The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Seventy Christmases Ago

By Ninevah J. Willis © 1985

Issue: December, 1985

Robert Lee Jackson (Bob) about 1912.Robert Lee Jackson (Bob) about 1912.Christmas was fast approaching, too fast for my mother, but too slowly for me, a five year old who had waited all the year for the happy occasion. My mother had too much work to do, what with the chores and the approaching holiday season. Her face wore a worried look, not as one approaching a joyous holiday season. She was anxious because she had been taught to have Santa Claus pay his visits even if he couldn't bring much, while my father and his folks thought the sentimental side of Christmas was a lot of tommy-rot. Then too, there was not going to be much to put in a Christmas stocking that year. I would hang my stocking by the fireplace. Mother would always see to it that there was a new pair of stockings to hang up, for Santa just wouldn't put presents in old socks. That year there had been no new knitted sheep wool socks, so Mother had washed and ironed my best old pair so that Santa couldn't tell the difference. And he couldn't, evidently, for he left my presents as usual.

The kitchen of our house was built off from what we called the "big house." It was a large spacious room that accommodated the family as living room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen, shop, and general living quarters, except when "company" came. Company was entertained in the "big house" which was connected to the kitchen by a long shed-like porch (often called a "dog trot" or "wind sweep"). The best and prettiest things we owned were in the "big house." We used it so seldom that it seemed like another world to me, and I was actually terrified to go there alone.

During Christmas week, Mother and I would go to the woods and carry in armloads of "greens" (hemlock, pine, cedar, silver pine, creeping pine, and galax leaves) which we would hang in festoons around the big log kitchen. The decorations looked so good and smelled so wonderful, but Dad would only grunt and say, "Humph! Such a lot of foolishness." After Christmas, we took the decoration down and burned it in the fireplace for the tantalizing aroma. The roaring and crackling had something to do with witches.

After supper was over and the chores were done, we would all sit around the big roaring fire and roast apples...almost roast ourselves, too. The wind whistling through the cracks between the logs in the walls and the wide planks in the floors, would feel like "Case knives" as it would swirl around our legs. (Case was the brand name of a sharp knife which was used for eating as well as a household tool.) The fireplace had been made large enough to accommodate a roaring fire, which would roast one side of the person seeking its warmth while the other side would freeze. While Dad would shell corn, Mother would tell me stories and help me write my letter to Santa. (Such stories she could tell. I could see knights in shinning armor riding milk white steeds as they leapt from flame to flame in the big red-hot fire, as well as witches, goblins and "hants.")

Usually we all helped to shell the corn, for it was fun to take the 'specially prepared corn cob called a "sheller" and twist the grains from the cobs which were piled high in the corner for future use as kindling. Later I would be allowed to fashion the cobs into log cabins, pig pens, and almost anything my fancy should choose to do. Corn cobs made especially nice dolls, too, but I must get back to Christmas and my letter to Santa. Dad sat silently by, apparently not listening. If I had thought he might be listening, I doubt if I would have spoken one word aloud; for in our household, children were to be seen and not heard. Somehow in my childish fancy I always managed to ask for just the right things from Santa. I doubt if it ever occurred to me to ask for anything else since no kid in the neighborhood ever got more than a few sticks of striped candy, two oranges, and a few nuts. At our house Santa always left a coconut and some articles of clothing which looked strangely like the ones that I had seen Mother making out of flowered feed bags.

Then came Dad's turn. He finished filling the stocking with firecrackers, Roman cannons and Sparklers. There was always a cap buster with a generous supply of caps which he always saved to give me the next day, so I wouldn't get the idea that he believed in Santa Claus. If I was foolish enough to hang my stocking the second night, Dad would fill it with corn cobs and switches.

Now for the big fun. It was time to be on our way to Grandpa's house. I had no new dress to wear for I had gotten my annual new linsey-woolsey dress last fall when Grandma wove the cloth for our clothes. But I had my home-knitted yarn stockings which still smelled partly like sheep and partly like the homemade apple vinegar which was used to set the dye, but smelling, never-the-less. My yearly pair of shoes were called "Elkins" because they were made in Elkin, North Carolina. They were made of good leather, for they had to last a whole season; in fact, the leather was so good and thick that it would refuse to bend when I took a step. Thus, being rather on the plumpish side from a winter diet of corn pone, dried beans and sow-belly; I learned to waddle very much like a goose as I propelled my shoes across the floor. There were no rights and lefts to these shoes so they could be alternated to make them last longer. I envied those who could afford copper toed Elkins. I can't remember what else I wore except a red homespun petticoat for which the cloth had been woven by my grandmother. I secretly wished I didn't have to wear it underneath my dress, it was so pretty. I don't remember wearing underpants until I started to school. Then Mom made black sateen bloomers for me.

By the time Mother and I were ready to go, Dad had the mules hitched to the wagon and had driven up to the kitchen door. I was wrapped in a quilt and deposited in the back of the wagon, while Mom and Dad climbed in and sat facing the team. Many wagons had spring seats and many people rode in chairs; but not my Scotch-Irish parents. Doing that would look like being soft, so they would sit flat in the wagon bed and jounce happily along, forgetting they had a care in the world, especially me.

After five miles, we arrived at my Dad's store, where we all dismounted, country style, which in those parts meant, "Everyone for himself." My Dad and his brothers ran a very successful country store; you could tell by the goods and people sitting all over the place. Every nail keg, every feed sack and every other place that would hold a carcass was occupied by folks - just sitting.

Dad brought out a tow sack full of fire crackers and handed me my usual toy pistol and caps, whereupon we were off to a rip-roaring Christmas. Mother drove the mules the rest of the way, while Dad and I serenaded the country side with fire crackers and toy pistol shots. As usual, Grandma, when she heard all the commotion, would smile and say, "There comes Bob's."

How in the world she could ever be glad to see all that clan, I'll never know. Dad and his six brothers were quiet and hardworking except at Christmas, when they would let loose enough noise to wake the dead. Soon after our arrival, and Grandma heard the last one "Whoop" at the top of Hickory Ridge, she began dishing up supper. What a meal! All cooked over an open fire! Grandma never used a recipe; she cooked by pinches, dabs, and wads, with an extra dipper of water for the gravy when there was company - still hers was the best food I have ever eaten. The men folks always ate first, then the women, and finally the children. I was nearly grown before I knew that a chicken had any edible parts except wings and necks.

Everyone sat up all night that night except the kids. We were put to bed on "pallets" made on the floor. Women gossiped while they washed the enormous pile of dishes, pots and pans; the men played poker and drank from a bottle which was furnished by Grandpa and others.

At midnight the Christmas celebration really got into full swing - all the remaining firecrackers were set off in volleys; pistols and shotguns were discharged into the air; and the prize of the evening - the dynamite blast, which was to rival all the neighbors, was set off. All that clamor awakened all the kids whose howls added to the commotion. Soon the neighbors on Rich Hill, Hoot Owl Holler, Nancy Haley Hollow, Hickory Ridge, Shooting Creek and all within hearing distance began to answer in kind. Old time Christmases were exciting times in some communities - according to the ancestry of the inhabitants.

All through the years we have been continually remodeling Christmas, adding to the customs brought into these mountain fastnesses by our ancestors, those which were more modern. Radio and television have done more than anything to make Christmas meaningful - a season that is satisfying, inspirational, colorful and really centered around the lives of little children.