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A mountain family Christmas

Many a mountain child has been made to feel richer than a king when on a cold Christmas Eve night he or she climbed the ladder to the attic room and sank in an old feather bed so deep that the howling wind outside seemed miles away.

No part of the old mountain cabin is recalled with more nostalgia than the home-crafted beds with their soft goose down mattresses, outing sheets and heavy quilts with intricate designs, usually made by a grandmother’s hand.

Visions of all the good things of Christmas surely danced in their heads as they fell asleep between strong log walls.

At the crack of dawn waking children climbed up through the feathers and onto the cold board floors, and down to where the warm fireplace waited. In a 20 by 30 foot space many large families celebrated Christmases that produced memories that would last for a lifetime.

Many times snow was piled high against the cabin door by late December, and a lot of living was done in the happy hours of Christmas in the warmth of family togetherness. While material gifts were few, old Santa Claus always made his rounds.

If there was a tree, it was one brought in from the surrounding forest, and it was trimmed with garlands of popcorn and cotton balls. Candles might be clipped to the ends of the tree’s limbs, and on the magic morning after the departure of Santa and the awakening of the old folks by the children, the candles were lighted for the first and only time during Christmas. Gifts were mostly those handcrafted by neighbors and family members, while Santa left hard candy and fruit.

Corn husk dolls and homemade games, whirligigs, knitted gloves and sweaters, quilts, and games were passed among family members. Cakes and pies made from homegrown fruits and nuts waited in the pie safe for the Christmas dinner.

As the day wore on the older folks would read from the family Bible or tell the children stories of Christmases past. If they were grandparents they might have told about rough winters they had experienced when they had to walk through miles of drifting snow to get to school, or of winters so rough that the snow would lay on from December until March, confining families within the cabin walls for weeks at a time.

A fat turkey or a deer roast, or a fresh ham was prepared ahead of time and by night time the family was full of food and good fellowship. After the evening chores there would be singing of carols around the roaring fireplace to the accompaniment of the guitar, banjo or fiddle. Children would shell popcorn from the cob and pop it over the open fire, and probably use this time to peel the oranges that Santa had left.

With all the good things of the day heaped on their hearts, children returned to their attic beds, lulled to sleep by the occasional cracking of the Yule log, and all the pleasant aromas of Christmas.

I never lived in a log cabin, but this is my idea of how a typical mountain family enjoyed Christmas at about the turn of the century in the Appalachian section of Virginia.

Happily we are getting a hint of what those old Christmas seasons were like. The return of wood stoves and fireplaces are warming Christmas hearths again and families are once again gathering around the fireplace to create experiences that will be the seed for pleasant Christmas memories to come.

People might even learn to enjoy the extreme pleasure that can be derived from popping corn over an open fire. After all, what has done more to make this people what we are than the warm hearthstone. May yours be warm, as well as your heart, during this holiday season.

One Response to A mountain family Christmas

  1. Charlotte Albert

    January 7, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Mr Mathews you are right on spot with your description of a country Christmas. My mother, age 91, grew up in New River. I sent her your story which she thoroughly enjoyed. She remembers her father cutting down a spruce tree from the yard and they decorated it with cotton balls and paper ring chains. She didn’t always get a present from Santa but looked forward to the stocking that was always left for her. It was a thrill to get hard candy and an orange. If you got an orange “you thought you’d died and gone to heaven.” The freshly slaughtered hog would yield a pork roast or ham for the day’s dinner. Thanks for a wonderful story.