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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christmas In Appalachia

With Christmas coming up soon, I am reminded of many things which took place at Christmas when I was growing up in Knott County Kentucky in the 1950's and 1960's.  While I grew up with more than most people in the neighborhood, my parents were a long way from rich and did not spend frivolously for anything.  But Christmas was a special time and we had good food, family, visits from relatives and friends, and a few well selected gifts. 

 Salisbury Elementary, where I attended school, had a Christmas party with two one act plays, poems, and songs. A Christmas tree would be found and chopped down a few days before Christmas by the older boys.  It would be hauled into the building and decorated with hand me down ornaments from the teachers and a few parents.  There would be a few lights, tinsel, and other seasonal decorations.  But, to us, it looked like a first class job.  Usually, a few parents, family, and friends of students would come to the show.  It is difficult at best to turn a two room school into a theater and we did not really try.  Students would practice briefly each day after Thanksgiving to prepare for the show.  The one act plays would usually have only 4 or 5 parts and older students along with those with the best memories would usually be selected for the plays.  Older students would recite longer poems since they were harder to remember.  The school would be minimally decorated by the teachers.  On the day of the show, the last day of school before Christmas break, the front room, which housed the first through fourth grades, would be rearranged with a clothesline strung across the room a few feet from the dividing wall.  Sheets would be donated by mothers temporarily and they became the curtains.  Two of the oldest and tallest boys would be selected to draw the curtains.  As many chairs as necessary would be jammed into the remaining space with a respectful clearing left for the pot bellied stove and water bucket. 

A few classic Christmas songs would be sung in faltering but lusty voices.  Children would recite several poems and "Twas The Night Before Christmas" was always a big hit.  Then the plays would be produced with the typical poor quality amateur acting, few if any costumes, and universal approval no matter how bad the overall production might be.  When the plays were over, gifts would be passed out.  We would have drawn names for gifts a week or two before the date.  There would always be a few children whose parents were too poor to allow their children to draw names.  A few others would allow their children to draw names but the gift would be a box of chocolate covered cherries which could be bought for less than fifty cents in those days.  Nearly every child hoped that their name was not drawn by a giver of chocolate covered cherries.  There were also always small gifts for every child from the Caney Creek Community Center at Pippa Passes, KY.  The Community Center was a non-profit organization which had been founded by Alice Lloyd of the college of the the same name.  These gifts would generally be age and gender appropriate but minimal and had been donated by people hundreds of miles away.  Then the Christmas vacation would begin. 

Chocolate Covered Cherries

At home, we would generally have a large Christmas feast which would be very similar to the Thanksgiving dinner I have written about in an earlier posting.  Since my parents owned a small grocery store, we usually had more than our neighbors. But most of our food was still home grown.  Just before Christmas, my parents would bring several items into the store which they did not sell the rest of the year.  There would be a small collection of fresh fruit such as apples, oranges, tangerines, and bananas.  There would also be bagged nuts including mixed nuts, English Walnuts, and Brazil nuts which were more commonly referred to by a racist name based on their physical attributes.  We usually also had local black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazel nuts gathered from trees on our property. We also often had chestnuts which might have been gathered in the woods or bought from a wholesaler.  Chestnuts would be either boiled or placed on the front of a gas space heater with a slit in one side to prevent explosions.  Other people with wood or coal heat either baked their chestnuts on top of a pot bellied stove or in the front of the hearth. I still love the taste and smell of a roasted chestnut.  My grandparents also had one of the few pecan trees in Eastern Kentucky on their property and, in most years, we had a few pecans as well.  There would also be large wholesale size boxes of a few loose candies which my parents sold by the pound.  These would be chocolate drops, usually referred to by the same racist name as Brazil nuts: "Grocery Mix", a type of mixed vari-colored candies of nearly pure sugar; horehound candy; and stick candies. And of course, there would be a few boxes of chocolate covered cherries. Even though we did not like them at the time, today I often buy the single wrapped chocolate covered cherries at the impulse racks of convenience stores.  I can eat one now and it brings back dozens of memories tied to the holidays when I was a child.   These seasonal treats might be the only thing a few parents would be able to afford for their children.  

Bagged Mixed Nuts

Even if we had not been able to kill a hog at Thanksgiving, we usually had weather cold enough by Christmas and fresh pork was usually a staple at Christmas dinner.  Turkeys might or might not be served and were usually commercial products if they were.  Very few people in my area grew their own turkeys.  Much of the Christmas dinner might be home grown and local recipes prevailed. 

Christmas was also a time when many of the relatives who had migrated to the industrial north would come home for visits.  But the numbers at Christmas were usually lower than at Thanksgiving due to weather concerns.  Also, many of them who had children of their own preferred to stay in their own homes for Christmas.   Gifts were always opened in our house on Christmas morning.  A few people opened theirs on Christmas Eve.  But I was generally told that waiting till  Christmas morning was better since it taught some impulse control and also allowed time for Santa Claus to come.  We usually left out some milk and cake or cookies for Santa until I was old enough to know that he was a fictional character.  In the store, there would always be new Coca Cola Santa advertising each year.  It would usually contain at least one stand up cardboard Santa.  I often wonder how much antique value we burned in the garbage each year by destroying the Coca Cola Santas at the end of the holidays.  

Coca Cola Santa Claus
Christmas in Appalachia was never much like it was depicted by the Waltons.  There were some similarities.  But Christmas at my house on Beaver Creek was unique, fun, rewarding, and a definite family affair.  I wish I could go back to at least one mountain Christmas like they were in the 1950's.  "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night." 

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