Mountain Christmas

IT is surprising to find in the backwoods such a Christmas as the Pine Mountain celebration, but there it is, hidden behind the great ridge that scallops the sky for a hundred and thirty miles across southeastern Kentucky. Fault strata, in which coal lies at crazy, unavailable angles, the long mountain lifts a ’Wall of China’ between the available coal to the east and the undeveloped wilderness to the west. Harlan County on both sides, yet it would be hard to find two more contrasting worlds. To the east, amidst labor troubles, the race memories of some seventeen nationalities blending with modern America; to the west, the ways and speech of pioneer America preserved by isolation. The CCC boys have engineered a muchneeded road across the gigantic cliffs of Pine Mountain, connecting industrial America with pioneer America. It is interesting to speculate upon the outcome, but we were speaking of Christmas in the backwoods ‘yon side’ Pine Mountain.

There, in some remote cabin, an old man by the name of Yeoman, or Gentry, or Christian, may tell you, ‘Christmas don’t rightfully come on December twenty-fifth — hits true date be January sixth, when oxen kneel in their stalls at midnight to pray and the elder flower blossoms, shore as life.’ Something there of Old England, something of ScotchIrish mysticism still strong; while to the east, in row upon row of miners’ shacks, Christmas is reminiscent of many an old country.

Take house 5, in row D. The door is open and the air is sweet with the almond-cinnamon scent of Hungarian Christmas cakes. Darkies, lighting firecrackers in the row, sniff it ruefully and shout, ‘Chris’mus gif’!’ Plantation hopes still cropping out! Across the row an ikon in candlelight bespeaks ‘White Russia,’ gone forever except in hearts. Farther along, the coal dust has been wiped from a window that red paper tompte may dance across the pane, as Swedish as can be. A Czechoslovakian fiddler, a Negro banjo player, Welsh miners caroling — glints of old Christmases fast fading amidst coal dust as old folk from old countries pass on and the young grasp the new. Plenty of drinking marks the day, a varied wassail on the coal-mining side of the ridge, — perhaps the Italians make the best, — and it’s all preferable to the ungarnished, unadulterated ‘moonshine’ of pioneer origin that sets young bucks shooting worse than firecrackers on both sides of the ridge. Saddest are the houses in mining towns along the Poor Fork of the Cumberland and in remote hollows of the hills, where nothing marks Christmas from any other day in the year. Perhaps a ‘bust of shooting’ is preferable.

But when winds blow fresh and cold across what hemlocks are left on ‘yon side’ it may be that Mammy will raise a ‘song-ballet’ that goes back deep into Scotch-Irish or English Christmas. Happen it is ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’: —

Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
And he married the Virgin, Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

There follows in the song the miracle of the cherry tree bending its boughs that Mary may pluck of the crimson fruit because she is with child. The silence of mountain fastnesses has preserved this tune, these lovely words; and mountain fastnesses give way, necessarily, in time. Perhaps only for a short time now are the folk treasures collected by Cecil Sharp and others still there: such ancient customs and speech, such old jokes and riddle songs as twisted the tongues of pioneers, such beautiful songs as ‘The Cherry Tree Carol.’ All credit to those who have conscientiously preserved these race memories for future generations.

Perhaps it is not amiss here to recall how Christmas in the Kentucky mountains came to smack of Old England. In 1611, James I settled hundreds of English and Scotch Protestants in Ireland with the hope that these intelligent artisans and yeomanry might become a controlling element among the Catholics. Vain hope! Their industry turned a swampy north of Ireland into Ulster County, but there was such friction — religious, political, industrial — that after a hundred years thousands of their descendants took ship for America. During one week alone, in 1727, six shiploads are reported to have landed in Philadelphia. Swarming into Pennsylvania and other seaboard states, they went seeking independence down the long corridors of the Appalachians. One of their descendants, a law unto himself today, will tell you, ‘My forbears was the game-follerin’ kind.’ Deeper and deeper into the very heart of the mountains they followed the receding deer, bear, partridge, wild turkey — and independence.

Often they carried with them three books, the most popular in the English of their day: the Bible, Paradise Lost, and Pilgrim’s Progress, all of which they used for random reference. When, far from schools, the ability to read died out of later generations, it became the burning wish of older folk to have restored the

power to use these books for inspiration. In 1913 William Creech, Sr., deeded all his rare bottomland ‘yon side’ to the Pine Mountain Settlement School — ‘ because I want all young’uns taught to serve the livin’ God. . . . I have heart and cravin’ that our people may grow better.’ And this land, as he put it, was ‘to be used for school purposes as long as the Constitution of the United States stands.’

The speech of these ‘game-follerin’ kind’ was, like their Bible, a King James version. With them into the wilderness went their ideas of Christmas and Easter, their spirituals, songs for courting, songs for putting babies to sleep, riddle, comedy, and incantation, ballads as tragic as any Greek drama — all for vicarious entertainment and to ease their hearts. There was nothing to dilute these race memories. By repetition they lived and grew as they had in the past. Sometimes new experience inspired a new ballad, such as ‘Sourwood Mountain,’1 but it would be patterned after the old: —

Chicken crowing on Sourwood mountain,
Hey, ho, diddle dum dee-ay.
Get your dogs and we’ll go hunting,
Hey, ho, diddle dum dee-ay.

In the backwoods the Scotch-Irish were joined by a few Huguenot French and some Germans from the Rhenish Palatinate, also seeking independence. Outnumbered by Scotch-Irish, in time families with such names as Sevier, Napier, or Booher lost their racial identity and found themselves singing, all unwittingly, songs the Danes may have brought into England with their conquest. Christmas ‘yon side’ has a right to suggest Old England.

When certain influences for civilizing ‘mountain whites’ introduced Moody and Sankey hymns, some people began to believe their own songs were devil’s ditties.’ ‘Ef a whole community believes a thing is wrong ye begin to yoreself,’ declared an inhibited singer of beautiful ballads. However, Pine Mountain Settlement, in Uncle William’s bottomland, was one of the places where folks kept on singing their own songs. The immemorial ‘Edward’ did not lose face, nor did ‘The Nightingale,’ although the bird himself never sang in Kentucky woods: —

Good morning, good morning, good morning to thee.
Now where are you going, my pretty lady?
I’m going a-walking by the banks o’ the sea
To see the waters a-gliding, hear the nightingale sing.

The songs that were brought there from the outside world were, as far as possible, in keeping with the fine heritage of the people. Pine Mountain became a centre of great interest to the collectors of folklore. Cecil Sharp found treasure here, so did Howard Brockway, Loraine Wyman, Percy MacKaye, John Niles, and many others. Almost any mountain child, walking from five to forty miles to stay and ‘git larnin’,’ might bring in some new version of a rare old song.

Along about the middle of December, Pine Mountain Christmas is ‘norated’ up one wild creek and down another. At the head of some hollow an old woman may announce: ‘Hit’s greens the Settlement wants, and hit’s not turnip greens nuther!’ Far be it from the School to turn down turnip greens, but each winter it has to prove that man does not live by bread alone. Christmas comes at the time of the year when folk begin to wonder if the ‘shucky beans,’ dried pumpkin, and salt pork hanging from the rafters will hold out until ‘the sprang o’ the yahr.’ It comes when stock feeding is arduous and mules’ feet crunch ice in creek beds. It is celebrated on the ‘fotched-on’ date of December twentyfifth, but if anyone still wants to he may go home for Old Christmas, Twelfth Night, the oxen-kneeling time.

Subtly anticipation creeps over weaving room, carpenter shop, schoolroom, kitchen, and barnyard, especially the barnyard, where John Shackleford, taking his turn at the milking stool, casts a wary glance at the oxen standing by. A few turkeys driven gobbling from a farmer’s high pasture may be a first intimation, but Christmas is on the way when a bevy of old neighbors ride in at the Settlement, gate. ‘Neighbors’ may live anywhere within a radius of twenty miles, and these have left their homes at dawn to get here, crossing the backbone of a ridge and tracing more than one creek. They are mounted on highpommeled sidesaddles, and their long skirts sway with the ambling of their nags. Tied behind each are bunches of holly, mistletoe, and cedar blue with berries. Weathered cherks are warm with excitement, old eyes peer sharply from beneath black cotton sunbonnets. One wears a skirt of madder-red homespun, a note of gayety in the winter landscape. Guiding her nag with one hand, she bears aloft in the other the granddaddy of all mistletoe boughs.

‘Hit growed so high in a sycamore tree Amos was obleeged for to shoot hit down.’

Look askance and she will reassure you, ‘He kotched hit stidfast when hit come a-tumblin’.’ And so the waxy berries are intact.

All unintentionally a holly leaf spurs her nag. Someone screams, ‘Mount down, Granny, afore ye git nag-flung!’

And they all mount down and are invited into Laurel House, where greens are swapped for a good hot dinner and quilt scraps, which are much in demand by all but Granny. Her eyes have beheld a flaxen-haired doll, sent from New York for some mountain child.

‘Quilt scraps — yes, but —’

Her companions scoff. ‘Whoever heerd tell the like? A granny what’s raised up a kitten bilin’ o’ young’uns, to say nothin’ o’ greats and grands, hankerin’ after a poppy doll!’

‘Hain’t I pined atter a play-pretty ever sence I’s big enough to stand up around a cheer?’ she inquires, and the doll is hers.

Fingering it wonderingly, she cries, ‘Lord love ye, leetle yaller-headed shuteye! I’ll set ye on my fireboard whar nary a young’un kin lay prankin’ hand on ye — ‘ceptin’ mebbe Amos’s least un,’ she relents. ‘Mebbe hit mought set and rock ye.’

Later, when she rides away down Greasy Creek with her cronies, the sophisticated puppet stares from her saddlebag, a somewhat alarmed expression in its wide blue eyes.

Careful pruning does not hurt a holly thicket, old trees spare well their mistletoe; laurel, called ivy, is cut where fields must be cleared for corn; even the ‘feisty’ saw brier is brought from the fields, indigo berries and coppery leaves to lend enchantment. When each of the dozen or so houses scattered over the bottomland has before its door a pile of greens, work speeds up of its own accord that time may be found for weaving garlands. Loom, printing press, broom, fountain pen, lathe, and rolling pin seem to work the faster, for boys and girls, young and old, take to wreath-making. At night sheep huddle against the cold and the long mountain looms black almost sheer above the Settlement, but indoors fires leap on hearths and rooms are redolent of cedar, pine, and galax.

At Far House, Fairannie, named out of a ballad, sits bent above a growing wreath. Intent, absorbed, what matter if her fingers are pricked and resinous? She is weaving holly and cedar berries with white pine. There comes a moment when she lifts in her capable arms such a wreath as could not be bought for love or money on Fifth Avenue, and hangs it above the fireboard. The other young’uns ‘bust out singin’,’for with the ‘histing’ of Fairannie’s wreath Far House has become capable of any festive possibility. Each house experiences a similar transformation. The Lord knows what may happen now! Sometimes, from sheer exuberance, boys and girls break into set-running, the dance their ancestors brought into the mountains along with the Bible and Paradise Lost.

‘Roost the lamps high, and set the furniture outdoors!’ a strapping youth shouts, and he is off, a girl on his arm. Couple after couple swing into the double circle, and the rhythm begins to grow. The ‘caller’ has a peculiar falsetto twang in his voice; he calls as did his granddaddy: ‘Home Swing! — Shoot that Owl! — Lady round the gent and the gent don’t go, Lady round the lady and the gent also!’ All the better if there is a fiddle or someone to ‘beat the banjo’ across the knee, but music is not requisite— rhythm is the thing! Rhythm compounded of clapping, stepping, and calling, rhythm so insistent and compelling as to sweep the dancers out of themselves. Many single organisms become one pulsating whole, in which want, failure, and discouragement have no place. Outside in the mountains, set-running, augmented by ‘moonshine,’ may become Dionysian; here it is delight.

Cecil Sharp recognized in its ancient figures old dances lost to civilization in England, and took it back there, whence it sprang, and where it is now widely danced in thin-soled shoes, which the mountaineers say is not right. It takes brogues and a peculiar horizontal step to work up the rhythm that is setrunning. The Kentucky Running Set in England today is a beautiful thing, danced lightly and swiftly to fine music.

Each night during the week before Christmas, Pine Mountain boys and girls enact a different carol in Laurel House dining hall.2 On the first night the girls sing from the oak balcony that runs around three sides of the room. There is a gloom of shadow up there this week, as the room below is lit only by candles. At one point in the song the girls lean over into the light and loop the balcony with ‘ivy’ garlands. The next night the boys drag in a Yule log, singing as they drag. Again a group may present ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ a song whose origin is lost in English folklore. One mountain version has these lines: —

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Twelve calling birds and the part of a pa’r tree.

It seems to the youngsters, as they return to their respective houses these nights, that Orion up yonder favors their side of the mountain. Gaudily brilliant, he has plunged his sword in the top as though to leap across.

But all this green-bringing and garlanding, this dancing, Yule logging, corn popping, and caroling, is but the prelude to the Nativity Play. The day it is given the neighbors ride in from near and far, hitching nags and ‘mule critters’ outside the Church House. Non-denominational, the Church House is built of cream limestone, cut by men and boys from the base of the mountain where it stands. The neighbors enter: ‘totterish’ old folk, young bucks, mothers with babes at their breasts and young ones by the hand. They take their places in the dusky interior. The Play is the tradition of the founders of the school and generations of boys and girls, who have made it their own. The Church House smells of cedar and straw. Silence falls upon the watchers.

Prophets announce the Holy Night. Through the pointed clear-glass window a star shines upon Mary and her Least One in the manger. She bends her lovely face and sings. Wise men bring gifts. The striped homespun blankets become the shepherds, keeping watch.

Stepping in from field and stable, the actors take their parts with a faith and naturalness surpassing studied art. Perhaps only to the Oberammergau plays can the breath-taking reality of their presentation be compared. In the dusk a granny sits watching. She has been schooled to hardship, and it is not her way to show her feelings, but now she wipes her eyes, unashamed. She snuggles to her a little girl, who in turn clasps a flaxen-haired doll. The audience vents its feelings in a mountain song which, while not of their neighborhood, they like to sing: —

When Mary birthed Jesus ‘twas in a cow’s stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from the heavens a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus, the Saviour, did come for to die
For poor, onery people like you and like I —
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.3

The Play is over. Slowly, ‘stillturned,’ the watchers wend their way out of the Church House, perhaps to receive some gift from a tree, but nothing to what they have received — a warmth that will last some until ‘the sprang o’ the yahr’ comes to do some garlanding of her own.

Only when the wind is right can the sound of a train he heard on the far side of Pine Mountain, hauling coal out to America. But the new road is letting cars across, even in bad weather, and young mountaineers are preparing themselves for a new world.

  1. Collected in Harlan County, Kentucky, by Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway, and included in The Lonesome Tunes, published by H. W. Gray & Co. — AUTHOR
  2. Since the writing of this article, Laurel House has unfortunately burned down, interrupting this tradition. — AUTHOR
  3. From a North Carolina collection by John Jacob Niles, Songs from the Hill-Folk, — AUTHOH