Faith & Family

Old Fashioned Christmas Surprises

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Henrietta Haithcock

Winter came. Snow blanketed the mountain passes with “white wonder” and icicles during the day of Christmas Eve. Only the song of the whippoorwill rang true and clear in this peaceful world of spectacular, shimmering crystals of the enchanted Blue Ridge tree line. It was a mystical snowfall – during which brought an unexpected blessing to an Appalachian Mountain family on Christmas Eve.

Before the arrival of the railway in Western North Carolina, the old traditions of the mountain people were intrinsically unique but especially ones related to the Christmas season. Tracing family activities and events have revealed the flavor and whimsical delights that have their origins with the Scots-Irish pioneers.

This is a fanciful story of a mountain family Christmas in the early years of the turn of the 20th century as the Tallulah Falls Railroad was establishing itself in this region. Many traditions were lost after the advent of the railroad due to new ideas and opportunities.

Mary and Catherine stretched across their grandmother’s white, iron bed enjoying the comfort of a goose-feather mattress and pillows. Christmas Eve had been filled with the necessities of many chores on the farm and in the kitchen. Christmas chores were always the most fun: Baking bread, decorating with fresh pine and mistletoe branches, stringing popcorn, and making chains with colored paper. Fruitcakes had been aging in Scottish whiskey for three months. Known as a friendship cake, they were delivered as gifts to their friends and neighbors.

“Get off your lazy bones, my girls,” called Grandma. “We’ve work yet to do!”

Grandma Lilly insisted they write their letters to Santa and then turn around and burn them in the great, blazing fire that Grandpa had set with a yule log. She said Santa would receive the messages in the smoke that went up the chimney. Santa would be on his way tonight. His appearance and method of arrival, they knew not. That would be the only way they’d get any Christmas wishes. The town was too many miles away to travel in the deep snowfall. Charley, their wagon horse, would not appreciate that trip.

The girls were soon ready to get to bed after supper but retired by the fire for a while with their grandparents. They sang their favorite Christmas carols – the ones their Grandpa could play on his fiddle. They took turns reading the Christmas story, recited their prayers, and hung their knitted stockings from the mantelpiece. Hugs and kisses were offered; they ran off to their favorite room with the feather bed. As they nestled into the handmade quilts, the girls heard the distant crowing of a rooster. How strange! But they felt somehow that he was keeping watch.

Unexpected events seemed to always happen every Christmas Eve. There usually was no rest until the early beams of sunlight touched their faces on Christmas morning. The mantel clock struck 12 times with its chiming gong, and all seemed safe in their little world. Peace enveloped the home.

Clang! Clang! Pop! Pop! Pots banged, fireworks exploded, and rifles firing split the lull of the holy night right down the middle! Mary and Catherine sat straight up in bed, gasping in shock. “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” a deep voice rang out as heavy boots stomped around on the roof.

“Serenading!” That’s what the mountain folk called it; but it was more like trick or treat!

Quick as a wink, the front door slammed open and Grandpa rushed out the door with his lantern held high and yelled, “Christmas gift!” He was too late. The marauding pranksters had made their claim first, so Grandpa had to invite them inside for a quick piece of stack cake or mince pie and hot cider.

“Out the door with you rascals!” laughed Grandpa, “and a Merry Christmas to you!”

With all the commotion going on, the girls sneaked out of bed and found the stockings they had hung the night before were filled with hard horehound and peppermint sticks, an apple, walnuts, and some chestnuts. Each stocking also held a shiny penny. A small gift of pretty, new ribbons and embroidered handkerchiefs delighted the girls. Oh! The magical tree! 

Santa had decorated it with the blue, green, red, and white chains they had made with Grandma. Even more wonderful were the glistening red berries and real gingerbread men cookies.

Sleepy-eyed, the girls climbed back into their bed for a few more hours of sleep.

But sometime in the night, firm hands placed a Golden Labrador puppy between the two girls. It nestled against their warm bodies under some heavy quilts. Catherine and Molly were smitten, and the next morning the entire family cuddled with the pup and picked a name, “Shanay,” meaning beautiful eyes.

Mary and Catherine’s Christmas wish, written down, had floated up through the chimney smoke and reached Santa Claus!

Haithcock is a children’s book author. She wrote “The Secret Life of Mr. Brownie” and contributed to the latest edition of the locally published Suminski Family Books’ Animal Stories series. She shares this story as a read-aloud for families this Christmas.