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Slow Return to Early Christmases

Looking Back with Mathews, originally printed Christmas 1979


In the early days in these Appalachian Mountains there were many small communities of people situated in the deep hollows that seemed to be funnels for all of the winter wind, ice and snow. By Christmastime folks in isolated areas were snowed in, or trapped by bad roads, but from tales I’ve heard, this didn’t dampen their Christmas spirit, and they always enjoyed a good old mountain Christmas. There were always good supplies of hickory nuts, walnuts and chestnuts, and with a roaring fire in the fireplace, both young and old enjoyed popping corn over the open flames.

Usually the neighborhood union church would have a program for the children, with younguns getting their first opportunity to perform by giving a recitation before an audience of proud parents, grandparents and other family members. Santa Claus and sometimes Mrs. Claus would find their way to the rear of the church, and while amazed bright-eyed children looked on, they would distribute gifts from beneath the giant church tree.

A news item on the front page of The Southwest Times of December 23, 1912 tells of a near tragedy at the Christmas tree at a church near Pulaski, stating “Santa Claus’ clothing caught fire at Oak chapel but blaze was extinguished so the old fellow will be able to make his usual rounds.”

Mountain cabins were usually decorated with a live pine or cedar tree cut from the surrounding forest, and trimmed with garlands of popcorn and balls of cotton. Candles were clipped to the ends of limbs, and on Christmas morning after the departure of Santa Claus, and the awakening of the household by anxious children, the candles were lighted for the first and only time during Christmas. Gifts were mostly those handcrafted by neighbors or family members.

The corner where the tree stood was piled high with quilts, whirligigs, goosedown pillows, corn husk dolls, knit gloves and sweaters, as well as all sorts of good things to eat and drink. Apple turnovers, pumpkin pies, fresh ham, cider and fruit cake awaited the arrival of Santa, who was always sure to come.

The older people would read from the family Bible, or tell the children the story of Christmas, and if they were grandparents they would likely tell about rough winters of the past, when they had to walk through miles of drifting snow to get to school. People’s needs were about the same as today, but their wants were not so great.

The oven of the old wood burning cook stove in the kitchen usually held a fat turkey, or a deer roast, or a big ham, timed to get done just in time for Christmas dinner. By nightfall on Christmas day the family would be full of food and good fellowship that would be remembered by the children for years. After the evening chores, there would be singing of carols to the accompaniment of the family dulcimer, banjo or fiddle. Sometimes children popped corn over the open flame, and sometimes they would peel and eat the yearly orange received as a treat at church. With all of the good things of the day dancing in their heads children retired in the comforting depth of feather beds, lulled to sleep by the occasional cracking of the Yule log, and all of the pleasant aromas of Christmas.

Happily we are getting back to a hint of what those old Christmas seasons were like. The return of wood stoves and fireplaces are warming Christmas hearths again this year. The fuel shortage and the high price of gasoline will surely force families to once again gather around the hearths and create experiences that will be the seed for pleasant memories in years to come. People may even learn to enjoy the extreme pleasure that can be derived from popping corn over the 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 in this holiday season.



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