Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas treeWhile I suppose we were relatively modern when it came to my childhood Christmases, the old-timey traditions are still hanging on in the mountains. And there are some I very much think we should revive for broader use. Here are a few of my favorite Appalachian Christmas traditions:

VISITING – My 85-year-old cousin and I were lamenting the fact that no one visits anymore. It was customary throughout the year, but especially on Christmas day. The idea was to simply get out and see your neighbors. In my experience, the older folks stayed at home awaiting company while the younger ones did the traveling. You didn’t stay long, but there were refreshments–fruitcake, cider, cookies–and it was bad luck not to partake lest you spoil the Christmas Spirit.

CHRISTMAS GIFT – If you go a bit further back, there was a tradition of carrying small gift items like candies in your pockets as you went visiting. If you met another visitor the first one to say, “Christmas Gift,” would win a gift from the other.

DECORATIONS – There was plenty of greenery to be had–pine, holly, or even bittersweet–and it was simple enough to cut a tree. Decorating the tree was another matter. Common decorations included popcorn strings, paper chains, seed pods wrapped in the foil from chewing gum wrappers, gingerbread cookies, and scraps of bright fabric.

SERENADIN’ – No, not caroling. The idea was to gather as many noise-making items as you could lay your hands on–cowbells, shotguns, pots and pans, etc. A group of serenaders would then sneak up on a neighbor’s house after bedtime and commence to making as much racket as possible. The neighbor would light a candle or two and invite the seranaders in for refreshments. If the neighbor heard the group before they got started, he’d fire off a shotgun to let them know they’d been “caught.” And then he’d invite them in for cider anyway!

A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW – This had a couple of meanings. First, it was a welcome for visitors or even strangers–light for the path and warmth for the feet. Second, it indicated that the Holy Family would be welcome and wouldn’t have to sleep in the stable.

TALKING ANIMALS – Okay, so this is just superstition. I think. The idea is that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals can talk. I actually worked this one into The Sound of Rain with Judd remembering a time he and his brother Joe snuck out to the barn in hopes of chatting with the family’s livestock.

So if you see me next Tuesday, watch out. When I holler “Christmas gift,” I’ll be expecting a little something. And in turn, I’ll be sure to tell you what Thistle had to say at midnight the night before.

Appalachian Thursday – Funerals

GE DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve attended several funerals lately and it got me thinking about how much a part of growing up in Appalachia funerals have always been. As a child I often went with my parents to funerals. Shoot, everyone went. It’s just what you did.

The two things I remember most were open caskets and all that food. It was rare to go to a funeral where the deceased wasn’t on display. Everyone passed by the casket. The family would be stationed at the head so friends could offer condolences and hugs. Someone would inevitably say, “Don’t she/he look natural.” (My grandmother put considerable thought into what she would wear for burial.) Then, after the funeral, everyone would go back to the family’s home where there would be a ridiculous amount of really good food supplied by the community.

And, of course, there were quite a few superstitions associated with death. I didn’t necessarily see these things, but I certainly heard about some of them. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

  • When someone died, you stopped the clocks to mark the time and prevent another death.
  • Deaths come in threes. If two people died reasonably close together, someone would always predict a third. I always found this a wee bit unnerving.
  • If you hear a screech owl at dusk, someone will die. I still feel a jolt when I’m hiking in the evening and hear an owl hoot.
  • It’s bad luck to walk across graves. We helped mow the church cemetery when I was growing up. This one worried me.
  • Pregnant women aren’t supposed to look at a corpse lest their child be “marked.”
  • Setting an empty rocking chair in motion signifies death. This one feels like a lovely metaphor more than a superstition.
  • And my favorite–bees carry the news of death.

All in all, these customs and traditions made death pretty approachable for me. And, as the people I care about get older (as do I!), I find myself grateful for growing up in a place where death was very much part and parcel of life.