The Roots of Appalachian Christmas Traditions


The first European settlers in Appalachia brought their Christmas traditions to the new world, right along with their hammer dulcimers and their scotch whiskey, from the highlands of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales.
Some of these traditions have gone mainstream, modified and absorbed into generic go-to-the-mall holiday festivities. Some have vanished over the centuries. And some are still practiced in the most remote corners of Appalachia, though no one really remembers just how and where they all got started.
A lot of the old traditions have lapsed because they run a very real risk of overstepping the circumspect bounds of local, city and state ordinances.
Here is one prime example. An Old World favorite was to build a bonfire on a hilltop, a practice that was either supposed to summon the Druids or speed the return of the sun. If you decide to give this one a try, don’t forget the fire extinguisher. Come to think of it, those are words to live by for a lot of these holiday diversions.
“Serenadin’” was not at all what you’re thinking. Large unruly groups appeared at doorsteps on Christmas Eve and set up as much of a racket as humanly possible, ringing cow bells, banging on buckets, and shooting off guns. They were supposed to sneak up on a house and surprise it, but if the residents heard them first they fired off the first shot.
In either event, the miscreants were invited in for holiday treats and, where possible, further misconduct.
Anvil shooting also was raucous. The holes of an anvil were packed with gunpowder, another anvil was set on top, and when the powder was ignited the top anvil flew through the air, often high above the rooftops. A big boom went along with this, the ground shook and, best of all, there existed the very real possibility of permanent bodily injury and/or extensive property damage.
As anyone can tell you, loud noises drive off evil spirits. But for some reason they also attract representatives from the local precinct.

We have the Scots to blame for fruitcake. Originally called the Twelfth Night Cake, it became known as the Black Bun (no oven timers, evidently), and it was loaded down with three most essential ingredients: fruit, nuts, and whiskey.
Where the British served up a type of gruel for Christmas breakfast, the Scots were sufficiently creative to borrow the concept and add whiskey.
Divination was huge for the holidays and the family hearth held most of the signs and secrets. The new year could be predicted by examining the cold ashes the morning after the Christmas fire. A foot shape facing the door foretold a death in the family, and a foot facing the room meant a new arrival.
A piece of wood was carved to look like an old woman, and she was named Cailleach, the Spirit of Winter. She was burned in a ritual symbolizing the end of bad luck and a fresh start for the new year.
The Candlemass Bull was actually a cloud. If it floated eastward during Candlemass (February 2), it foretold a good year. A south-floating cloud meant a bad year for grain, and a westward drift was an omen of poverty.
You had to be careful of your First Footers. A fair-haired visitor passing through the door after midnight on New Years was bad news unless his name was Andrew, and a woman should not be the first to breach the threshold under any circumstances.
The First Footer made an offering or Handsel—either food, drink or fuel for the fire—and where it was an item to be laid on the fire, that had to be done with the words “A Good New Year to one and all and many may you see.”
If you have not done all these things in the past, that could very well explain the kind of luck you’ve had in the past.

Putting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve was about as traditional as Bailey’s Irish Cream. The symbolism was anything the family wanted it to be. It was a welcoming beacon to a stranger out after dark. It suggested both light to his path and warmth to his feet. It meant that the Holy Family would be welcome in this home, and wouldn’t have to go sleep in the stable.
This was well before the standard rules of hospitality were suspended and ultimately eliminated. Still, we’ve clung to the candles, or the little electric light imitations, while at the same time keeping our doors firmly locked.
It was the holiday custom to whitewash or limewash the outhouse. Zealots were known to scrub and polish the entire farm, even sweep the streets, as a purification for the coming of the Christ child.
Actually this custom by far predates the coming of the Christ child. In pre-Christian times it was feared that the deity Frigg might come around and inspect. Is it possible this was how we developed such an all-consuming desire to get the house so friggin’ clean for the holidays?

It was bad luck to refuse the gift of a mincemeat pie, and probably this meant you had to eat it too. The recipe calls for a full one-pound bag of sugar, so that mincemeat pie victims had to be sure to ask Father Christmas for some larger clothing.
Of course this character was also known as Santa, and the English continue to create very elaborate Santa Grottoes for the little tikes. Youngsters make their way past the inhabitants of a cave—elves and animatronic creatures and such—before reaching their reward, which will likely be a cheap plastic trinket.
For a proper British Christmas, be sure to put on music recorded in a cathedral and sung by a boy’s choir. And by all means, don’t forget the Holy Holly or Kissing Bough, a bunch of mixed evergreens tied up in a bow and embellished with small glass baubles and little gifts of chocolate or jewelry.
Just hang this creation over your favorite chair and have a seat. If that doesn’t work right away try a heavier hint, as in, “I’m waiting . . . .”

Just like a Welsh fairy tale, there are three main players here with absurd little names: Plygain, Mari Lwyd and Calenigg.
Plygain meant “cock crow” and it’s what they called the songs sung at dawn mass, traditionally by men and without accompaniment. The women stayed home to bake bread, make taffy, and play divining games. In these more enlightened times, women and children now go with the men to crow with the cocks.
Mari Lwyd, the “grey mare,” was a decorated horse’s skull. A stick was used to operate the mouth and the person operating the stick wore a long sheet to protect his identity. Moving in an entourage of costumed pranksters, the horse went door to door issuing challenges, often in verse. There was a lot of luck riding on this horse and you had to invite it in the house for refreshments if you couldn’t outwit it in the challenge and answer game.
Calenigg is an apple with three twig legs, splayed like a stool’s legs. It was decked out with almonds, raisins, ribbons and evergreens and had a small candle stuck in its top. Children carried these around when they went caroling and might sell them for small cakes or pennies. Their customers put them in the window, where the fruit and greenery dried and shriveled but stayed in the windowsill all year, the candle burning, because the luck lasted only as long as the Calenigg.
So let me reiterate: don’t forget the fire extinguisher. In fact, the fire extinguisher is highly underrated as a prime holiday gift selection.


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  1. Sal on November 13, 2018 at 10:19 am

    Does it start with ” Hands so soft within my own, roughened by the wood and stone , now to be my flesh and bone, aint this boy a wonder?

  2. George Phillips on December 23, 2017 at 8:03 am

    Hello! I am trying to research an old Appalachian Christmas carol that I heard many years ago. I think the name of the carol is, “Ain’t this boy a wonder”. Can you help?
    Thank you so much!

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