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We open today’s show with a Jack Tale from the Beech Mountain region of North Carolina. You’ve of course known the Jack and the Beanstalk tale since childhood, but Jack is the hero of many other stories retold in central Europe, the Scandinavian countries, England and Appalachia. Jack is a trickster, so he often bends the truth, and his tactics may be questionable, but his tales are truly entertaining, as you’ll see here.
We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a Calendar of Events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.
This is a time of year when hunters, from the earliest settlers on, have entered the forest seeking wild game to supplement the winter larder. The custom of mincemeat pies during the holidays is partially a holdover from putting up wild game in the days before freezers. The mincemeat mixture was a method of preservation, as the combination of the acids from the fruits and the heat from baking inhibited the growth of bacteria in the meat.
,”“For Christmas you didn’t get much. There wasn’t much,” Gwynn Jones (b. 1908) of her childhood in Warrensville, NC. “One little country store close by. There were more in the county, but they had nothing for children. We would get some oranges (they had oranges for Christmas) and some candy. We had no toys; however, there were dolls. As I remember they did have little dolls for the girls. My father and mother would get the girls a little doll.”
In ‘A Kentucky Christmas,’ Thomas D. Clark tells us that thousands 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.”
“Mark Morrison, manager of Morrison’s, well known local drug firm, was arraigned yesterday before Esquire Kerby, charged with violating the child labor law,” began an article in the Chattanooga Daily Times on December 12, 1915. “Page Zarley, a 12-year old boy, had been employed by the Morrison Drug company as table boy and had been required to work from noon until 11 at night.”
“Jesus, Jesus, rest your head, you have got a manger bed,” goes the refrain of an old Kentucky folk carol transcribed by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). Niles began collecting Appalachian folk songs and composing music as a Kentucky teenager. “A sweep of his hand and the dulcimer gave forth magical sounds which caused the stars to gleam more brightly, which peopled the hills and meadows with silvery figures and made the brooks to babble like infants,” enthused one fan.
We’ll wrap things up with a look at the Christmas tradition of belsnickling. Up until the second World War, if a Shenandoah Valley family was a member of the Lutheran or Reformed church, the children could expect a Christmas Eve visit from the Belsnickle. The Belsnickle was not Santa Claus! He was ugly and he frightened the children. He typically wore a costume made from stockings and burlap or paper bags, and traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air.
And, thanks to the good folks at the Digital Library of Appalachia we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music by the Whoopin’ Hollar Stringband in a 2006 recording of “Breakin’ up Christmas.”
So, call your old blue-tick hound up on the porch, fire up your corn-cob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian History.