Exploring Northeast Georgia
Traditions of the Past
Times have changed but the excitement children feel surrounding Christmas is timeless. Reflecting back to a simpler time when Scotch-Irish pioneers brought Christmas traditions with them from their homeland, money was sparse but church and family dominated people’s lives.
Stockings may not have been as full of the latest and greatest toys but for a child growing up in the 1800’s in the Appalachian Mountains, a stocking crammed with apples, oranges, stick candy and maybe a few Brazil nuts was surely a treat!
Music was an important part of Appalachian family life. At Christmas time families gathered around fireplaces and listened and sang to the fiddle tunes. The Christmas Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is rooted in Appalachian Mountain tradition. Families would celebrate “Old Christmas” on January 6th, which was the final day of the twelve days of Christmas.
Before December 25th 1752 Christmas was celebrated on January 6th. Then in Britain and America the new Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752 making Christmas Day December 25th. Some mountain communities continued to celebrate Old Christmas as well as the new Christmas Day, resulting in a twelve day celebration.
Old Christmas Day was celebrated quietly, with church, simple family meals, reading from the Bible and stockings with fruits, nuts and candy. On Old Christmas Eve, Appalachian families believed that farm animals bowed their heads in prayer in their stalls.
Irish and Scottish settlers brought fruitcake, also known as Scotch whiskey cake or Twelfth night cake to the Appalachian region. It is traditionally made of fruits, nuts and whiskey. Fruitcake is a tradition that continues today in many homes throughout the country.
Homes were decorated with whatever natural materials were available, such as holly, nuts, berries, evergreens and pinecones. If the family had room for a Christmas tree it was simply decorated with paper or popcorn strings and homemade decorations. Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread people were popular and sometimes figures or dolls were made of yarn or straw.
Many of the gifts under the tree were carved wooden toys or corn husk dolls. Most gifts were handmade, knitted socks, gloves, hats or gifts that were carefully sewed or embroidered.
For most families Christmas Day was a day for feasting and sharing preserved fruits and vegetables, fresh game and baked pies and cakes. Several weeks before Christmas women would start baking and preparing for the Christmas meal.
An old Irish tradition that we still practice today is the placing of a lighted candle in the window of a home on Christmas Eve. The candle is a symbol of the welcoming of Mary and Joseph in their search for shelter.