Appalachia Christmas Folklore

Folklore Surrounding Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas folklore from Appalachia

A few weeks back I told you I’d share some Christmas folklore from one of my favorite books Dorie Woman of the Mountains written by Florence Cope Bush. The book was first published in 1992 and has been published at least 7 times since then if not more. In the introduction Florence Cope Bush writes

Dorie: Woman of the Mountains was not written with the idea that it would ever be published. I wrote it as a gift to my daughter, my mother, and myself. The manuscript was in my possession for fifteen years before a friend talked me into letting him publish two thousand copies in paperback for local distribution.”

The book is a biography about Bush’s mother, Dorie. The story spans the years between 1898 and 1942 and is set primarily in the Smoky Mountains.

Here’s an excerpt that tells of Christmas folklore that was common to Dorie:

Many legends and superstitions came to the mountains with our ancestors. One legend says that on Christmas Eve the animals talk. Bees in their hives are said to hum the melody of an ancient carol from dusk to dawn. The old people say they have heard the music of the bees and have seen cows kneel and speak. On this holy night, the plants will bloom as they did when Christ was born. Although covered with snow, underneath, the ground is covered with soft green vegetation.

Old Christmas, or January 5, is surrounded with superstitious beliefs. On this day the dawn comes twice. The first dawn comes about an hour earlier than usual, and the skies brighten until sunlight seems close. The poke weed sends up sprouts big enough for everyone to see if they’re lucky enough to be awake. When dark returns, the sprouts die, then the true dawn appears. Also, the week before Christmas, roosters crow in the middle of the night, trying to make the day come sooner.

You can hear an angel sing if you’re willing to pay the price. If you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Eve, angel voices will sing all around you. The price you pay for the miracle is death. You won’t live to see the sun rise again.

Wear something fresh and new on Christmas, and your luck will be good. Don’t wash clothes on the Friday before Christmas if you want to stay out of trouble. Don’t let the fire go out on Christmas morning, or spirits will come and take you away. Don’t give your friends or neighbors a match, a warm coal, or even a light to be taken out of the house. If you do you’ll be giving away your hope of a good future. If you leave a piece of bread on the table after Christmas supper, you’ll have enough to eat until next Christmas.

I checked out Frank C. Brown’s Collection of NC Folklore to see if there were any other interesting tidbits of Christmas Folklore. Here’s what I found:

  • Nothing made of leather during Christmas time will be durable
  • It is unlucky to carry anything away from the house on Christmas morning unless something is brought in first
  • If it snows on Christmas day-the grass will be green on Easter
  • A warm Christmas means a cold Easter
  • If a rooster crows repeatedly at midnight he is crowing for Christmas
  • Horses talk on Old Christmas (Reminds me of the first time Chatter saw a ‘talking’ horse on America’s Funniest Videos-she said “Oh Momma I didn’t know horses could talk!” She was so excited-I hated to tell her they really couldn’t.)
  • Water turns to blood at midnight on Old Christmas
  • I discovered there are many variations to the one about animals kneeling at midnight-such as: On Old Christmas animals kneel down and face the East; On Christmas Eve at midnight Cows kneel and low; At midnight on Old Christmas all horses and cows stand up and then lie down on their other side.

The folklore about plants blooming on the Holy Night and animals kneeling are the ones I’m most familiar with. Hope you’ll leave me a comment and let me know if you’ve ever heard any folklore mentioned above. And if that wasn’t enough Christmas folklore for you, jump over to Appalachian Mountain Roots and read some more.


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  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    December 27, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Lordy, I don’t know where to start! There are so many, and my mother followed many of them. She was English and I have found that the things she did at Christmas are echoed here in the mountains. One thing I’ve not seen mentioned in the comments is that she waited until Christmas Eve to bring in greenery–the old belief was that since spirits were abroad at this time of year the evil ones might see that a celebration was being planned and wreck it. She also placed a candle in the window Christmas Eve, to keep evil out, and to light the way for the Christ Child. She talked about the Glastonbury Thorn, that supposedly grew from the staff of Joseph of Aramethia at Glastonbury, England. He stuck it in the ground and it grew into a tree that only blooms at Christmas.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    Only one I know is the animals talk at midnight. I’ve never heard them do it but I’m deaf in one ear.
    Just pondered how much I’d love to hear angels singing under a pine tonight, but guess I’d better not risk it. Who’d feed all those animals tomorrow morning?

  • Reply
    Tracey Green
    December 23, 2016 at 8:11 am

    I think the only ones I heard growing up were the ones about the weather on Christmas and the weather on Easter. I honestly don’t recall hearing any of the others, even as folklore. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  • Reply
    December 22, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I enjoyed all the Folklore discussions today, but I’m like Cindy, they’re just Folklore.
    When I was a whole lot younger, we had Fiest Dogs, one just as pretty as the next. But I watched them bed down one time and asked Daddy “why do they turn round and round before laying down?” Without hesitation daddy said “one turn calls for another.” Back then we never heard of a Veternatian, much less know what one was, but our dogs were never sick. …Ken

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 22, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I have heard much of the folklore you posted today. Some I have read about. Some I have heard passed down by family. Our family being Scot/Irish/German we have much to choose to keep and use!
    My Mother never wanted Holly unless it was covered in all it’s red berried glory. The reason she said, was more berries, the more luck for the new year. Not me, I take my he Holly branches and add little red balls or fake red berries.
    Mom for some superstition or passed down folklore had to have Mistletoe as well, also with the white berries. Dad would get all aggravated trying to hunt down mistletoe with berries…He teasingly told Mom he was sure she planned to drop the poison berries In his coffee if the present she expected wasn’t what she asked for. Thru the years the question was “Did Mom get her mistletoe berries?” That when I was a girl. Soon plastic mistletoe took place of the real stuff! No one seems to want to go to the trouble of shooting it out of the trees or some kids are just too lazy to hunt it down and climb a tree to retrieve it!
    She always had to have candles in the windows! She said it was tradition to have a light in the window on Christmas so anyone lost could find home. She had the Woolworth lighted single ones and candelabras from the early forties. She never lit a real candle on a sill in a window.
    She did say one time that the cows in the barn made low moo sounds at Christmas!
    Thanks Tipper,
    I love this post today!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 22, 2016 at 11:31 am

    Cows everywhere kneel all the time. That’s how they lay down. They kneel on their front legs first then kinda flop down their back end. So yeah, if you watch long enough you’ll probably see a cow kneel. Horses on the other hand generally don’t lay down to sleep. They like to lay down and roll to rid themselves of insects but around Christmas time that is not much of a problem.
    The rooster crowing at midnight is a problem for me. Folklore tells us that it is heralding Christmas but is also an harbinger of death.
    After much research I have determine why bees hum in their hives on Christmas. It’s because they like the song but don’t know the words.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 22, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Quite a list if one were to plan on observing them all. The only one I recall hearing is the one about the animals kneeling at midnight on Christmas Eve. Unless folklore was grounded in the bible, it was rather frowned on at our house. So if my parents knew them they were not repeated.
    Incidentally the switch from the old to the new calendar (which occurred I belive in 1742) really puts a wrinkle in geneaology. I still haven’t gotten it straight. It says something about the strength of Appalachian tradition when there are still references to “old” Christmas 274 years later.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    December 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

    The animals kneeling is a classic. When I was in grad school, we read Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen. My professor launched into this long lecture on “archaic” superstitions. To be fair, she was talking about England in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t lost on me that my family still held that folk belief and had celebrated Old Christmas just two weeks prior.
    The one about sitting under a pine tree to hear angels sing gives me chills. That is a very powerful one. For me, it gets to that idea of how powerful these “in- between” times are. It’s a reminder to tread carefully and thoughtfully.
    I really need to read Dorie. It’s in my Amazon wish list. I’m planning to read it over the summer.
    I could go on! There is so much wisdom in our folklore. I’m so glad we are discussing it. I share it with my kids. I really believe it keeps you rooted and engaged in a world that is more amazing than reality TV and social media.
    Sheesh, I sound old!

  • Reply
    December 22, 2016 at 9:34 am

    There was never any superstition about Christmas growing up except not getting anything from Santa if not a good child. However, so many rules and superstitions about many other things, and I am still learning. My neighbor has some gardening superstitions which I have had trouble getting used to. I am not supposed to thank him for a plant or it won’t grow, but I can thank him for a vegetable once it is grown.
    I believe somewhat in the signs, but only use if something I generally have no luck with. He never observes the signs and has a beautiful garden. I wondered if any Blind Pig readers were taught not to say something or the opposite might happen. For instance saying this has been a wonderful Christmas season might bring on some drastic situation.
    I purchased a copy of Dorie Woman of the Mountains, and am only able to read a chapter at a time. I love it, as much of it reminds me of parts of growing up around my grandparents. It is a book I will not loan, but will be added to a few book I won’t let anyone borrow. Thanks, Tipper, for introducing us to so many interesting books with Appalachian theme.

  • Reply
    December 22, 2016 at 8:56 am

    Animals kneeling at midnight is the only folklore I’ve ever heard about Christmas. I will make sure none of my family ventures out to sit under a pine tree as the temperature is supposed to be the mid 60s on Christmas Eve.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 22, 2016 at 8:04 am

    I never heard any of these that I remember.
    Merry Christmas to all on Blind Pig and the Acorn!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 22, 2016 at 7:13 am

    Tip, I’ve heard some of these but never from an attitude of belief, only as folklore. My real curiosity about these is this…where did they come from? What really started them? Did a cow somewhere really kneel?

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