appalachian Region: Eastern Ohio farmland in Guernsey County and Southern Ohio mining country in Athens County.
The two children that would become my parents were a bit separated by age and a little further separated by heritage, but both were familiar with similar Appalachian traditions for Christmas and New Year's throughout The Great Depression, World War II, and the Baby Boom Era. I was lucky enough to see some of these in the 1960s.
Christmas in the Mountains
Today, a mountain Christmas is a much-celebrated tourist attraction in many of America's eastern states. Perhaps the most prominent related festivities are in parks such as Colonial Williamsburg and Dollywood.
Southern Ohio and Kentucky celebrations begin after Thanksgiving and last until the first of the new year or even January 6, often called Old Christmas. Communities offer festivals, excursion train visits into rural areas, specialized gift markets, and plenty of good homemade foods.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee is one of the organizations that offers special tourist events that local residents also enjoy. The facilities have a thorough rendering of an old-time holiday, complete with an evergreen tree decorated in popcorn, paper chains, fruits, and other natural ornaments that my parents knew.
- From the Civil War through WWII, it was often a tradition to sew homemade hard candies into small packets of muslin to hang on the holiday tree and distribute later as presents.
- Hand-blown glass ornaments were also used, as well as small quilted ornaments and even newly knitted mittens.
- During the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 through January 6) often celebrated by the Irish-Scots descendants in and around the Appalachian Mountains, sewing materials were gathered in preparation for making new pillow cases on New Year's Day. This was particularly an Irish tradition and was felt to bring good luck and prosperity in the upcoming year, especially if one sewed a few coins—even a penny—into the wide area of the opening to the case. Some years, I still do this myself!
- In the old days, a stocking hung above the fireplace on the mantel and was often just a child's largest daily-wear sock that awaited a treat or two from Santa. These socks or hand-sewn stockings were filled with oranges, an apple (Johnny Appleseed is famous hereabouts), walnuts (often from trees on the family farm), and rich-ingredient homemade treats.
- Family and friends might go ice skating on a farm's frozen pond, from where ice was also harvested and placed in the ice house for home use and for sale.
All of these festivities can still be seen in and around the mountain communities at Christmas.
- Special music has been played during the winter holidays in the mountain region in several states, and this music includes dulcimer, fiddle, and other instruments that produce tunes of Celtic original. A few videos of some of the most popular songs are added below.
- The legend of farm animals talking on Christmas Eve seems to have originated with Appalachian residents. I heard stories from older relatives about how they sneaked out to the barn on Christmas Eve at midnight to try to hear the animals.
- In the mountain areas of eastern and southern Ohio, homemade mincemeat pies that included real beef have been a tradition. This is based partly on the fact that these pies, and all of Christmas celebrations, were banned by Puritan leaders in the Thirteen Colonies for a time as being "too frivolous" and "too Catholic." Today, some celebrants say that eating a slice of this pie is good luck.
- The coal mining towns in Southern Ohio and Kentucky often held community celebrations where each child, no matter how poor, received a present. My great uncle was a child at such a festivity until he became a miner himself. Community festivals for the holiday are still found in the region, especially in West Virginia where short train excursions are held through snow-covered mountains.
- One more obscure belief is that bees hum all night before January 6th and may even hum Psalm 100. Some people insist that they hear the words!
The Bee's Psalm 100
From The Message Bible:
1-2 On your feet now—applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter, sing yourselves into his presence.
3 Know this: God is God, and God, God. He made us; we didn’t make him. We’re his people, his well-tended sheep.
4 Enter with the password: “Thank you!” Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him.
5 For God is sheer beauty, all-generous in love, loyal always and ever.
"Breaking up Christmas"
The video below includes the English concertina and hammered dulcimer used in performing "Breaking up Christmas", which is played when going door to door to greet neighbors between December 25 and January 6. This breaks the holiday into 12 parts for extended joy.
The rolling hills of Antrim mentioned in the video include both the Antrim of ancestral Ireland and that in eastern Ohio.
This is one of my favorite albums, featuring the United States Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants. "I Wonder As I Wander" is one of the best carols, one I never heard until I visited an Appalachian church. Each year brings a renewed love for the songs in this collection and I enjoy sharing them with friends.
Traditional Eastern Mountain Area Trees
From the early 1700s in Eastern Ohio, my family who was traced to the Tyrrells of Virginia used live evergreen trees at Christmas and planted them afterward, around January 2nd. My own father planted trees at least eight years in a row before he ran out of room!
The non-Native American portion on my mother's side always had at least a small holiday tree, because at least one ancestor was a German who had these trees all his life. Ornaments were usually made from nature and included pine cones, popcorn, corn shuck figures, and others.
Holiday Evergreen Trees
Historically, Ohioans in Appalachia were fortunate to be able to dig evergreen trees from their own farms and forested lands for use inside the house. If they had no evergreens, neighboring farms would often let those families come over and choose a tree, perhaps in exchange for some baked goods and canned jams and jellies.
Some Ohioans undoubtedly still hold these traditions, but the big tree farms that have become a kind of amusement park as well as a tree outlet have made it attractive to go and purchase a cut tree while the kids in the family enjoy the rides and treats.
One farm located in Southern Ohio operates a Christmas Express on December weekend evenings that includes a real train ride, hot chocolate on board (remember the animated Polar Express), and traditional ice skating at the end of the line. A hundred years ago, Southern Ohio families took the train to visit relatives at Christmastime and to see the gorgeous hills and trees covered and snow. These train rides today bring back those opportunities.
Best Trees in the Ohio Foothills
What kind of fir trees do we grow in the foothills of the mountain range? Several kinds thrive here, and I recall in elementary school when we kids helped a small local tree farm by purchasing "stock certificates" for a nickel or a dime. Our school was two blocks from the tree farm's Oakland Nursery, where children and teachers purchased a tree for each classroom every year.
Today, Oakland Nursery operates several large outlets in two counties and runs a Christmas Trolley to celebrate 1940, when they opened their first store near my school. They always offer natural decorations for the trees and many made in Ohio.
Varieties of holiday trees grown in Ohio that we use most often include spruces and pines:
- Spruces: Norway, White, Blue, and Colorado Spruces
- Pines: Eastern White and Scotch Pines
At the Top of the Tree
A variety of objects might be placed at the top of a "mountain tree."
- My mother favored a Santa Claus doll.
- My father would sometimes use what his own mother preferred—the Star of Bethlehem.
Other decorated trees I have seen have been adorned at the top with the following:
- an angel
- a golden trumpet
- a figure of Jesus
- a large country church ornament
You might like to try some of the Appalachian traditions for your next Christmas!
- Appalachian Christmas Traditions, History, and Legends. Roadside Theater. roadside.org/asset/appalachian-christmas-traditions-history-and-legends Retrieved November 28, 2018.
- Family stories from 1870 - 1980, told by members of the Miller, Spicer, Whaley, Inglish, and English families.
- Why Early Appalachian Settlers Originally Celebrated Christmas in January. Appalachian Magazine; December 25, 2016. appalachianmagazine.com › History Retrieved November 28, 12018.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Patty Inglish MS