by Mike Templeton
With the holidays in full swing and Christmas almost upon us, it seems appropriate for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition to look at some of the ways Christmas takes on a unique quality in Appalachian culture. We have recently looked at Thanksgiving foodways, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Christmas superstitions and beliefs since, as we will see, these take also foodways into account.
There are plenty of superstitions associated with Christmas, and most people seem to just take them for granted. If you have mistletoe hanging in your home hoping for a kiss, this has little to do with Christmas and a whole lot more to do with ancient druids who cut this otherwise poisonous plant to protect against nightmares, among other things. The origin of kissing under the mistletoe comes to us from the Romans who used it in their celebrations of Saturnalia. Yet, mistletoe, or a plastic replica of mistletoe, hangs in hallways all over America at Christmas time along with the lights and evergreen garlands. So, we should not be too judgmental of Appalachian Christmas superstitions even if they do appear unfamiliar to those from other communities.
My favorite of Appalachian Christmas traditions and superstitions is the powers of apple stack cake. Sometimes disparagingly called “the poor man’s fruit cake,” apple stack cake is made with dried or fresh apples, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Some recipes call for dried ginger and cloves. The exact makeup of apple stack cake depended largely on what people had on hand. There are dozens of recipes, but beyond being delicious, apple stack cake was thought to have healing powers, and it was a traditional offering during the Christmas holidays. In a time and place where the ingredients for fruit cake were simply not available, nearly everyone had access to apples. The mountain practice of preserving fruits and vegetables generally ensured that dried apples were available even in the dead of winter. The rest of the ingredients were frequently on hand in any mountain larder. Since things like cinnamon and nutmeg were precious, they were reserved for a festive treat during the holidays. People all over the Appalachian regions believed that apple stack cake had healing properties and sharing apple stack cake brought good fortune for the coming year.
Food plays an important role in just about all Christmas traditions, but other superstitions that attend the Christmas holiday in Appalachia may appear foreign to some. The prevailing belief that animals kneeled on Christmas Eve was common for a long time. You could count on good luck in the coming year if you found a cricket on your hearth. And if you happened to be a young woman who visited a hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve, you could divine the kind of man you were going to marry. If an old hog grunted first, you would marry an old man. If a young hog grunted first, your future man would be young and handsome. Lest you scoff, a study at Cambridge University found hogs to be far more intelligent than dogs and can recognize good and bad intentions in humans. Prognosticating hogs on Christmas Eve is just not far-fetched.
The twelve days of Christmas celebrated in the well-known carol are the days from Christmas Day to Epiphany on January 6. The time from the birth of Christ to the coming of the wise men or Kings. In parts of the Appalachian region, these days are called Ruling Days. They are called this because each day would rule the weather for each month of the coming year. If the weather was cold and snowy on December 25th, the month of January would be ruled by cold and snow. Each day for the next twelve would foretell, or rule, the weather for each succeeding month.
Perhaps the most interesting of Appalachian beliefs at Christmas is what is now referred to as “Old Christmas.” In many parts of the Appalachian region, and some to this day, Christmas is not celebrated on December 25. Christmas Day is on January 6, also the Epiphany. This date is now referred to as Old Christmas. In 1752, England and Scotland abandoned the old Julian calendar which had been in use since Roman times and adopted the Gregorian calendar. This change eliminated 11 days from the year. Many of the earliest settlers in the Appalachian region of English, Scottish, and Scots-Irish descent still adhered to the old Julian calendar. As a result, January 6th remained Christmas Day in the Appalachian regions, and some people still celebrate Old Christmas in January. I should note that some of my sources say Old Christmas is on January 7, others the 6th. In either case, Old Christmas persists in some parts of Appalachia.
The nature of Appalachian folkways meant that traditions that have their origins in Europe sometimes remained locked in place for decades once they were brought to the mountains. Some of these folkways and superstitions persist to this day. I don’t know if superstitions are true or not. My feeling is… why mess with it. It could be true. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is aware that this time of year means different things for different people. Whatever you are celebrating this time of year, we wish you the very best. If you are planning on making an apple stack cake, I can be reached through the UACC website.
Featured image author/source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/3013359537
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.