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Breakin’ up Christmas

Posted by | December 26, 2016

Breakin’ Up Christmas is both the name for 12 days of partying, dancing, and music making ending up on January 6th, Old Christmas day, and also a song sung during that period. The tradition harks from the area that roughly includes Surry County NC, nearby Grayson and Carroll counties in VA, and the independent city of Galax located between the two.

Hooray Jake, hooray John
Breakin’ up Christmas all night long
Santa Claus come, done and gone
Breaking up Christmas right straight along
Don’t you remember a long time ago
The old folks danced the doesey-doe

Fiddler Tommy Jarrell

The tune itself is not of great antiquity. It may have been composed by Preston ‘Pet’ McKinney, a fiddler and Civil War veteran from Lambsburg, VA. Mt. Airy, NC fiddler Tommy Jarrell, a 1982 NEA National Heritage Fellowship recipient strongly associated with this song, cited McKinney as one of his early influences.

Whether McKinney was the actual author of Breakin’ Up Christmas or not, there’s a reason the song can be distinctly pinpointed to the tri-county area. During rainy periods, that region’s roads, made mostly of red clay with no gravel, historically became so muddy that wagon wheels would sink in up to their axles. This made travel during inclement parts of the year either difficult or impossible.

New tunes only slowly made their way into the area, often by visitors or because a community member made a trip outside of his locality. Even so, as a tune bounced back and forth over the mountains between North Carolina and Virginia, local musicians might give it a different name, speed it up, add a new twist, and come up with a ‘souped-up’ version.

“Through this country here, they’d go from house to house almost – have a dance at one house, then go off to the next one the following night and all such as that. The week before Christmas and the week after, that’s when the big time was. About a two-week period, usually winding up about New Year. I wasn’t into any of this, but used to laugh about it. They’d play a tune called Breakin’ Up Christmas, that was the last dance they’d have on Christmas, they’d have Wallace Spanger play Breakin’ Up Christmas. There’s an old feller by the name of Bozwell, he’d cry every time.”

Lawrence Bolt, fiddler
b. 1894
Galax, VA

Breakin+Up+Christmas Christmas+in+Appalachia Surry+County+NC Galax+VA Tommy+Jarrell appalachia Appalachian+ballads appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


Merry Christmas!

Posted by | December 23, 2016
Kindergarten Christmas Tree, 1899.  Anna Kadlec Papers, 1893-1991. Eastern Kentucky University

Kindergarten Christmas Tree, 1899. Anna Kadlec Papers, 1893-1991. Eastern Kentucky University Collection




America’s first Christmas card?

Posted by | December 22, 2016

Irish monks in North America, centuries before Columbus? So claimed Dr. Barry Fell (1917-1994), a professor of invertebrate zoology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and a president of the Epigraphic Society.

Fell’s claims were based on his controversial work in New World epigraphy (the study of inscriptions or epigraphs engraved into stone or other durable materials, or cast in metal, the science of classifying them as to cultural context and date, elucidating them and assessing what conclusions can be deduced from them.

“The rock-cut inscriptions which are the subject of this article are located at archaeological sites in Wyoming and Boone Counties, West Virginia,” said Dr. Fell in 1983 in Wonderful West Virginia.

“They appear to date from the 6th—8th centuries A.D., and they are written in Old Irish language, employing an alphabet called Ogam, found also on ancient rock-cut inscriptions in Ireland.

“The inscriptions are accompanied by short annotations in ancient Libyan alphabetic script. The Libyan script is used to render two languages in the annotations (1) the ancient Libyan tongue itself, and (2) an Algonquian dialect of the northeastern group, perhaps allied to Shawnee.”

Wyoming County WV petroglyphAccording to Fell, these inscriptions narrated the story of Christ’s nativity. His translation of the Wyoming County petroglyph:

“At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman.”

Calculating the difference between the Julian calendar (used until the 16th Century) and today’s Gregorian calendar, on December 22, 1982, freelance writer Ida Jane Gallagher and several others from the archaeological community watched as the sun rose, struck the petroglyph on the left side, and then crept across the entire panel, thus ‘proving’ the translation.

The scientific community remained skeptical. “Using the ‘decipherment’ methods Fell sets out in his March 1983 article it is possible to find in these rock wall markings not only the nativity story but any other preconceived text one might choose,” counter Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz in The West Virginia Archaeologist Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 1989.

“It is equally sobering to discover on investigation that Barry Fell’s connection with Harvard is as a retired professor of marine biology. His profession had nothing to do with archaeology or linguistics or ancient inscriptions, and he is in fact an extremely controversial figure whose previous decipherments of this same kind have been seriously challenged, after careful study, by American, Irish, English and Scottish archaeologists and linguists.

“Reviewing the Wonderful West Virginia report of evidence regarding the Wyoming and Boone County petroglyphs, these authorities conclude, spelling out their reasons, that this is a transparent hoax.”

Since the early 1980s, other similar carvings have been discovered in West Virginia at Bears’s Fork in Fayette County and Horse Creek in Boone’s County. As with the Wyoming County and Boone County petroglyphs, they remain for all to see, challenging those who view them to tease out the identity of the person or persons who carved the messages they contain.


Dr.+Barry+Fell petroglyphs+in+WV Irish+Monks Wyoming+County+WV Boone+County+WV appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


The Holly Tree (a 4th century Christmas tale)

Posted by | December 21, 2016

It was about the third day on the road to Egypt, when trouble started. Joseph had stopped to rest Jack, who by the way, was grinning from ear to ear. Jack, the donkey, was seeing the world for the first time.

Joseph climbed a large rock to look around the countryside. There was trouble coming up fast behind them. Joseph could see three of King Herod’s evil soldiers riding toward them on great warhorses. There was no way Jack the donkey could outrun warhorses. The Holy family would have to hide.

‘The Flight into Egypt,” by Gustave Dore.

‘The Flight into Egypt,” by Gustave Dore.

Now, the area between Bethlehem and Egypt is mostly open desert country. There was no place to hide. Joseph looked around in vain. Then Mary saw a tiny grove of trees.

Joseph hurried over to the Oak tree and said, “Oak tree, will you hide baby Jesus from the vicious soldiers of evil King Herod?”

“No!” answered the Oak tree. “ I am King Herod’s Oak tree. Someday I’ll be cut down and made into beautiful furniture for King Herod’s palatial palace. I will not betray my King!”

Joseph turned to the Pine tree. “Pine tree, will you help hide baby Jesus? The evil soldiers want to kill him.”

“No! I am King Herod’s Pine tree. I hope to be cut down and made into masts and spars and sail King Herod’s ships throughout the Mediterranean Sea. I would never betray my King.”

Joseph looked at the Spruce tree. In those far off days, Spruce trees looked a whole lot different from our Spruce trees today. At that time, the branches of the Spruce tree grew straight down along the sides of their trunk. Not much of a place to hide.

Joseph asked, “Spruce tree, can you help hide our baby?”

“I’ll try. I’ll try.”

The Spruce tree grunted and groaned, trying to pull its branches away from its trunk. Spruce tree got the branches out from her trunk, but they stuck slanting down and the Spruce tree couldn’t pull them back or push them out. They just stuck right there and wouldn’t move. In fact, even today, the spruce tree’s branches are still stuck in the same place.

There was another tree in the grove that back in those days was called the Ilex tree. We know it by a different name today; but I’m getting ahead of our story.

Ilex was a childish tree. Always acting silly. Playing with the wind, flipping its branches, bending this a way, bending that a way.

A bird would start to land on one branch and the Ilex tree would suddenly wiggle the branch out from under its feet and flip the bird onto another branch. The birds loved it, especially the young ones. Well, their mothers sometimes would say, “Oh Ilex, please do be careful.”

Ilex then would remind them that he had been their baby sitter and they had turned out rather well.

Ilex always babysat the eggs in the nests and watched over the new baby birds and baby squirrels. The birds always nested with Ilex. In fact, Ilex was the first tree the mother squirrels would let the baby squirrels play on by themselves. Sometimes, when Ilex was feeling silly, he would pick up acorns and pitch them at the squirrels. The squirrels, most of the time, would fling them back, or run through Ilex’s branches trying to tickle her, and she always pretended that she was being tickled.

When rabbit visited, Ilex would ask crow to find rabbit some carrots, to have with their tea. Of course, it was always pretend since neither drank tea. Then rabbit and Ilex would get into an acorn ballgame. Rabbit pitched, Ilex would bat, squirrel would run the bases and the birds played the infield and outfield.

Ilex always asked Squirrel to run bases for her because of her aching sore foot. Squirrel would ask which foot this time? Then they would both laugh at their own joke.

They both knew that trees had no feet.

Lots of times, Oak tree, feeling righteous and proper, would call out, “Ilex stop talking foolishness. Stop playing games. Stand up straight. How do you expect your wood to ever amount to anything? Quit acting so immature. You are old enough to start taking some responsibility for your behavior!”

Ilex, always gentle and kind, would answer, “Thank you Oak tree. Life is also to be enjoyed, is it not?” Oak tree would grumble and mutter about this young generation.

Ilex heard Mary and Joseph and called out. “Hurry, hurry over to my trunk! I can bend over all of you and touch my head to the ground. I can wrap my branches around you and no one can see you through my leaves.”

And so the Holy family hid in the Ilex tree.

Meanwhile, back on the road one of the soldiers said, “Sergeant, I saw someone standing on that rock over there awhile ago. That man was looking back in our direction. We’ve been riding kind of fast and should be getting close to whomever it was. But I don’t see anyone.”

“You’re right”, answered the Sergeant, “they must be hiding somewhere. We’d best look for them.”

“No places to hide that I can see Sergeant,” said the soldier.

“You’re right there too. Except maybe that funny round green tree over yonder. One could hide in alongside of the trunk. Let’s ride our horses into the branches. If we flush out anybody and they got any babies, King Herod says we got to kill them, and we will do just that.”

Ilex heard the soldiers. She knew she could not keep the warhorses away from her trunk. Ilex tried, slapping and pushing, but her branches were only slowing the horses. Ilex kept fighting and started to pray.

“Oh Lord, help me help baby Jesus. I can’t stop these warhorses and soldiers. Please Lord, help me help save baby Jesus!”

All of a sudden, Ilex felt a sharp burning pain in her roots.
The searing fire moved into her trunk and up into her branches. The pain moved out into her twigs and into her leaves.

A burning pain in each leaf as one, two, three, four, five little needles came out on each leaf. The leaves began to scratch the hands and faces of King Herod’s soldiers.

“Whoa, whoa! Back up horse, back up! I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but I’m all scratched and bleeding. Nobody could hide in that tree. We’ll go back and tell King Herod that this road was clear.”

Ilex watched the warhorses ride back toward Judea. When the soldiers were gone, Ilex slowly pulled away her branches and lifted her head.

“Mary, Joseph: the soldiers are gone and you are safe. But something strange has happened to me. Please be careful so my leaves don’t scratch you.”

Mary and Joseph thanked the Ilex tree. They all said their goodbyes and promised to stop and visit, if they came through this road again.

Mary, riding Jack with baby Jesus and Joseph, went on to Egypt.

They had hardly rode out of sight, when Michael, the Archangel, appeared in the air above the Ilex tree.

Detail from ‘The Archangel Michal and Satan Disputing about the Body of Moses,” by Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809); collection ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark; c. 1782.


Michael looked down at the Ilex tree and in a lilting brogue said, “Ilex, that was a great battle you fought today. We are so proud of you. What a fine fight it was. Your fight with King Herod’s soldiers will not be forgotten.”

“From this day on, you and all your kith and kin, for all time, will keep your leaves green all year round. I’m going to let you keep the little stickers on your leaves and give you three berries, three for baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

“And the berries will be the color red so that when people see you, they will be reminded of the blood you drew from the soldiers, in this great battle to save the Holy family.

“And Ilex, since you saved the Holy Family from now on we will call you and all your kith and kin the Holy Tree. However, don’t be surprised when someday, in far off America, people will change your name from the Holy tree to the Holly tree.”

Sometimes, you will see a Holly tree with four red berry clusters. That Holly tree wants you to remember that Jack the Donkey was in this story. Sometimes you will see a Holly tree with only one red berry. That tree wants you to remember that this story was about baby Jesus.

From ‘Christmas Stories,’
Collected and adapted for telling by Chuck Larkin


Salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow

Posted by | December 20, 2016

Though few Civil War battles were fought there, Southwestern Virginia was critically important to the Confederacy. One reason was the salt works in Saltville, which provided the Confederacy’s main source of salt, used as a preservative for army rations.

Two battles took place in an effort to control the works. In the first, on October 2, 1864, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge’s Union cavalry column struck, but was defeated by Southern forces patched together from several reserve units, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Echols & Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. However, Union General George Stoneman’s troops overwhelmed the town on December 20, and this time managed to destroy the saltworks.

Interior of Saltworks at Saltville, VAInterior of Saltworks at Saltville, VA, 1864-5.

In its coverage of the battles, Harper’s Weekly provided an interesting side bar discussing how salt was produced:

The salt manufactured here is of the very best quality. The works have been deemed so important by the rebels that a Richmond paper lately declared the loss of Savannah an inferior consideration.

“The valley at the head of which Saltville stands,” says Porte Crayon [onsite sketch artist for the newspaper], “contains several hundred acres of rich meadow. It is surrounded by a chain of conical hills, from 500 to 800 feet in height, so regularly formed that, but for their extent, they might be mistaken for artificial mounds.

“At the distance of 230 feet below the surface is a bed of fossil salt. The salt is procured by sinking beds to the depth of the salt bed, when the water rises within 46 feet of the surface, and is raised from thence by pumps into large tanks, or reservoirs, elevated a convenient distance above the surface. The brine thus procured is a saturated solution, and for every hundred gallons yields twenty-two gallons of pure salt.

“The process of manufacturing it is very simple. An arched furnace is constructed, probably 150 feet in length, with the doors at one end and the chimney at the other. Two rows of heavy iron kettles, shaped like shallow bowls, are built into the top of the furnace. Large wooden pipes convey the brine from the tanks to these kettles, where the water is evaporated by boiling, while the salt crystallizes and is precipitated.

“During the operation a white saline vapor rises from the boilers, the inhalation of which is said to cure diseases of the lungs and throat. At regular intervals an attendant goes round and with a mammoth ladle dips out the salt, chucking it into loosely woven split baskets, which are placed in pairs over the boilers. Here it drains and drips until the dipper has gone his round with the ladle.

“It is then thrown into the salt-shells, immense magazines on either side of the furnaces. The salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow. Indeed, on seeing the men at work in the magazines, with pick and shovel, a novice would swear they were working in a snow-bank: while the pipes and reservoirs, which at every leak become coated over with snowy concretions, sparkling like hoar-frost and icicles in the sun, serve to confirm the wintry illusion.

“To avoid land-carriage the brine is piped to the banks of the Holston, and manufactured on the spot. The salt is packed in barrels and is carried Westward down the river, or Eastward on the railroad. An immense coopering establishment is the characteristic adjunct of the lower salt-works.”

sources: Harper’s Weekly, January 14, 1865; online at

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