These timeless traditions speak to a simpler holiday celebration focused on family and friends.
Different parts of Kentucky observe different holiday traditions, but the Appalachian regions hold some of the most timeless. For example, did you know that many people living in Appalachian and Amish communities celebrate Christmas twice? The initial Christmas is the same is it is now, December 25, while the second, called Old Christmas, is celebrated on January 6 at the end of the traditional 12 days of Christmas.
Many of these Christmas traditions have fallen by the wayside (celebratory cannon fire anyone?), but some are still observed today. Here’s a look.
Meat for the table
Holiday tales often speak of cooking up a Christmas goose, but that was not always the case. A plump goose would be nice, but traditionally the main course was prepared from whatever meat hunters brought home. The hope was to bring home a fine wild turkey or wild boar. It’s also a time when families would pull out a country ham, preserved with salt, from the larder. A family might also choose to slaughter its eldest henhouse chicken to provide meat for the holiday.
Getting in the holiday spirit
Business boomed for moonshine producers around the holidays. Not only did individuals purchase shine as gifts, businesses would even give it to employees. Some gave the gift in a handmade flask, while others just handed over the bottle. As you can imagine, moonshine was also a favorite gift to open early on Christmas day. Coincidentally or not, sometimes revelers might also be inspired to go outside and fire off several celebratory shots into the air.
Festive cannon fire
Not everyone had a cannon in Kentucky coal country, but many knew how to get their hands on a small carbide cannon or make one. It’s said that the hills would echo for hours with the sound of these small cannons being fired. This old tradition faded as carbide lanterns were phased out from Kentucky coal mines and carbide wasn’t as readily available.
Chimney letters to Santa
Children write letters to Santa all around the world but, in the Appalachians and other rural communities, children would burn their letters in a fireplace and “fairies” would carry their message up the chimney and deliver it to Santa.
It wasn’t often a family could make an order from the Sears and Roebuck wish book. Instead family members made the gifts they gave each other. Rag dolls were stitched by hand, usually from scraps of cloth or old socks. Toy figures and cars were whittled from wood. Even siblings would make gifts for one another. It was the love that went into the creation of the gift that made it special, not how much it cost. My own grandmother and mother have wooden spoons carved from cedar and hickory by my Papaw years ago. He’d whittle them a new spoon whenever one wore out.
Traditionally, Christmas decorations were made with cedar, bittersweet and holly leaves with berries. Trees were harvested from the surrounding forest and decorated with popcorn chains, real apples, cotton shaped into snowflakes, scraps of material and hand-carved ornaments. Candles were placed in windows to light the path and welcome the holiday spirit into each home.
Decades ago, most Kentuckians didn’t get fancy with desserts. Instead they made simple yet delicious treats like applesauce cakes and pies — pumpkin, mincemeat, apple and berry were favorite varieties — as well as melt-in-your-mouth fudge and other homemade treats. Divinity candy was considered fancy, especially if you put a walnut on top. Fruit cakes are another long-standing holiday tradition. They were loaded down with moonshine or Kentucky bourbon and would last for months after Christmas.