Like a lot of modern Pagans, I grew up celebrating a cultural Christmas that had less to do with baby Jesus than with bits and pieces of family practice that had become ingrained in the midwinter celebration over many generations. The earliest white settlers to this area brought with them a lot of traditions from the British Isles, and in the isolated coves and towns of Western North Carolina, those traditions stayed in place for a long time.
But in speaking with other natives and country folks who grew up around the same time I did, I’ve found that Appalachian Christmas traditions varied widely from family to family. They almost always included visiting neighbors and family, and decorating an evergreen tree in the living room, where Santa left gifts for the good and coal for the wicked. Most years, my brother and I got both.
Apparently, decorated trees weren’t common here until the Great Depression, but my fondest memories of the season revolve around procuring the tree, the general trauma of getting it into the house, and the subsequent endurance trial of its adornment. We were either too poor or too cheap or too stubborn to buy a tree, and we always went up on the mountain to cut one.
My father must have done it when I was very small, but it soon fell to my brother and me to clamber up the hill and find a good tree. It was always too tall, and we would cry and my dad would cuss as he trimmed it down. My mother would supervise the decorating, growing progressively more acrimonious as the day wore on.
There was an order to it, you see, that we never remembered (or, if we did, we willfully ignored it). Putting the lights on came first, and that was a man’s job. Then the garland strands and plastic ornaments, saving the delicate glass ones until everyone was in a state of total anxiety and agitation. The final touch, the icicles, had to be tossed onto the tree one by one, not hurled in shining clumps. We would aim for the top of the tree, where there perched not a star but a misshapen, red-glass bauble that looked for all the world like a Christmas robot.
It was excruciating.
Another curious historical note is the fact that it actually used to snow here in the mountains, which seems hard to believe in this era of too-warm, too-dry winters. One year, there was a thick layer of perfect snow on the ground, and I had the bright idea of taking a hatchet and my brother and our Shetland pony up the mountain to bring home the tree. As a parent, I look back on this scenario with bewilderment, trying to imagine a mother who would blithely allow such an adventure.
Yet off we went, and we did return with a tree. But the pony flatly refused to have it tied to him, my brother was crying from the cold, and I wound up dragging the tree with one hand and the pony with the other, while screeching at my brother to stop crying and pick up the hatchet.
Once again, the tree was too big. My mother yelled at us and my brother cried some more, and I took the pony up to the shed. Refusing to help decorate the tree, I busied myself setting up the weird nativity scene on the bookshelf. The standard, barn-shaped box held some figurines that had come from my mother’s side of the family.
One of the wise men looked like he was dipping snuff, and Joseph never had been in the picture. Mary and the manger claimed the place of honor, surrounded by sheep and cows and wise men. The kneeling shepherds lurked outside the box, joined by dinosaurs, a fire truck, model horses and cars and, later, those small naked trolls with bright hair. The camels were beautifully appointed, and I always set them apart from the others so their elegance wasn’t marred by the shabby, cockeyed shepherds.
We always woke too early on Christmas morning and made a lot of noise until my parents gave in and got up, too. They drank Bloody Marys and we ate fudge and chocolate-covered cherries, and we played with our toys and broke them and then got dressed to visit my mother’s parents. The day always ended in too much food and too much drink, in bad tempers and disappointment. The animals never knelt in our barn on Christmas eve, and we never had those glorious bubble lights on our tree, like the neighbors down the hill did.
These days, I approach the Winter Solstice with a sense of joy and relief. The tree always fits in the house, there’s never any yelling, and we even have some bubble lights. I can hurl great masses of plastic icicles anywhere I want, and the tree is topped by a fairy who beams down at us, acknowledging our relative sanity in this most stressful of seasons. In the early afternoon, we go over to my brother’s house and see the niece and nephews and eat chocolate-covered cherries.
The only thing I really miss is the pony.
[H. Byron Ballard is a bookseller, Pagan advocate, gardener and amateur historian who lives with her family in Asheville’s historic West End.]