Christmas Traditions in Appalachia
Appalachian Traditions of the 1700s
As children, my parents both lived in parts of Ohio that are in America's Appalachian Region: Eastern Ohio farmland in Guernsey County and Southern Ohio mining country in Athens County.
The two children that would become my parents were a bit separated by age and a little further separated by heritage, but both were familiar with similar Appalachian traditions for Christmas and New Year's throughout The Great Depression, World War II, and the Baby Boom Era. I was lucky enough to see some of these in the 1960s.
Christmas in the Mountains
Today, a mountain Christmas is a much celebrated tourist attraction in many of the states in the Appalachians and Great Smokys. Perhaps the most prominent are the in locales such as Dollywood in Tennessee that no one likely could have envisioned during the Depression.
Southern Ohio and Kentucky Christmas celebrations begin after Thanksgiving and last until New Year's Day. They offer festivals, excursion train visits into rural areas, specialized gift markets, and plenty of good homemade foods.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee is one of the organizations that offers special Christmas Season events for tourists and local residents. The facilities have quite a thorough rendering of an old-time holiday, complete with an evergreen tree decorated in popcorn, paper chains, fruits, and other natural ornaments that my parents knew.
From the Civil War through WWII, it was often a tradition to sew homemade hard candies into small packets of muslin to hang on the holiday tree and distribute on Christmas Day. Hand blown glass ornaments were also used, as well as small quilted ornaments and even newly-knitted mittens.
A stocking hung above the fireplace on the mantel was often just a child's largest daily-wear sock, but socks or hand sewn Christmas stockings were filled with oranges, an apple (Johnny Appleseed passed through Ohio), nuts to crack, 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.
Traditional Eastern Mountain Area Trees
From at least as far back as the early 1700s in one branch of the Eastern Ohio family tree (traced to the Tyrrells of Virginia), live evergreen trees with root balls were used for Christmas décor.
After Christmas and on through New Year's - even through 12th Night celebrations as long as they remained popular in Colonial America - the tree was removed from the house and planted on the land. My own father planted trees at least eight years in a row before he ran out of room at home on a 1/4 acre city residential plot with other trees, so he switched to artificial trees in the late 1960s for Christmas. I missed the pine and evergreen scents in the house.
The aluminum tree with a rotating color filter on a light operating on the floor to change colors on the tree was interesting and space-age, but the aluminum needles wore out and became ragged after a couple of years. The Appalachian ways seemed better.
The non-Native American portion of my mother's side of the family always had Christmas trees, because at least one ancestor was German and he brought the tradition of the tree with him from his home country. In addition to the various components of family traditions, both parents attended one-room schools that also used Christmas Trees and taught the children natural crafts for making ornaments. Some of these ornaments included pine cones fallen from the trees, collected from the ground and rehung on branches indoors.
Christmas Tree Varieties
Historically, Ohioans in Appalachia were fortunate to be able to dig evergreen trees from their own farms and forested lands for use at Christmas.If they had none, neighboring farms would often let those families come over and choose a tree, perhaps in exchange for some baked goods and canned jams and jellies.
Some Ohioans undoubtedly still hold these traditions, but the big tree farms that have become a kind of amusement park as well as a Christmas tree outlet have made it attractive to go and purchase a cut tree while the kids in the family enjoy the rides and treats.
One farm located in Southern Ohio operates a Christmas Express on December weekend evenings that includes a real train ride, hot chocolate on board (remember Tom Hanks's Polar Express film), and traditional ice skating at the end of the line. A hundred years ago, Southern Ohio families took the train to visit relatives at Christmastime and to see the gorgeous hills and trees covered and snow. These train rides today bring back those opportunities.
Best Trees in the Ohio Foothills
What kind of Christmas trees do we grow in Southeastern Ohio in the foothills of the mountain range?
Several kinds thrive here and I recall in elementary school when we kids helped a small local tree farm by purchasing "stock certificates" for a nickle or a dime. Our school was two blocks from the tree farm's Oakland Nursery, where children and teachers purchased a Christmas tree for each classroom every year.
Today, Oakland Nursery operates several large outlets in two counties and runs a Christmas Trolley to celebrate 1940, when they opened their first store near my school. They always offer some natural decorations for the trees and many made in Ohio
Varieties of Christmas Trees grown in Ohio that we use most often are
- Spruces: Norway, White, Blue, and Colorado Spruces; and
- Pines: Eastern White and Scotch Pines.
At the Top of the Tree
A variety of objects might be placed at the top of an Appalachian Christmas tree, at least in Ohio and each year was different in my house. My mother favored a Santa Claus doll. My father would sometimes use what his own mother preferred - the Star of Bethlehem. Other Appalachian trees I have seen have been adorned at the top with an angel or with a large country church ornament.
Mountain Area Regional Carols
This is one of my favorite albums, featuring the United States Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants. "I Wonder As I Wander" is one of the best carols, one I never heard until I visited an Appalachian church. Each year brings a renwed love for the songs ini this collection and I enjoy sharing them with friends.
© 2011 Patty Inglish MS