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Legends and superstitions of Appalachian Christmas (and Old Christmas)

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Appalachian legends have been passed down from generation to generation.
Deep in the Appalachian mountains, a system of mountains in eastern to northeastern North America, many of these legends and superstitions are linked to the Christmas season.
According to some locals, no one does Christmas like people do there, as their traditions make make their Christmas seasons unique and unforgettable!

To start, in this spirit of this unique holiday season, I tell you the little-known story of “Old Christmas”, a centuries old Appalachian custom wherein Christmas was celebrated on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany.
Well, this was entirely for calendar reason, but soon became its own custom after December 25 was considered the “New Christmas”.
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.
By the 1800s, because the Julian calendar kept falling behind the Gregorian calendar, “Old Christmas” fell on January 6, which is coincidentally, on the church calendar, the Feast of Epiphany when the three wisemen visited Jesus.
About Appalachia, when the Scots-Irish immigrated here, they were either too isolated after bringing the custom with them, to know of the change, or just didn’t want to adapt themselves.
Thus, “Old Christmas” was widely celebrated in deepest Appalachia by the 1800s and, in some places, even into this century.
The new Christmas, on December 25, on the other hand, began twelve days of celebration, still practiced in Great Britain today and known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas” lasting through Epiphany.

Folklore claimed that the animals spoke at midnight on January 5, Old Christmas Eve, after the Holy Spirit came to earth and the elder bushes bloomed granting them that power.
One more obscure belief is that bees hum all night before January 6th and may even hum Psalm 100.
Some people insist that they hear the words!

Old Christmas day itself, January 6, became a non-work day for many, like a Sunday, with church-going and family time. Fresh game, preserved fruits, and baked goods were prepared in advance and shared. Mincemeat, made with fruit and game, was also popular and another custom brought from Great Britain.
However, like many mountain traditions in the modern age, most people have not heard about, or celebrate, Old Christmas.

In the late 1800’s, children began to write letters to Santa Claus, and then they would burn the letters in the fireplace so fairies could carry their message up the chimney to Santa.
In the old days, a stocking hung above the fireplace on the mantel and was often just a child’s largest daily-wear sock that awaited a treat or two from Santa. These socks or hand-sewn stockings were filled with oranges, an apple, walnuts (often from trees on the family farm), and rich-ingredient homemade treats.
Family and friends might go ice skating on a farm’s frozen pond, from where ice was also harvested and placed in the ice house for home use and for sale.
All of these festivities can still be seen in and around the mountain communities at Christmas.

Moreover, many farmers believed that the weather on Christmas Day forecasts the coming year: If Christmas Day is warm a cold Easter follows while, on the other hand, If Christmas is green a white Easter will happen. Lastly, a windy Christmas means a good season for crops.
Single girls who visit a hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve will discover the type of man that they will marry: If an old hog grunt first, she will marry an old man while, If a young pig grunts first, her husband will be young and handsome!

According to popular belief, any loaves of bread and cakes made on Christmas Day have healing abilities. Many would preserve these baked goods so they could be used to cure illnesses throughout the year.
Christmas Day visits to neighbors’ houses required the visitors to eat a piece of stack cake or mince pie to ensure good luck. Visits from twelve neighbors ensure good luck for the whole year.
Hearing a cat meow on Christmas Day causes evil spirits to visit you throughout the new year.

Decoration was simple and relied upon natural plants that grew in the mountains: holly, berries, evergreens, and pinecones, or even sycamore seeds wrapped in foil liners, and mistletoe shot down from high branches.
Christmas trees were generally cedar and strewn with cut-out paper decorations, yarn dolls, or cookies.
Gifts were handmade toys, warm knitted garments for winter, or other useful and homemade things.

Several accounts speak of an Irish tradition that placed a lighted candle in a window on Christmas Eve to welcome Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to have their baby and take shelter. This welcoming spirit, and custom, lingers today in homes across the South and around the country during the holiday season.

In any case, many Appalachian traditions can be traced back to the Scot-Irish pioneers who settled the mountain landscape.
In the past, young people would celebrate Christmas by loudly participating in activities like setting bonfires and going serenading, which involved shooting guns and firecrackers as well as singing, all to ward off evil spirits.
Scottish settlers also brought fruitcake to the Appalachian region, traditionally made of fruits, nuts, and Scottish whiskey.
Fruitcake is still often made and given as a gift throughout Appalachia!

May our days be merry and blessed and our new year bright!

Images from web – Google Research

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