Christmas Traditions Then and Now

November-December 2018

The soft glow of an oil lamp and the scent of pine boughs on a windowsill evoke fond memories of a bygone era.

These are thoughts of a time when Christmas was less commercial — a season for families to gather and exchange simple, handmade gifts from the heart. A tree was brought home from the woods and decorated with garlands of strung popcorn and colorful paper chains.

It was a slower time, when people took pleasure in quiet conversation around a fire and perhaps peeling some coveted holiday oranges for the little ones. These and many other traditions have been passed down from generation to generation, making Christmas a very special time of year.


Upon moving to the Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Love in 1980, I was determined to make our first Christmas memorable by keeping some of these early traditions alive. Living in a rustic hunting camp with a high ceiling, I wanted a tall tree to fill one corner of the living room. My neighbor, Gladys Coffey, said they had some large trees on their property, and I was welcome to cut the top out of one.

I shinnied up the trunk of a real beauty, wielding a hand saw and holding on for dear life as the cut portion tumbled to the ground. The tree was so massive it had to be cut several times before we could get it in the house.

Once in place, it was decorated with red plaid bows, candy canes, pine cones, bird nests, strings of popcorn and white doves cut out from a box of Christmas cards. We trooped to the woods in search of running cedar for the mantel and mistletoe shot out of oak trees in hopes of a holiday kiss.

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By the world’s standards, the decorations were plain but to me it was thrilling to be carrying on some of the customs of an earlier time that my older friends and neighbors had told me about.

Hazel Campbell Fitzgerald, who grew up on Hat Creek, relayed this story to me about what her family did at Christmas.

“At Christmastime, we’d put up a tree and us kids would glue paper chains together to decorate it. Sometimes we’d take the silver paper inside cigarette packs and wrap it around sycamore balls to hang on the tree. Mama and Daddy would go down to Tommy Carter’s store and buy each of us kids a little toy of some kind. Us girls usually got a baby doll but I remember once I got a little wind-up tin toy where a dog chased a cat and the cat chased a fish. I don’t know whatever happened to that toy but I wish I would have hung on to it.”

Sending Christmas cards was a popular tradition in earlier years, just as it is today. Many were embossed with beautiful scenes on the front and a 1-cent postage stamp was all it took to send it on its way. I found several of these cards and the stamped envelopes they came in among my late mother-in-law’s possessions.

I asked my elderly neighbor, Johnny Coffey, if his family did anything special when he was a child. He said his mother always baked an apple butter cake for the holiday and it was something he always looked forward to. Johnny said it was a four-layer pound cake made from scratch with apple butter spread between layers and on top. That Christmas I attempted to recreate his mother’s cake and when it was done, I walked up through the woods to Johnny’s house and presented it to him. When he opened the box and saw it he began to weep and said it was the first one he’d had since his mother died. It was the best gift I ever gave someone; a treasured memory from childhood.

Tressia Coffey reading the Christmas story.

Tressia Coffey reading the Christmas story.

My husband, Billy, said Christmas in the holler where he was born was not about getting presents on the morning of Dec. 25. The holiday stretched out several weeks and consisted of walking to his aunts’ and uncles’ homes for a meal and having them, in turn, come back for a meal at his family’s cabin.

He said fresh oranges and peppermint sticks were delicious treats he got only during the season, and he recalls receiving very few toys, usually given by one of the relatives. He still has the little horse-drawn metal pull toy given to him by an older cousin when he was a child.

School entertainments were also popular in the one-room schoolhouses in the Love area. My father-in-law, Saylor, remembered a funny incident that happened at the old Ivy Hill School.

“My older brother, Pettit, came to the program dressed as Santa Claus and was trying to read his part in the play. It was getting dark so he told me to hold the oil lamp a little closer, so he could read better. When I put the light up to him, I accidentally caught his beard on fire! He ran behind the sheet we had strung across the front of the classroom and put out the fire in his beard so the little children wouldn’t see. Everyone had a big laugh over it. Later in the evening several people played string music and everyone enjoyed it.”

Lillie Puckett Napier was 94 years of age when I interviewed her and she said Christmas at the Puckett home was one big get-together with neighbors visiting up and down Stoney Creek.

“We would go from house to house, playing games, making candy, sharing a meal. Our family had a live tree that we would decorate.

Early metal horse-drawn pull toy.

Early metal horse-drawn pull toy.

Mama left us kids at Granny’s house while she went Christmas shopping in Nellysford. She told me not to peek inside the bags she brought home but I did and found two doll babies; one dressed in pink and the other in blue. On Christmas Eve I told Mama, as I was going upstairs to bed, that I hoped Santa Claus would bring me the dolly in the pink dress. She knew at once I had peeked at the presents!”

Vera Falls, one of nine children, grew up along the North Fork of the Tye River and told me Christmas was a time her mother did a lot of baking.

“She would bake cakes, pies and donuts for us. We’d cut a tree and decorate it with anything we could make and hang candy canes on it. In the fall, we all got a new pair of shoes that we were so proud of, and we would save the shoe boxes and put them on top of the table for Santa Claus to fill. On Christmas morning the boxes would have oranges, nuts and candy in them; things we didn’t get every day.”

These simple traditions were part of people’s lives that were born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and will never be forgotten. But people today have started traditions all their own, making unforgettable memories equally as important for their children and grandchildren.

Brian and Kristin Gembara, who live near Chicago but have family roots in Nelson County, Virginia, started a tradition of giving matching pajamas to their two children and opening gifts on Christmas Eve. As the children became teenagers, Kris thought they may find the matching pajamas babyish so she and Brian joined in and began wearing them, too, continuing a fun family tradition. Christmas night, after all the family visiting is over, they go to a late movie.

Chris and Penny Miller and their two sons always go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve and then go to Penny’s mother’s house for a Christmas breakfast, and later for a meal with friends and the rest of the family.

Stacy Johnson of Afton, her husband, Todd, and their three daughters have a tradition of having the family in on Christmas Eve and serving the same exact snacks and finger foods each year. Then they all sit down to watch Earl Hamner’s classic, The Homecoming. Stacy also puts up and decorates multiple trees throughout her home.

In our own home, before we begin opening presents, we have a tradition of letting one of our grandchildren read the Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, reminding us again that the greatest gift to mankind is the gift of God’s Son. 