Laura Dean Bennett
For those of you who remember something about “Old Christmas” and its peculiarities, these old wives tales will seem familiar.
But for those of you to whom these superstitions are new, well, let me just say, thank goodness you are reading about them now – before Christmas – just in case.
Whether celebrated on December 25 or on January 6 (“Old Christmas”)- Christmas in Appalachia is still celebrated in much the same way as it was more than 200 years ago.
The aroma of johnny cakes, pumpkin and mince pies, roasting meat, baking bread and corn popping on the back of the stove was the backdrop as mountain families celebrated not only Christ’s birth, but also their very survival.
Life was hard among the early settlers.
Celebrating Christmas, even if only for a day or two, must have seemed a blessed respite from the hardships and terrors of a wilderness existence.
With a sudden and harsh change in circumstances- even death- seeming to lurk around every corner, it’s no wonder that so many of the mountain folk believed in superstitions.
The origin of “Old Christmas” (January 6th) came from the 1500s, when Pope Gregory XIII altered the “Julian” calendar to more accurately reflect the solar cycle.
In making the adjustment, the new Gregorian calendar reduced the number of days in a year from 376 to 365 and we still use it today.
Several countries, out of distrust or disapproval of the pope, resisted the change and kept the old Julian calendar.
It took until 1752 for England and Scotland to finally accept the Gregorian calendar.
This happened to be about the same time that many English and Scottish people were settling in Appalachia.
Some of these settlers either didn’t know about the change or refused to accept the new Gregorian calendar.
They kept the extra 11 days in their calendars, meaning Christmas fell on January 6.
Eventually, almost everyone in Appalachia came to observe December 25 as Christmas.
However, until fairly recently, Old Christmas was still celebrated in some rural areas of West Virginia.
It’s mentioned in various bits of recorded Appalachian history, and even memorialized in a fiddle tune called “Old Christmas Morning.”
Ever since we observed Old Christmas, and even after it became common to celebrate on December 25, there have been many Appalachian superstitions associated with the day.
Children born on January 6 were considered especially blessed and were believed by some to be given the power to heal the sick.
Another folk legend, which probably comes from the nativity story of them kneeling by the manger, has it that animals kneel and are given the power of speech at midnight on Christmas eve.
I would give anything to witness this – but it’s considered bad luck to catch them speaking, so no one may ever tell us what they say.
Another old Christmas wives’ tale is that water turns to wine at midnight on Christmas Eve.
But, to taste it is bad luck, so one could never confirm the veracity of this story.
Many old tales involve flowers and plants which suddenly bloom on Christmas Eve.
This belief may have come from the ancient English legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, which was said to have been a thorn bush grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimethea, who many believed, fled to England after Christ’s crucifixion.
If you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Day you may hear angels sing.
Sounds heavenly, but wait…
Before you go out and sit under a pine tree, know this – if you do hear the angels singing, you’ll be on your way to heaven before the next Christmas.
Breads and cakes baked on Christmas Day have special healing qualities.
Some folks preserved them all year in the belief that eating from them could cure all manner of illness.
If going visiting to neighbors’ homes on Christmas Day, hope that they will be serving stack cake or mince meat pie, because eating a piece of those pies baked by another brings good luck in the coming year.
Visits from 12 neighbors will ensure good luck for the whole next year.
It was considered by some to be bad luck for a cat to meow on Christmas Day.
If it did, evil spirits might visit the home every day during the coming year.
It could also bode ill for the household if coals or ashes from the Christmas day fire were thrown out that day.
And no coal or ember of a Christmas fire, nor a Christmas candle or torch should be given away on Christmas day.
This superstition may have originated with the belief of the ancient Druids that each individual ember of a fire represented the spirit of a dearly departed kinsman who was there to protect the home.
A crowing cock or shooting off guns and fire-works on Christmas Eve scares away evil spirits.
Many believed that angels are so busy celebrating the birth of Christ, that one hour before midnight on Christmas Eve, the gates of heaven are temporarily left unattended.
Anyone passing away at this hour may have a good chance of sneaking into heaven without having to give a full account for themselves.
To hear the chirp of a cricket on the Christmas hearth or in the house at Christmas is a good luck omen for the coming year.
Eating an apple as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve brings good health.
As unappealing as it may seem, many young maids would visit the hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve to find out the kind of man they’d marry.
If an old hog grunts first, she will marry an old man.
If a shoat grunts first, her husband will be young and handsome.
Christmas Day, the old saying goes, dawns an hour earlier than other days.
This causes elder, poke, and many medicinal herbs and plants to bud and sprout… so one must be ready to rush out to pick them on Christmas Day.
At sunset on Christmas Day, the earth is again plunged into darkness and the plants will die back until spring.
Bees, they believed, would hum from dusk until dawn on Old Christmas (January 6).
Some say they sing Psalm 100, fly out of the hive at midnight and swarm for a little while, as if it were again summer.
Those of you who have hives must be sure to check this. I would dearly love to hear your reports!
Christmas weather is thought by many of the old folks to provide a reliable weather forecast for the following year.
A warm Christmas day predicts a cold Easter; a green Christmas with no snow would presage a snowy Easter; a windy Christmas prophesies a good corn crop; dripping eves on Christmas Day predict a good apple crop.
Let’s make notes and check these predictions next year.
Possibly because of the resonating conflict between “Old” and “New” Christmas, many of the old folks believed that a Christmas tree must never be removed before January 2, but that they must be down before January 6 or bad luck might befall the household.
Unfortunately, there seem to be no historical records to confirm the accuracy of these predictions.
But we can enjoy and cherish them as part of the heritage of Christmas Past in the Appalachians.