Hi there, everyone!
Today, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of holiday lore from the mountains, both the Ozarks and the Appalachians (to those readers wondering when I’ll start including the Rockies, I promise I’ll get there one day! I’m just woefully ignorant of the traditions from that area). There are a number of pieces of folklore associated with the winter holidays in the mountains. Often, storytelling and family visits were the primary entertainment in the financially poor but folklore-and-culturally-rich mountains once the cold weather set in. Christmas was not always celebrated, especially during the early years of settling, largely because many Protestants settling in the Appalachians viewed the holiday with suspicion and regarded it as a Catholic celebration. One source records that the penalty for observing Christmas during the Puritan era was a “fine of five shillings” (WG&S, p.28). Over time, however, as more people of mixed backgrounds settled the area, Christmas became a social holiday. Patrick Gainer records that holidays in the mountains included:
- Fireworks and noisemaking
- Very little decorating prior to the widespread introduction of electricity (most homes didn’t have a Christmas tree)
- School Christmas parties
- Costumed visits to friends and neighbors (called “Belsnickling”—more on that in a minute)
- Toys for children, though almost entirely homemade ones
The tradition of Belsnickling is particularly interesting. It seems to be a mumming tradition in the vein of similar British activities, but is really practiced by only the Germanic settlers in the Appalachians. It relates to the Belsnickle (whose name may come from pelz Nicholas, or “furry Nick”), a devilish traveling companion to good St. Nick during his holiday visits who would punish the wicked children in the same way that the saint rewarded the good ones. In some variations, it was not St. Nick who traveled with Belsnickle, but Kriss Kringle (likely a derivation from the Germanic kriskindl, or “Christ-child”). Gerald Milnes describes the practice thusly:
“To people in the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing the belsnicklers’ identities…Sometimes treats were offered to the belsnicklers, and sometimes belsnicklers offered treats to the household” (SC&W, p.186)
Milnes also offers a variety of pranks and tricks related to this practice:
- Candy would be thrown on the floor, and when children dove for it, they would have their fingers switched by the belsnicklers
- Bands of belsnicklers would wander through the countryside hooting and yelling all through the night
- People in costume would tap on the windows of houses and scare the children inside
- Firecrackers would be lit and thrown into people’s homes
He also relates this practice back to something deeply witchy—the Wild Hunt:
“Belsnickling and similar activities, as group practices, have obscure beginnings, but they may well go back to the old Teutonic concept of the wild hunt. In Scandinavian and German versions of this myth, a huntsman with dogs, accompanied by spirits, hunts the wild woman. In some versions, the huntsman, a lost soul, leads a band of wild spirits to overrun farms at Christmas time (the winter solstice)” (SC&W, p. 186).
Christmas Dinner in the Mountains
Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a feast in modern minds, but the table offerings were not quite the same for every family. Often, up in the mountains in the early-to-midwinter, the meal would consist on the wild meat that was available rather than anything domestically raised. In Foxfire 12, informant John Huron describes a most particular holiday meal:
“Groundhogs aren’t bad eatin’ either if you cook them right…baked and layered with onions and sweet potatoes. That was what Charlie’s daughter, Margaret, would fix him for Christmas dinner every year. They invited me and my wife, Sandy, and my son, Jay, over for Christmas dinner one time, and that’s what we had. A groundhog is a lot cleaner animal than a chicken. When you get right down to it, a chicken is a nasty critter” (FF12, p.248)
Signs and Omens on Christmas
There are a number of superstitions which have sprung up around the holiday season, too. Often, weather and luck are intimately tied to Christmas, though sometimes the date shifts a little between December 25th (“New” Christmas) and January 6th (“Old” Christmas). Some of the signs and omens from the Appalachians and Ozarks include:
- It will be a fruitful year if the eaves of the house drip on Christmas (SC&W)
- Children born on Christmas Day can understand the speech of animals (WG&S and OM&F)
- Being the first to say “Christmas Gift” to another on Christmas Day yielded good luck (WG&S)
- On Christmas Eve at midnight, all farm animals will bow down and speak to acknowledge Christ’s birth (SC&W and OM&F)
- Those with the “second sight” make predictions most accurately on Christmas Eve (IaGaM)
- “A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard” – warm weather at Christmas will lead to many deaths over the coming year (OM&F)
- On Old Christmas, the sun actually rises twice instead of just once (OM&F)
- Bees buzz so loudly on Old Christmas they can be heard for miles away (OM&F)
- Elderberries always sprout on Old Christmas, no matter what the weather (OM&F)
Even with its rather slow, Puritanical start, Christmas in the mountains has become one of the most magically charged times of the year. From eating groundhogs to playing rowdy pranks to witnessing the miraculous behavior of animals, this is certainly one of the most interesting times of the year. And, in my humble opinion, one of the most magical.
Thanks for reading!
One thought on “Blog Post 109 – Holidays in the Mountains”
Thing about the Puritans and Christmas wasn’t so much that Christmas was a Catholic holiday, but in the Calvinistic/Reformational theology of the Puritans, the only “holy day” is Sunday – the Christian Sabbath. The Puritans had sort of a blanket “no holidays” policy for this reason, considering all other holidays the inventions of man as opposed to what they felt was the only God-ordained holiday.
There’s an apocryphal story that the Episcopalians in the Massachusetts Bay Colony complained because they wanted Christmas Day off work, so the Puritans agreed under the condition that the Episcopalians would spend the day in religious pursuits (the way the Puritans did on Sunday). When the Episcopalians spent the day carousing, the Puritans put them back to work.
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