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Popular Christmas folklore in Appalachia

7 min read

It’s really hard to imagine a Christmas season without baked goods.
Holiday cookies, cakes, delicious breads, and a variety of other well-loved treats are at the heart of a never ending number of traditions all over the world.
Traditionally, a plate of festive indulgences is sure to inspire delight and happiness, and rarely do we associate health and healing with such treats.
However, in the North American region of Appalachia, it was once believed that any sweets baked on Christmas Day held the power to prevent and heal a variety of illness.

The culture of the Appalachian region, which stretches over 13 Eastern states, is particularly influent in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
History suggests that more than 90% of the area’s first European settlers originated from northern England, southern Scotland, and parts of Ireland during the latter half of the 18th century, and they brought their Christmas traditions to the new world, right along with their hammer dulcimers and their scotch whiskey. In later years, Swedish, Finnish, German, and Welsh pioneers would arrive and, with them, also cultural practices and beliefs deeply rooted in Christianity.
Some of these traditions are popular still today though no one really remembers just how and where they all got started, while some have vanished over the centuries.
For 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.

The mountainous, rural territory is made for challenging living conditions and laborious work and, with so few resources available, settlers grew skilled at growing, foraging, and preserving food as, for most of the year, fresh ingredients were either unavailable or too expensive. So for obvious reasons, between malnutrition, dangerous working environments, and lack of adequate medical care, the threat of illness was ever-present.
Religion and prayers were a primary source of hope, and Christmastime was a respite from the ongoing hardships of daily life, which were only made more difficult by the harsh mid-winter weather.
As a result folks welcomed any reason to believe they’d see easier days in the coming year and by the 19th century an array of rituals and superstitions had come to be associated with Christmas, the majority of which were in the interest of good health and prosperity.
One of the most popular was the belief that anything baked on Christmas Day carried the ability to heal and prevent illness.
For this reason, some families would bake extra cakes and loaves of bread, and preserve them to be eaten throughout the following months of the year.
Like most folk beliefs, the origins of this practice are a mystery.
However, history suggests that it dates back many centuries ago, to when “Old Christmas”, which falls on January 6, was still a common day of celebration.
The expression “Old Christmas” perhaps conjures a sense of Christmases past or something out of Victorian England. But, actually, it is a term for a tradition which is now, indeed, of Christmas past: that is, the Appalachian custom of celebrating “Old Christmas” on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany.
This was entirely for calendar reasons, but soon became its own custom after December 25 was considered “New Christmas”.
In short, in 1752 the British Parliament voted to change the Julian calendar, from Julius Caesar’s reign in 45 BC, to the Gregorian calendar used in certain Catholic countries. And this is the calendar we still use today. However, the Julian calendar added too many leap days which, by the 1700s, was eleven days behind the sun. Thus, in Britain and the American colonies, September 2 became September 14 overnight with the time adjustment.
As realted to Appalachia, when the Scots-Irish immigrated here, they were either too isolaret after bringing the custom with them, to know of the chanfe, or just didn’t want to adapt.
Thus, “Old Christmas” was widely celebrated in deepest Appalachia by the 1800s and in some parts even into this century.

Some of the most common sweets prepared on Old Christmas were fruitcake, apple stack cake, mincemeat pie, and gingerbread, all recipes that brought over by the Anglo-Scottish settlers and adapted over time based on availability of ingredients.

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.
Fruitcake prepared in the traditional Appalachian way is absolutely different from the popular candied loaves that appear today in every grocery stores, even though whether it’s any more edible is up for debate.
The word “fruitcake” in Appalachia meant many different things, depending on the region and one’s family recipes. For many, it was an extremely dense, chewy mixture of foraged nuts, dried fruits, and preserves, which after baking was heavily soaked in whiskey, brandy, or other spirit.

Apple stack cake was basically the quintessentially of Appalachian desserts, made from sorghum-sweetened, pancake-like layers spread with spiced dried apple preserves, whose slightly derogatory term was “Poor man’s fruitcake”. And the reason is simple because, as with most regional recipes, these treats were popularized for their use of low-cost, preservable ingredients.

Often these desserts were washed with rum or sweet cherry once a week to preserve it, and eating a slice alongside a cup of tea with honey was especially good also for a common cold.

But, believe it or not, these beliefs aren’t entirely unfounded, as the spices used in holiday recipes, such as dried ground ginger root, cinnamon, and cloves, do have really some medicinal properties.
For example, ginger is known to calm nausea and digestive issues, cinnamon is a proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory with the ability to lower blood sugar levels, and cloves it seems were used to treat gout as well as antiseptic.
Also the various alcohols used to preserve these holiday treats could have contributed to their presumed healing properties: traditional Appalachian remedies cite whiskey and moonshine as curatives to a range of bodily woes, including arthritis, asthma, common colds and congestion.
However, the small quantities used in Christmas baking (and not only) are unlikely enough to treat any medical ailment.

But probably more significant than the ingredients was the day on which they were prepared, as numerous Christmastime folk legends centered on health and prosperity correlate with the reputed healing powers of the day.
Christmas brought all sorts of luck as long as you were looking for it, and a common practice in Appalachia on Christmas Day, was that neighbors would visit each other’s homes and eat slices of cake or other sweets. A dozen visitors into one’s home, a clear reference to the 12 apostles, promised a year of good luck for the household.
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.
Also 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, while putting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve was about as traditional as Bailey’s Irish Cream for Irish settlers.
And 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 bag of sugar, so that mincemeat pie victims had to be sure to ask Santa for some larger clothing.

Influent were also customs and strange traditions coming from settlers from Wales: 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 any partner, as women stayed home to bake bread, make taffy, and play divining games.
Well…in these more enlightened times, women and children who still follow this tradition, now go with the men to crow with the cocks.
Mari Lwyd, the “grey mare,” was a decorated horse’s skull, while 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 don’t forget a fire extinguisher.
In fact, the fire extinguisher is highly underrated as an essential holiday gift selection….

In any case, the holiday treats surely served to lift the spirits of those who baked and enjoyed them and, if eaten on Christmas day, they were a means to share feelings of hope and wellbeing with loved ones, and when preserved and eaten months later, they were a reminder of the most joyous days of the year.
Even though this Appalachian belief may have dwindled in modern times, enjoy an extra piece of cake this Christmas, for luck and good health in the coming year!

Images from web – Google Research