Christmas Traditions and Magic in Appalachia

Beyond the magic of window candles and rum cake, there’s deeper wisdom from the Grannies concerning Christmas. Christmas magic really has a root in place with Appalachian folklore and magic. It is a magical time of angels, lights, and healing.

In many coves in Southern Appalachia, Old Christmas traditions are still followed. Before the Gregorian calendar was accepted here, Christmas was on January 6th, an accepted folk-fact that was spread through the Christmas hymn The Cherry Tree Carol. The hymn writes:

“Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
“Pray tell me, little baby,
When your birthday shall be….

“On the sixth day of January
My birthday shall be,
When the stars and the elements
Shall tremble with glee….

Oddly, growing up we also ate chocolate covered cherries a lot during Christmas. Whether this was due to a connection with the hymn or not I’m not sure. Just a funny coincidence I suppose.

In reaction, the old mountaineers refused to change their traditions completely and move the celebration 12 days earlier after loosing 11 days of the year with the calendar change. So they embraced all of it over time, turning the 13 days of this year into a time of superstition and remedy.

One remedy for illness during Christmas is to write the three names of the three wise men on a piece of paper on Christmas Eve. Their names, as tradition holds, are Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Although the Bible never gives their names, this is what’s been held by tradition.

So their names are written on paper and a star drawn above them. This paper is then tied to the ill persons right arm for illness. For protection of the home, it is burned in the fireplace and the ashes left until January 7th because to keep ashes in the hearth from New Christmas and Old Christmas brings good luck, but to take them up from there portends that you’ll be doing it all year long. Nana said this means your house might burn down to so much ash, it’d take a year to clean it up. I leave them there all year, in a little bowl by the door.

It was believed that at this time Evil spirits roamed about, stirred by the anniversary of the Lord’s birth. For this was the old tradition of the old folks going around door to door making a ruckus by banging on buckets, ringing cow bells, hooping and hollering, and shooting off guns in the air. If they frightened the owners of the home, they were offered food and liquor cake. If the owner heard them coming, he’d fire his gun off and they couldn’t come in. This was done to keep evil from the homes of the community.

Other superstitions regard the tradition of “first foot”. To be the first foot in someone’s door after New Years brings good luck as long as you bring your own drink while you visit. The other way around, the luck for the owner depended on who was the first foot. A man is good luck, a woman bad luck. This also foretold the roost of chicks for the next year. A man foretells many roosters and a woman shows many hens.

Nana always said you could sit under a pine tree on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning and you may hear angels singing. But if you do, you’ll die within the year. Needless to say, we didn’t jump at the chance to do this at Christmas. She also said something about the stones turning themselves over around Christmas Day, I assume an allusion to the stone turned to reveal Christ’s absence in the tomb.

Other Christmas charms take into account the innocence of children and its power on the day of the birth of the Lamb. Fabric sewn or thread weaved on Christmas Eve has a very protective virtue against disease and accident for the coming year. A bonnet worn by a newborn on Christmas Day is carried for the same affect.

Water collected from a creek on Christmas Day while reciting Luke 2:14 (the praises of the angels when Jesus was born) is used as a cure for all diseases and ailments such as rheumatism, aches, pain, fever, witchcraft, etc. until next Christmas. Taking into account Old Christmas, I collect this water on both New and Old Christmas.

Candles dipped on Christmas Day are best for blessing or saining, but it has to be done at midnight on Christmas Eve (technically Christmas Day and the time when “miracles” start).

To find out the initials of your love, go out to a wheat field on Christmas Eve and left a handkerchief there. Return at daybreak on Christmas morning, hold the handkerchief up between you and the rising sun, and the dew on the cloth will show their initials.

Candles are placed in windows during Christmas as a sign the house is open to those who are alone on Christmas. In the old days, this signal was for circuit riders who needed a place to sleep and eat.

To protect from disease for the coming summer, take a thimble outside and gather snow into it. Let it melt and then take the shot of water.

The seeds of three apples are counted on Christmas Eve. If an odd number, they’re carried the whole year for protection. If it’s an even number, the seeds are cast into the fire to be rid of ill luck and the stems of the apples are carried to turn that fortune around.

The weather and animals during the twelve days of Christmas are also noted, as each day predicts the weather for each month next year. I do this every year. On Old Christmas, I will post my 12 days prediction for the weather here in East Tennessee and we’ll keep up with it through out the year.

Christmas dinner was also a treasure, one of the many times the whole family got together and sang, drank, and had fun into the night. We always had pork and black-eye beans for the dinner for luck and health.

Other superstitions and tales about Christmas from Appalachia consist of water turning to blood at midnight, animals and livestock will kneel exactly at midnight with their heads to the East, and the rocks will “hum.”

Other superstitions:

  • For every piece you eat of Christmas cake is a month of good luck in the new year
  • Never wash anything on New Year’s Day or Old Christmas or it’ll bring bad luck, cause you’ll be washing your luck out.
  • You’ll sweep your riches out if you sweep between New and Old Christmas
  • To enjoy the company of a stranger in your home on Eve or Day of Christmas brings happiness for the whole year. Nana use to say that was the Lord visiting.
  • Butter made on Christmas Eve will help with rashes and other skin issues. We make ours in mason jars.
  • If the fire burns bright on Christmas, it portends prosperity in the new year; however, a smoldering fire predicts adversity and trouble.
  • Christmas Eve was also a time when ghost and haints would roam a lot. At midnight, open the doors to let them out for good, along with any other “squatters” you may have.

So there’s a little Christmas magic, from my family to yours. Stay safe and be well this holiday. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!!!!


Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

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