Appalachia Christmas

Mother Loved Christmas

Today’s guestpost was written by Susanna Holstein aka Granny Sue. Photos were also provided by Granny Sue.

Dec 31, 1957 Joe, Me, Margaret, Mary, Judy, Susie


A photo of our family around 1957, on a visit to my grandmother’s house during the holidays.

My mother grew up in the small village of Caldecote, England, just outside of Cambridgeshire. She left her home and country after marrying my father during World War II and came to the United States, bringing many of her Christmas traditions with her. Some of these harked back to ancient times, although my mother probably didn’t realize that. She loved the holidays–the greenery, the music, the tree, baking, wrapping gifts and all the other trappings of the season. Christmas cards were a big part of the holidays, back then, and my parents sent literally hundreds. Postage was only 3 cents so it wasn’t expensive to send them then! Fruitcake was always made on “stir-up” day, which was the day after Thanksgiving.

Greenery was never brought in until Christmas Eve, and the tree was not decorated until the dead of Christmas night. Sometimes my parents would have only 2 or 3 hours sleep before the first child was awake on Christmas morning. Mom probably didn’t realize that this tradition harks back to the very old days when it was believed the veil between the spirit world and the living world was thinnest during the dark days of Solstice, so people did not bring greens inside or give any sign of celebrations about to begin until the last minute in case evil spirits lurking about might see and disrupt the festivities. She also saved mistletoe from one year to the next, another old superstition, and put a candle in the window on Christmas Eve–she said this was to light the way for the Christ child, which might be a more recent take on an old belief that a candle in the window also deterred evil spirits.

Dad's creche 1971


The manger scene in its early days.

Mom never forgot the reason for the season. Her manger scene (I don’t ever remember her calling it a “creche”) was huge and grew each year as more shepherds, angels and animals were added to the collection. Dad built a special corner shelf in the hallway specifically for her Christmas arrangement of her collection. There were certain rules about her manger scene. First, the baby Jesus was not put in until midnight on Christmas Eve–because, you see, he hadn’t been born until then! His cradle remained empty all through December.

Mom would say to us, “You don’t want the baby to have a hard bed, do you?” So for each good deed we did, we could add one straw (usually broken from the broom) to the cradle. We would work hard at first to do good deeds, like taking the little children for a walk, picking up strewn toys, or doing our work before we were asked, but after a few days the thrill would wear off and we’d forget about the straws. About mid-month Mom would look in the cradle and say, “Poor Baby! He’ll have a hard bed this year!” We’d try harder to be good, and a few questionable straws probably got added to make sure the Baby was comfortable.

The Wise Men did not make their appearance until Epiphany, or Old Christmas, on January 5th. According to Mom, this was when they arrived, as they had a long journey and followed the star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth. They would be on their way, marching across the mantle, over the back of the couch and across the tables until they finally arrived. The manger scene usually stayed in place until January 12th; Mom and Dad’s anniversary was January 11th, which, according to my mother, was the real “Old Christmas.”

We had little money, with thirteen children in the family, but we were rich in tradition and all the things that cost nothing but make holidays exciting and memorable.


I hope you enjoyed the guest post as much as I did. I think my favorite part was her Mother letting the children add a piece of straw to the manger for every good deed.

Granny Sue lives in WV and is a fantastic Appalachian story teller. You can find out more about her by visiting her blog-Granny Sue’s News and Reviews. Granny Sue is headed down my way this spring for a storytelling gig-me and her are hatching a plan-if it all goes well she’ll do a little story telling in Brasstown as well. I’ll keep you posted on the hatching of the plan.


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  • Reply
    Joe Connelly
    December 23, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Great story all true!!Many I had not thought of in years!! I’m the one on the left with hands in pockets looking back to make sure everyone was looking at the camera,got caught. Love you Sue,Merry Christmas!!! Joe

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    December 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for posting this, Tipper! As I get older, the traditions of this season have come to have more meaning as they bring back such good memories. Merry Christmas, everyone!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 23, 2013 at 12:23 am

    and Ed…If I am not mistaken that is the famous “Emett Kelly”!
    He was one of the most loved clowns during that era. I did a painting of Emett years ago. I still have it somewhere! We didn’t get to see him much on TV..He mainly was with the circus, I think Ringling Brothers Barnum and Baily, the one that wintered in Florida. The other clown that I loved and who did a lot of look-a-like takes on “Emmett” was the loveable Red Skelton! I miss those shows…Now-a-days a lot of folks including kids are scared of clowns…Guess that is the “Chucky” syndrome!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    December 23, 2013 at 12:01 am

    I very much like this story- reading about the similarities and differences of traditions.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    December 22, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Tipper: Wonderful story and great responses. I try real hard to make it through this time of year without getting to low. I keep telling myself that these are the good years – with wonderful grandsons – and great gatherings.
    All the positive reads folks share help a lot!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    December 22, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    My grandmother also started the baking the day after Thanksgiving. It amazed me how moist & good those cakes were. She kept them in a back, unheated bedroom. The fruitcake was wrapped in cheese cloth, liberally laced with spirits and kept in a closed tin container. Every few days she would check & add more brandy/wine as the cheese cloth was never supposed to get dry. To this day I still don’t eat fruitcake!!!!! But we had fresh coconut cake, pineapple cake, chocolate cake which kept me happy.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Susanna-do you know who is the little man, in the bowler hat and candy striped tie, with the mustache and his spectacles slid to tip of his nose? At first I thought he was one of the family but closer examination makes me think he is a big doll or puppet sitting on the table.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 22, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    and Granny Sue…I loved your story. It seemed as though I was having an Ah-ha, intuitive moment or as it were an “epiphany”…please no pun intended! The “creche” and also as we called it at home “our manger scene”, looks so much like my Mothers. Dad also made the stable, it was bigger than ones that came with the figures during the forties and fifties..We also put a angel in the front and on the back we fashioned a oversized star with a longer point down toward the stable in the back. Also our multitude of angels, (usually only three represented) placed on a wire or taped to the back of the inn. We had lots of camels…but made sure only one was on the inside of the stable, the one that carried Mary!..A cow lowing in the hay and a sheep by the shepards, toward the side and back of the stable…I have it today and couldn’t part with it for a million dollars…
    My Mother-in-law, started her Christmas Fruitcakes and “stack cakes” right after Thanksgiving as well…My husband said, “When I received and opened Mom’s “Stack Cake” saturated with Rum, while I was stationed in Korea, it was almost like being home.” At least the aroma led him to think it! She had to prepare those cakes early and get them in the mail for her boys in the service…The rum preserving them somewhat! Ya think! LOL

  • Reply
    December 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Yes, there were Christmas traditions in my family also. We didn’t put our tree up until Christmas Eve. It was a busy day as we prepared the house for my dad’s father, my only grandparent, to arrive. One of my dad’s brothers’ wife made the best Hungarian cookies which we served. During this time, my mom and dad would sing Christmas Carols in German. So many more memories to remember. This post made me remember them.

  • Reply
    Rudolph Slaughter
    December 22, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Does your husband make deer jerky? Will you ask him if he thinks reindeer would make good jerky.

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    December 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I really enjoyed this article from Granny Sue. I have never heard of some of these traditions, and it was very interesting reading. The photo would have been typical at our home in 1957 except we didn’t have a staircase to an upper floor. Merry Christmas to all.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    December 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

    I loved granny Sue’s description, “stir-up time,” for the concerted effort in cake making immediately after Thanksgiving. Momma did the same thing, making a big batch of applesauce cakes which would be zealously protected from ravenous offspring (such as Don and yours truly) until Yuletide arrived. In the interim she kept the cakes moist with judicious applications of a bit of wine or periodically placing apple slices atop the cakes, which were kept in a cold room (we didn’t have central heating, so the downstairs bedroom worked just fine).
    I loved the term and since imitation is a high form of flattery, I think it quite likely I’ll appropriate it at some point in future writings.
    Beyond that, it’s always interesting to hear about the Christmas traditions of others.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    December 22, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Susanna, I agree that all the things that cost nothing are the most memorable. We knew there wouldn’t be much under the tree, but that was not what Christmas was about in the house where I grew up. Thanks for sharing a beautiful story.

  • Reply
    William Dotson
    December 22, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Too bad so many of the old traditions and beliefs have been forgotten especially by the younger generations, all they know or at least a lot of them is the gifts, seems to me when we were growing up the not having was the best way to appreciate somethings, just my opinion, sure miss the old times.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    December 22, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I enjoyed the Christmas Story of
    Granny Sue and her big family. I
    have visited Granny Sue’s blog and
    she has some wonderful stories to
    And Bradley, how in the world are
    you able to comment so early in the morning? My Blind Pig don’t even get here till a few minutes after 7 am…Ken

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    December 22, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Lovely memories and so interesting!

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    December 22, 2013 at 7:38 am

    “Granny Sue’s” story about how they celebrated Christmas is touching and wonderful. Like Tipper, I like padding the manger with good deeds, each represented by a straw (hay). So often our familiarity with the Christmas story causes us to lose some of the wonder, awe, meaning and impact of the Birthday of the King.
    May we reexamine this year and draw near to the manger, for there the King of glory came to earth–to give us abundant life.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 22, 2013 at 7:26 am

    Love the old traditions, we keep some of them, without knowing exactly why.

  • Reply
    December 22, 2013 at 6:59 am

    Lovely story. I enjoy reading about traditions and having a few facts thrown in makes it even better. Thanks Granny Sue and Tipper.

  • Reply
    December 22, 2013 at 4:59 am

    loved this story Tipper. The words in the last paragraph….”But we were rich in tradition and all the things that cost nothing but make holidays exciting and memorable” would be what makes her family and ours alike. Thank you Susanna!

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