Chinese firecrackers provided plenty of Christmas joking

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 22, 2014

Clarence Nixon wrote of his father’s store in his book Possum Trot, “We stocked up with fruit in December, and I still think of Christmas when I smell oranges in the country.”

The South was a land of deep sentimentality. Family ties were close, and the hard years following the war tended to knit them even more securely. Christmas was a time of family re-dedication and a season of erasing old and irritating scars of discord. It was a period for visiting and feasting.

Celebration of the holiday was the one institution which came through the war unchanged except for the matter of simplification. Until 1915 rural observance was uncontaminated by commercialization. Simple gifts were passed around, and these, as a matter of course, came from the country store.

Much of the masculine taste in celebration ran to boisterous forms of expression. For more than fifty years the liquor barrel furnished ample cheer for all customers who could rake together enough cash or stretch their credit to buy a quart of Kentucky or Maryland bourbon, or a half-gallon of North Carolina corn. A quart of whisky was admittedly a vigorous start toward a glorious Christmas season.

For the temperate, however, a package of firecrackers was enough holiday amusement. One little nickel package of Chinese firecrackers provided plenty of Christmas joking and pranking. A favorite stunt was to explode the tiny cylinders at the heel of some humorless deacon, with the hope of starting him into cussing. Another was setting them off near a pair of mules in a storehouse yard. The number of runaways made many a good celebrant regret there was such a thing as Christmas. But there was the more pleasant aspect to this form of amusement.

chinese firecrackersThousands of country children were happier waking up in a cold farmhouse on Christmas morning because Santa Claus had not forgotten the firecrackers and Roman candles. There were also torpedoes, which exploded with thunderous repercussions when dashed on the floor underneath girls’ feet, and Roman candles gave great gusto to the Christmas celebration.

They lifted the holiday spirit high into the air in sputtering balls of varicolored fire followed by sulfurous tails which outdid Halley’s Comet in the eyes of the backwoods cotton farmers. Sometimes they were used in sham battles, which generally wound up unhappily. But all in all, there was something in the violent cracking of fireworks that gave zest to Christmas week, and which marked the completion of one crop year and the beginning of another.


‘A Little Bit of Santa Claus’
From Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store
By Thomas D. Clark
Reprinted in A Kentucky Christmas, University Press of
Kentucky Press, 2003

Christmas+in+Appalachia chinese+firecrackers appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+mountains+history

Leave a Reply

+ 8 = 13

The Overalls Club Movement of 1920

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 19, 2014

“The revolt against the high cost of living, expressed in the nation-wide formation of old-clothes leagues, overalls clubs, and lunchbasket clubs, is highly significant in that it is the first indication of protest to come from a class which has been a silent and patient sufferer during all the clashes that have taken place between capital and labor in recent years,” said the unsigned op-ed author of the Men & Things column in the April 1920 issue of American Medicine.

Men who joined these clubs pledged to wear overalls, and women to wear gingham, until prices became less prohibitive. They formed overalls clubs, held parades, threw parties, went to church, and even got married in overalls.

Some members of the Overalls Club of Pickens, SC. Photo courtesy William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, CUNY

Some members of the Overalls Club of Pickens, SC. Photo courtesy William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, CUNY

Cheap blue denim work overalls like farmers or laborers wore were the weapon of choice, but people who couldn’t find those wore various other types of work clothes or whatever old clothes they had to hand.

The movement caught on in Birmingham, Wilmington, Savannah, New Orleans, and other southern cities, then spread to other regions of the country. The employees and officers of various companies showed up at the office outfitted in overalls. The cotton mill owners of New England issued statements denouncing the Southern cities, where the movement had its birth, and alleging that the cotton-growers of the South had launched the movement to increase the price of cotton.

In Washington, Representative William David Upshaw of Atlanta formed an “overall brigade” in the House of Representatives, and secretaries in the Capitol showed up for work in overalls. The Assistant Post Master General sent out a directive to postmasters permitting postal employees to make their rounds in overalls.

The various “overalls clubs” and “old clothes clubs” sent petitions to mayors, governors and diverse other notables protesting high clothing prices. “The movement appears to have lasted from March to June or July of 1920, then faded away as the novelty wore off,” says Paul Eugen Camp, who works in the Special Collections at the University of South Florida library.

“Everybody seems to have had quite a good time protesting in their overalls, but I don’t know if the movement actually had much effect on the cost of clothing.”

Sources: NY Times: April 15, 1920, “Overalls Clubs Spread in South and West; National Organization is Now Started,” Special to The New York Times, Page 15
NY Times: April 15, 1920, “UPSHAW’S OVERALLS STARTLE CONGRESS,” Special to The New York Times, Page 7
American Medicine, April 1920 “Old Clothes and Lunch Baskets,” p. 187
The Argus, [Melbourne, Australia], June 26, 1920, “American Life: Overalls Craze,” pg. 6

Leave a Reply

+ 1 = 3

The Animals from the Wild Visit, and Ms. Cat Stays

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 18, 2014

animals at mangerI think it was the ninth night, I was told, that the wild animals came in from the forest, fields and desert. Some had traveled a long way. They came in late at night when everybody was asleep. They didn’t want to scare people.

They came in quietly to see the Son of Heaven, baby Jesus, for already the birds were telling the story of the first Christmas gift. There were wolves, foxes, bears, deer, rabbits, squirrels, crows, owls, eagles and on and on. At least one representative from all the animal and bird clans. Some of the birds who lived by the rivers, lakes and seas, also represented the fish clans and the other animal and insect clans that lived too far away to make the journey. I remember a storyteller saying that, all night, for three nights, the barn was full, as each wild animal took turns to look at the sleeping Christ child, the son of Supreme Being.

The larger animals held the smaller animals up so they could see into the manger. Arturis, a great cave bear, came each night and laid down on one side of the manger, so the small ones could also climb up on his back to see baby Jesus.

Until that first night, even the tabby cats were wild. Ms. Cat came in from the forest, looked around the barn and saw all the barn and house mice and thought, “plenty of food after the temporary, peace-among-the-beasts, truce, but look at all the roaches. This is no place for the son of God or any other human baby, for that matter, and the human houses are not much better than this barn. It looks like these humans need some help to keep their homes clean.”

My cat told me this part. Her ancestor moved in and spread the word and other cats moved into our homes. Cats chose to live with people, they did not become tame first. That’s why cats still have an independent streak, but they do keep our homes and barns free from creepy crawly things.


From “Christmas Stories,” traditional Christmas stories collected between 1962 and 1975 from people in the Southeastern [US] region and adapted for telling by Bluegrass Storyteller, Chuck Larkin

One Response

  • kim says:

    The reference to the dark corner. What does that mean in that the same dark corner lamar jebez curry refers too?

Leave a Reply

3 − = 0

The Legend of Ruling Days

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 17, 2014

Please welcome Timothy W. Hooker. The Cleveland, TN based author and teacher has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis. He’s taught composition, creative writing, and literature at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, Cleveland State Community College, and Lee University. Hooker has published ‘Duncan Hambeth,’ ‘Looking for a City,’ ‘Rocket Man,’ and ‘Sushi Tuesday,’ and is currently working on his 5th book, entitled ‘The Warrior’s Guide to the Battle of the Sexes.’


You know you are deeply imbedded in a culture when you take for granted things that other people have never heard of.

That’s what I’ve had to learn along the way. And, there’s no better example of it than Ruling Days. You can call it Hillbilly Witchcraft. You can call it White Magic. Or, you may think it’s simply a load of malarkey. But, Ruling Days have been around as long I can remember.

The core idea behind Ruling Days is that certain days are predictors for weather for the upcoming year. More specifically, those days coincide with what others would call Kingdomtide or The Twelve Days of Christmas.

12 drummers drummingHere’s how it works.

According to the legend of Ruling Days, the weather on December 25th will be the predominant weather for the upcoming January. The weather on December 26th will indicate what kind of weather you will have in February. December 27th will forecast the weather for March. And, on it goes, until you get to the forecaster of the next December, which falls on Epiphany, aka January 6.

Trust me. The old folks in my neck of the woods swear by it. And, I, myself, have found it to be uncannily accurate.

I’m not an anthropologist, so I wouldn’t dare attempt to conjure a theory on how Ruling Days developed. I do know Southern Appalachia was settled by folks whom the European feudal system more or less rejected. And, so, some of the original settlers may have still had a bit of orthodoxy in them and they simply adapted it to their purposes.

I don’t know.

But, Ruling Days is a part of our culture. It’s a part that no amount of intellectualism or sophistication can take away. It’s in us, and that’s what makes it real.

2 Responses

  • Jon Parker says:

    The only problem here is that if you start with Dec 25th for January, the January 5th would be the day for December, not the 6th as is stated here.

  • Tom Paine says:

    Like most material presented on this blog, this is fascinating as a cultural relic. But I am bothered by the author’s contention that he has found this particular myth to be “uncannily accurate”. I want to know more. What is the definition of uncannily accurate? What are the parameters? How do you compare early winter weather to summer weather? Obviously, the correlation is not 1:1, but I assume you must have established some parameters. I would like to know more. As an avid amateur weather observer, I would be much interested in conducting my own tests.

Leave a Reply

9 − 5 =

Take it outside Christmas morning and jump on it with both feet

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 16, 2014

Three remaining parts of the hog deserve brief mention. One, the tail, is a most delectable morsel when roasted in an oven or over an open fire.

Two, the hog’s spleen, sometimes called the milt (German), is a tasty delicacy when roasted and sprinkled with salt. Immediately after its removal, along with the viscera en masse, the spleen often was broiled on a hot rock taken from the hog-killing fire. Eating of spleens thus prepared was one of the perquisites of hog-killers.

Finally there was the hog’s bladder. It was a common practice during my youth and in my hillbilly community, for people to inflate hogs’ bladders and hang them up in the attic or smokehouse to dry. A bladder-blowing tube was needed for this. The classic procedure for making a tube was to punch the pith from a section of sassafras bush by means of a piece of hay-baling wire. Some simply used a short length of dead ragweed stalk.

Anyway, the tube, whatever its origin, was introduced into the opening at the neck of the bladder. As much air as it could hold was blown in, and the bladder neck was tied off with a string. Considerable shrinkage would occur as the bladder dried.

However, by warming it over an open fire or stove the contained air would expand and produce a tensely inflated balloon. The conventional thing to do with this used to be to take it out of doors on Christmas morning, after distending it completely by warming, lay it down and jump on it with both feet.

The sound of its popping was quite like that of a firecracker. It was much less expensive than a firecracker and far less dangerous. Incidentally, Christmas and not the Fourth of July was the time for setting off firecrackers in my boyhood community.

Although my home was less than 20 miles from that of the author of the Declaration of Independence, we paid little attention to the Fourth of July except as the day by which we tried to have our growing corn “laid by,” i.e., the deadline for the last cultivation of the corn.

—Herbert Lamont Pugh
born in Batesville VA, 1895
author of “Navy Surgeon,” online at

One Response

Leave a Reply

4 + = 5

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2014 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive