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Breakin’ up Christmas

Posted by | January 5, 2015

Hoo-ray Jake and Hoo-ray John,
Breakin’ Up Christmas all night long
Way back yonder a long time ago
The old folks danced the do-si-do.
Way down yonder alongside the creek
I seen Santy Claus washin’ his feet.
Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Breakin’ Up Christmas right along.


The Bog Trotters Band, photographed in Galax, Virginia in 1937. Band members include Doc Davis on autoharp, Alex Dunford (fiddle), Crockett Ward (fiddle), Wade Ward (banjo), and Fields Ward (guitar). The Lomax Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress

The Bog Trotters Band, photographed in Galax, Virginia in 1937. Band members include Doc Davis on autoharp, Alex Dunford (fiddle), Crockett Ward (fiddle), Wade Ward (banjo), and Fields Ward (guitar). The Lomax Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress


The “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition is credited with originating in Northwest North Carolina and Southwest Virginia during the 1920s, though William Norman noted the event in his 1864 memoir, “A Portion of My Life.” In the days before television – even pre-electricity for many – residents gathered in homes for house parties. Out came the fiddles, banjos, dulcimers and other favorite instruments, and there’d be music and dancing until late in the evening to commemorate the 10-day period between Christmas Day and Old Christmas.

Old Christmas? Christmas in Appalachia was not always celebrated on December 25th. Whether because calendar reform in 1752 had removed 11 days, turning December 25th into January 6th, or because January 6th marked the arrival of the three wise men on the 12th day of Christmas—the Day of Epiphany (in Greek, “appearance”)—, many Appalachian people celebrated Old Christmas on January 6th.

The observance of Epiphany actually goes back farther than the observance of Christmas. It was known to have been celebrated before 194 AD, while the observance of the Nativity, in the form of Christmas, did not actually catch on until the 4th century AD.

On Old Christmas Eve, young people enjoyed raucous activities, setting bonfires and going serenading, which involved shooting guns and firecrackers as well as singing. Old Christmas Day was usually observed quietly, with church going, family meals, community Christmas trees, and stockings containing fruit, nuts, and candy.

Many mountain folk believed that on the Day of Epiphany a person should never lend anything to anybody, because the lender would never get it back. Also, they regarded the Eve of Epiphany as a night when the Holy Spirit would manifest itself upon the earth in many subtle ways. Upon that night, people believed, no matter how hard the ground was frozen, elder bushes would sprout up out of the ground.

Our ancestors believed that if a person would stay awake until almost midnight on old Christmas Eve, then sneak quietly out to a barn or a field where any cattle or sheep were kept, they could hear the animals pray. Supposedly, at the exact stroke of midnight on Old Christmas Eve, the animals would start moo-ing and baa-ing and bellowing… not in their normal way, but almost as if they were crying. This belief undoubtedly harkened back to the stable in Bethlehem, and to the animals that were present when the Christ Child was revealed to the Magi. Old Christmas was a far cry from today’s gift-centered celebration.

During the ‘Breakin up Christmas’ celebrations, party hosts moved furniture out of the house to make way for the festivities and the revelry moved from house to house. The event was said to have included one dance that resembled a cross between the Virginia Reel and a minuet. While the “Breakin’ Up Christmas” tradition waned in the days of World War II, it enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the 1970s. As social conditions changed through the decades, the celebrations also changed — they are currently held in dance halls and civic clubs more often than in homes.





These crackers had ways peculiarly their own

Posted by | January 2, 2015

“Now to go back in history farther than my own time and recollections, let me venture upon some unoccupied territory and tell how Cherokee Georgia became the home of that much-maligned and misunderstood individual known as the Georgia cracker. I have lived long in his region, and am close akin to him.

“There is really but little difference between the Georgia cracker and the Alabama or Tennessee cracker. They all have, or had, the same origin, and until the Appalachian range was opened up to the rest of mankind by railroads and the schoolhouse these crackers had ways and usages and a language peculiarly their own.

Georgia crackers“It will be remembered that until 1835 the Cherokee Indians owned and occupied this region of Georgia, the portion lying west of the Chattahoochee and north of the Tallapoosa Rivers. They were the most peaceable and civilized of all the tribes, but they were not subject to Georgia laws, and had many conflicts and disturbances with their white neighbors. It seemed to be manifest destiny that they should go. “Go West, red man!” was the white man’s fiat. They went at the point of the bayonet, and all their beautiful country was suddenly opened to the ingress of whomsoever might come.

“Georgia had it surveyed and divided into lots of forty acres and one hundred and sixty acres, and then made a lottery and gave every man and widow and orphan child a chance in the drawing. But the cracker didn’t wait for the drawing. The rude, untamed, and restless people from the mountain borders of Georgia and the Carolinas flocked hither to pursue their wild and fascinating occupation of hunting and fishing for a livelihood.

“They came separately, but soon assimilated and shared a common interest. There are such spirits in every community. There are some right here now who would rather go up to Cohutta Mountains on a bear hunt than to go to New York or Paris for pleasure. I almost would myself, and I recall the earnest cravings of my youth to go west and find a wilderness, and with my companions live in a hut and kill deer and turkeys, and sometimes a bear and a panther.

“But for my town raising and old field school education, I too would have made a very respectable cracker. This was the class of young men and middle-aged that first settled among these historic hills and valleys and climbed these mountains and fished in these streams.

“By and by the fortunate owners of these lands received their certificates, and many of them came from all parts of the state to look up their lots and see how much gold or how much bottom land there was upon them, but gold was the principal attraction. The Indians had found gold and washed it out of the creeks and branches and traded it in small parcels to the white man, and it was believed that every stream was lined with golden sand.

“This proved an illusion, and so the squatters were not disturbed, or else they bought the titles for a song and then sung ‘sweet home’ of their own. They built their cabins and cleared their lands and raised their scrub cattle, and with their old-fashioned rifles kept the family in game.

Maj. Charles H. Smith (Bill Arp)Maj. Charles H. Smith (Bill Arp)

“Many of these settlers could read and write, but in their day there was but little to read. No newspapers and but few books were found by the hunter’s fireside. Their children grew up the same way, but what they lacked in culture they supplied in rough experiences and hairbreadth escapes and fireside talks, and in sports that were either improvised or inherited.

“Pony races, gander-pullings, shooting matches, ‘coon hunting, and quiltings had more attractions than books. How they got to using such twisted language as “youuns” and “weuns” and “injuns” and “mout” and “gwine” and “all sich” is not known, nor was such talk universal. When such idioms began in a family, they descended and spread out among the kindred, but it was not contagious.

“I know one family now of very extensive connections who had a folklore of their own, and it can be traced back to the old ancestor who died a half century ago. But these corruptions of language are by no means peculiar to the cracker, for the English cockneys and the genuine yankee have an idiom quite as eccentric, though they do not realize it and would not admit it.

“The Georgia cracker was a merry-hearted, unconcerned, independent creature, and all he asked was to be let alone by the laws and the outside world.”

source: The Georgia Cracker, by Maj. Charles H. Smith (Bill Arp), Cartersville, Ga. in “The Scotch-Irish in America: proceedings and addresses of the Scotch-Irish Congress, 1st-10th, 1889-1901,” Bigham & Smith, 1892

Georgia+crackers Bill+Arp Charles+H.+Smith appalachia appalachian+history appalachia+history


Happy New Year!

Posted by | January 1, 2015



Ringing in the new

Posted by | December 31, 2014

Lang may your lum reek.
May the fire on your hearth burn on.
—Scottish New Year toast

Dropping a possum at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve is most definitely not a traditional Appalachian custom. Please note that the folks in Brasstown, NC, self-proclaimed “Opossum Capital of the World,” have only been dropping—well, ok, gently lowering in a plexiglas pyramid—possums in front of Clay’s Corner for the last decade and a half or so.

New Years Day cardSome of the more historically rooted New Year traditions found in Appalachia include the New Year baby. This tradition, a symbol of rebirth, originated in ancient Greece and made its way into the region via German immigrants, who added the twist of baby with a New Year’s banner.

Spending the New Year’s day with some combination of black-eyed peas and rice—They symbolize luck, friends, and money—is customary in many parts of Appalachia.

Does your family give gifts on New Year’s Eve? The Celtic-Teutonic Druids used to present branches of their holy mistletoe plant as an auspicious New Year gift. And among the English people gloves, a clove-stuck orange, and flavored wine were popular New Year gifts.

These days the World Anvil Shooting Society holds its annual anvil shooting competition over at Laurel, Mississippi’s Wood Expo every April, but informal backyard anvil shootings as an Appalachian holiday season event can be traced back to the Civil War.

Some folks in Appalachia open every door and window at the stroke of midnight to let out any residual bad luck. They make a loud ruckus banging on pots and pans, setting off fireworks and taking part in other noisy activities to chase it far away.

The Scots-Irish community often observes first-footing on Hogmanay (Scottish word for the last day of the year) — the first person to set foot over a neighbor’s threshold on the New Year brings that household luck for the year. First footer greeters hope for a fair-haired man and that he will be carrying a lump of coal for the fire, a loaf for the table and whiskey for the man or men of the house.


appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+history New+Years+Eve



Posted by | December 30, 2014

Cold and flu season’s here. These days a quick trip down to the local Walmart will arm the grippe sufferer with every pharmaceutical weapon imaginable. But in 1937 Sam Walton, age 19, was still 25 years away from opening his first Walmart store. Aspirin tablets had already been around since 1915, but there were still plenty of folks back in the hollers who relied on such traditional remedies as the following (don’t do ALL of these simultaneously!):

*Make a tea from the leaves of boneset. Drink the tea when it has cooled. It will make you sick if taken hot. Leaves of this plant may also be cured and saved for use in teas during winter.

*Make a tea from powdered ginger, or ground up ginger roots. Do not boil the tea, but add the powdered root to a cup of hot water and drink. Add honey and whiskey if desired.

*Boil pine needles to make a strong tea.

*Take as much powdered quinine as will stay on the blade of a knife, add to water, and drink.

*Parch red pepper in front of a fire. Powder it, cook it in a tea, and add pur white corn liquor.

*Put goose-grease salve on chest.

*Drink lamb’s tongue and whiskey tea.

*Drink whiskey and honey mixed.

*Drink red pepper tea.

*Eat onions roasted in ashes (good for children.

*Eat a mixture of honey & vinegar.

*Make a tea by putting some pine top needles and boneset in boiling water. You can sweeten it with honey or syrup.

*Drink tea made from wintergreen fern.

*Make a combination tea from boneset leaves and horsemint leaves.

*Take a three-pound can of pine twigs and rabbit tobacco. Boil together and strain. Drink some every three hours, taking no more than one full juice glass within a 12-hour period.

*Drink some of the brine from kraut put up in churn jars. It makes you thirsty, and you’ll drink lots of water.

Source: The Foxfire Book, Anchor Books/Doubleday & Co., New York, 1968

appalachian+history appalachian+culture history+of+appalachia appalachia

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