Ghost Stories and Tall Tales of the American South

Appalachian Christmas

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Appalachian Christmas stories, folklore, history and people.

Like other indigenous folktales, Appalachian Christmas stories, for the most part, can be traced back to the British Isles. The early mountain settlers, who were largely Scotch-Irish immigrants, probably brought these tales over the ocean with them. As they formed their own distinctive, tight-knit culture in the rugged hills, these original Christmas tales were transformed into stories that reflected their new lives in America. Two centuries later, as modern influences crept into Appalachia, these distinctive Appalachian tales spread rapidly throughout the world – so much so that cultural origins are sometimes blurred.

Appalachian Cabin in Winter

Some Appalachian Christmas stories attempt to explain how certain traditions and images such as gift giving, mistletoe, Poinsettia flowers and Christmas trees came to be associated with Christmas. In some cases, these traditions and images became significant because they were featured in the celebration of the birth of Christ. One of the more popular Appalachian “tall tales” – the story of how farm animals talk to one another on Christmas Eve – was actually part of a centuries-old tale of the first Christmas miracles.

Learn more about the Southern Appalachian region by following these links:

Southern Appalachian Mountains
Early Mountain Life
Modern Mountain Life
Smoky Mountains
Mountain Speech
Other Links

Southern Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains are a narrow and extensive mountain system that parallels the eastern coast of North America for approximately 1,212 miles. Formed about 250 million years ago, it is one of the oldest mountain systems on Earth.

The Appalachian Mountains stretch from Newfoundland all the way down to the northern sections of Alabama and Georgia. They are separated from the eastern Coastal Plain by a massive fall line. The system is a mixture of mountains, valleys, high ridges and wide, dissected plateaus. Dense forests cover much of the system, and some rock structures date back to the Precambrian and early Paleozoic eras.

Two of the most prominent Appalachian ranges can be found in the Southern United States. The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina have some of the tallest and most rugged peaks in the system, with some towering over 6,000 feet (Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet). The backbone of the system, the Blue Ridge, starts in Georgia and stretches north to Pennsylvania.

Appalachian Mountains

On the eastern side of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, between the Blue Ridge and the fall line, is a rolling plateau known as the Piedmont, which takes up large portions of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. On the western side is the Cumberland Plateau, stretching from southern West Virginia to Alabama. In-between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland is a hilly region called the Ridge and Valley, which stretches from central Alabama up to New York State.

Several Native American tribes lived in the Appalachian Mountains before the arrival of white settlers. In the South, one of the most prominent tribes was the Cherokee. According to Cherokee legend, the Great Smoky Mountains were formed by a giant buzzard circling above the earth after a great flood. When this buzzard reached the Smokies, he plummeted to the earth in exhaustion. Where his massive wings touched the earth, the mountain valleys appeared.

The Cherokees learned to coexist with the European settlers. They even fought with them against the British during the War of 1812. But with the discovery of gold in north Georgia, the federal government made a concerted effort to drive the Cherokees out, culminating in the infamous Trail of Tears removal of 1838.

There are some descendants of the original Cherokees living in the Southern Appalachian Mountains today. Some believe that they are descendants of Tsali, a brave warrior who gave himself up for murdering a white soldier during the Trail of Tears. In exchange, Colonel William Thomas, a white friend, promised Tsali that his tribe could remain in the hills. Other Cherokees simply disappeared into the mountains.

Early mountain life was difficult for the European settlers. Completely isolated from the outside world, they struggled to survive on the rocky hillsides. But they were also a fiercely independent group, with their own system of law and unique cultural traits. Despite the widespread changes caused by modern influences, bits and pieces of early Appalachian Mountain culture can still be found today.

Much of the Appalachian Mountain system is now used for recreational purposes. Parks such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park attract thousands of visitors a year while also serving as wildlife sanctuaries. The Appalachian Trail, a 2,143-mile footpath stretching between Mount Katahdin in Maine and Springer Mountain in Georgia, was completed in 1937. This trail is used and maintained by stout hikers from around the world.

Early Mountain Life

The original Appalachian settlers were largely Scotch-Irish immigrants who clawed their way through the lush and rugged hill country in the early 1700s. Clannish and fiercely independent folk, these settlers had rebelled against the restrictive laws of their homeland, and were in search of a place where their Protestant beliefs could flourish without interference. They were awed by the dense hardwood forests teaming with game, the fresh, sparkling rivers filled with fish, and the eerie mist creeping through the valleys that reminded them so much of the Scottish Highlands back home (this is how the Smoky Mountains got their name).

Deep within the cool hollows, the settlers staked their claims. The virgin forests provided plentiful building materials for their log cabins and furniture. They raised small crops of corn, potatoes and black-eyed peas, and fruit trees and gourds to make containers. The men were crack shots, hunting the woods day and night for “beasties” (animals) with the help of their loyal dogs, which they would proudly describe as “part hound, part cur” (or fierce breed of dog).

Appalachian Log Cabin

Inside the tiny, one room cabins, the women would dye clothes with berries and bark gathered from the forest and cook dinner on the huge stone fireplaces. In-between chores, they would knit quilts on their looms, using elaborate patterns with unique names like “nine-patch,” “double-wedding ring” and “dove-in-the-window.”

Corn shuckings, house raisings and log rollings were regular community events. But the most popular social events were the mountain dances, also called “play parties” since the church didn’t approve of dancing. These parties were generally casual and easygoing. Fiddlers, sometimes accompanied by a banjo and dulcimer would play alternately humorous and plaintive ballads that reminded the settlers of their homeland and lost relatives. Occasionally, the musicians would make up ballads about interesting community events. These “play parties” were some of the only fun times that these hard working settlers ever had.

Whenever their way of life was threatened, these settlers fought back fiercely. After long skirmishes with the Cherokees and the British army, some mountain communities found themselves at odds with the Confederate army. These self-reliant people had never had to rely on slaves for labor, and couldn’t support the South’s secession from the Union. As a result, some communities were regularly harassed by the Confederate army, who took prisoners, vandalized property and stole livestock. In some areas, children were placed along the mountain tops to warn of approaching Confederate troops.

Isolated from the Confederacy and the Federal government, which the mountain people later blamed for not coming to their aid during the Civil War, many mountain communities turned away from the outside world. Little immigration took place through the nineteenth century, leading to intermarriage within families. But the mountain people were always kind to wayward strangers. Their doors were always left open for strangers to “light and hitch” (visit) with the family, and a bed was always prepared.

Early Photograph Appalachian Mountains

Although the mountain people tamed small plots of land around their homes, they were still surrounded by miles of mysterious, dense forest. They were already a superstitious group – everyone knew that the moon affected planting cycles, the tail of a hound dog attracted lightning and that an axe placed under the bed of a birthing motherslove would kill the pain. But as night fell across the hills, the seemingly impenetrable forest would come alive with spooky sounds and lights. Whatever these settlers heard or saw found their way into the stories told around the fireplace at night.

Although modern influences have had a dramatic impact on early mountain culture, some of the “old timey” ways can still be found in the hills today.

Modern Mountain Life

The second and third generations of the original Appalachian settlers eventually pressed against the limits of sustenance. Migrating from the low valleys into the creek branches, sub-valleys and steep hillsides, these families had extreme difficulty farming the rocky terrain. Barely able to make a living from their crops, many families fell into poverty, leading to widespread disease and malnutrition.

Early twentieth century social workers were horrified with some of the conditions they found there: little or no sanitation, children lacking shoes or fresh clothes, families with ten to twelve kids crammed into dirty, one-room shacks. Distrusting of “furriners” toting little black bags filled with “black magic,” some mountain families became their own pharmacists, using odd assortments of herbs, tonics and roots to treat everything from typhoid fever to measles. As a result, the mortality rate soared.

These social workers brought what was to become the first wave of modernization to the hills. Trained nurses would set up shop in the communities and teach families about personal hygiene and homemaking skills. Fathers were taught how to read and write. Corps of midwives traveled throughout the hills helping deliver babies. Some of these social workers were indeed heroes, riding across terrible mountain roads, swollen streams and swinging bridges to reach the isolated families.

Early Appalachian Lumber Workers

In the early 1900s, large lumber companies began to eye the Southern Appalachian region. The region had been generally bypassed for the flatlands of Mississippi and Louisiana, but after these areas had been fully “slashed and burned,” lumber scouts began discovering the virgin hardwood forests in the hills. Mill towns and railroads sprung up seemingly overnight, scarring the landscape and causing major pollution and erosion problems. Human life and land were cheap for many of these companies: loggers were forced to work extremely long hours with the constant threat of accidents, dismemberment and death. Despite the risks, however, many mountain residents were forced to work for the companies to support their impoverished families.

With the construction of new highways, modern influences began to have a dramatic impact on mountain life and culture. The influx of radio, television and printed matter diluted traditional mountain speech. Younger families, faced with a bleak future in the hills, migrated to the cities. One by one, the mountain communities emptied.

Appalachian Fiddler

But perhaps there’s something about the fear associated with rapid modernization that has lately made people nostalgic for the “old ways.” For thousands of tourists visit the Appalachian Mountains each year searching for signs of early mountain culture. Past the curio shops and amusement parks, they are likely to see and hear traces of early mountain life: an elderly farmer still plowing his steep fields with a team of horses, story swapping on country store porches, traditional bluegrass music on a community radio station, hand-carved crafts, fiddles and dulcimers, small white churches dotting the hillsides. In mountain speech, one can still hear words and expressions from pre-colonial times.

Although it is unclear what will happen in the next century, our constant need for the reassuring simplicity of the “old ways” is likely to keep Appalachian Mountain culture alive for generations to come.

Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina represent some of the highest and most rugged peaks in the Appalachian Mountains. Many peaks are in excess of 6,000 feet, with Clingmans Dome in eastern Tennessee being the tallest at 6,644 feet.

Smoky Mountains

The name “Smoky” comes from the bluish mist that envelops the hills. Abundant rainfall and fertile soils have given the Smokies one of the world’s finest examples of temperate deciduous forest. A wide variety of flora is in abundance here, as are many different species of birds and other wildlife.

Due to wildlife preservation policies, much of the area looks as it did to the early Native American and European settlers. Restored log cabins and barns from the pioneer era are scattered throughout the area.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Smokies were threatened by lumbering and mining companies. Although these industries brought jobs to mountain families, they wrecked havoc on the environment. By the late 1920s, a move was underway by the federal government to turn the Great Smoky Mountains into a protected wildlands sanctuary. Thanks to a large donation from John D. Rockefeller, along with community efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina, over 400,000 acres of land were acquired by the government, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1930.

Mountain Speech

Like other remnants of early Appalachian mountain life, the old time speech of the original settlers has been largely eroded away by modernization.

Most of the original settlers were immigrants from the English Isles, although some German and Dutch settlers also made the journey. They brought with them colorful, Elizabethan era words and phrases which one can find in the works of Shakespeare.

As time passed, the isolation of mountain life transformed the language. Words were mispronounced, phrases and sentences were rearranged, and new words were created to fit the rugged mountain life these settlers faced. Intermarriage within mountain communities also caused this unique language to flourish for many years.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that mountain language was transformed by the modern influences of the outside world. Radio, television and newspapers, along with an influx of modern schools and colleges, taught the younger generation a new, “grammatically correct” way of speaking. As the exodus of young families from the mountains grew, mountain dialect became less prevalent.

One can still hear some of the original dialect in the more isolated mountain communities. If you find yourself in such places, listen closely for unique words and sayings like:

a-childing : pregnant
corn-fed critters : poor people
a give-out : an announcement
arm baby : child small enough to be carried in someone’s arms
a whoop and a holler : a long distance
ain’t had much schoolhousing : isn’t very educated
bald faced whiskey : fresh whiskey from a still
bigging it and bigging it : exaggerating
bonny : good
butter-mouthed : speaking in flattering terms
chunk-washer : heavy rain
death watch : ticking insect in the wall of a house that meant death in the family.
dogtrot : covered passageway between two rooms
doney-girl : female sweetheart
et : ate
fur : far
graveyard cough : deep, tubercular cough
goozler : boy whose voice is changing
jairy : nervous
kiver : cover
knee child : child small enough to sit on a knee
lap child : child small enough to be held in a lap
pap : father
pile up with trash : associate with low class, immoral people
rip and tear : raise cain
since Heck was a pup : a long time ago
skun : skinned
turn right-handed : turn right
turn left-handed : turn left
yan : yonder
yan side : the farthest side

Other Links

For more information on the Appalachian Mountains, check out the following links:

Appalachian Trail
Very comprehensive site on the trail, with state by state information.

Appalshop
Media arts center in Whitesburg, Kentucky that produces and presents work celebrating the culture and voices the concerns of people living in the Appalachian Mountains.

Foxfire
The Foxfire books and magazines are still the definitive publications on Appalachian culture.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This site has information on all the recreational and naturalist activities available in the park.

Photos courtesy of Foxfire, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


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3 Responses to “Appalachian Christmas”


Jane Gurley:

I do appreciate this article on the old ways of our mountains. We need to keep the old stories and traditions alive.

I do want to make a couple of comments:
Folks did not “knit quilts of their looms”. Women would weave coverlets with a variety of patterns. The thread for weaving was spun on spinning wheels. The the thread was then woven into coverlets and clothing. Quilts were pieced and were sewn by hand. In later years all homes had a quilting frame which made quilting the layers of fabric much easier. Many times the quilting frame would be lowered from the ceiling with ropes when the women and girls were actually quilting and then raised back up to the ceiling to open up the space in the small cabins and houses. Looms were used for weaving. Quilts were normally made from scraps of fabric was cut from clothing that was no longer wearable. Quilt patterns were also related to the somewhat supperstitious beliefs of the early settlers. Certain patterns were actually symbols of protection. Not only did quilts make good warm bed covers, they were also placed on the beds as symbols of protection while the household was sleeping.
Another point is that the very earliest settlers from the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland spoke a type of English that was older that Elizabethan English. Because of the isolation and clannish ways of the inhabitants of tenant farmers in Scotland, their language patterns were much older than that spoken in England in the towns. Even after the Plantation of Ulster, these Scots now living in Northern Ireland, still maintained their style of language and expressions that were heard in more remote places than the English spoken in English towns during the time of Shakespeare. These Scots-Irish brought their language with them to America in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Those who settled in the Southern Appalachians were again living far from the cities of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, therefore their language patterns again retained patterns and vocabulary from an older time in history, much of it older than the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Their language was also influenced by Gaelic/Irish language patterns.
The geology of the Appalachian mountain chain was more similar to the hills and mountains of Scotland and Ireland than most folks realize. There is a band of mineral called Serpentine that runs through the Appalchians. It is a green mottled mineral that can be found in the layers of the the Appalachian mountain chain. This band of Serpentine starts in Georgia and can be found in the mountain chain all the way to Nova Scotia. There the mineral stops and then begins again in Scotland and continues in the hills and mountains there. At one point in history, before continental drift, this was one land mass, and the chain of the Serpentine mineral was one continuous layer. Therefore another reason for so many of the Scot-Irish settling the in the Appalachians was the similarity to their own homeland in the British Isles. These settlers did not know about this mineral or that at one time both continents were connected continuously, but the mountains, climate, appearance and isolation for their fiercely independant lifestyle were similar to their old homes. They left home seeking a place of independence from persecution or for opportunity for land to avoid the English rack rents in Northern Ireland. Many were forced off the land they had leased in Ulster. Many were put on ships and let out wherever the ship was going to in America. Many came as entire church congregations (The Scots-Irish Presbyterians) and settled here to regain the right to follow their religious beliefs without persecution. They found freedom, independence and a new home in the Appalachians.

charles h. keys marcum:

I was born in Rose Hill Lee County Virginia in fall 1938 of goodly parents, and beginning to try to race my roots including Cherokee, does anyone have a comment, Thanks, Pilotorange

Famous Christmas Carols – Story Behind the Carol – “I Wonder As I Wander” | Jlue’s Weblog:

[…] and hear at Christmas. It is an Appalachian Carol and was sung by those people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains. When John Jacob Niles was living in Murphy, NC in 1933, he  heard the song by a young traveling […]

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