An Appalachian Christmas
Written by
Rebecca Elswick
December 2011
Written by
Rebecca Elswick
December 2011

No, we do not shoot a double-barrel shotgun into the sky to celebrate Christmas, but like most families, here in the coal fields of southern Appalachia we have our Christmas traditions. The key word is family. In our small coal mining community, there are areas where you will find clusters of homes where the residents have the same surnames. Many of these families can trace their roots back to the founders of this part of Appalachia. Perhaps it’s the strong Scotch-Irish heritage that many here lay claim to that makes us such clannish people. Whatever the reason, family is important in southern Appalachia, especially at Christmas.

At Christmas, most families have a gathering place. It’s the home where the festivities always take place. Family members travel from near and far to be there. Even though each family has its own traditions that are unique to them, the one thing they have in common is this need to gather together at Christmas. It doesn’t matter if they open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, or if they have a real or artificial tree, what matters is that they are together.

If you had the chance to visit one of these Christmas gatherings, you would find those family members that are indigenous to all. First and foremost is the clan matriarch. Yes, I said matriarch, not patriarch. He’s sitting back in the recliner smiling benevolently at all the grandchildren probably watching football while his wife is in the kitchen. She is the one who has cooked and baked for a week, shopped and wrapped all the gifts to put under the tree she has decorated; well, you get the picture. As my mother is fond of saying, “Men think Christmas just falls from heaven!”

Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the family. There is the relative who regales the group with his/her physical ailments. This includes an endless recounting of aches and pains; trips to the doctor; medications; and countless other miseries. Across the room is the cousin who shows up with another new boyfriend or if she’s “lucky” husband. She is the one all the females in the room are waiting for, so they can whisper about them behind her back. Before long, the relatives show up that everyone is dreading. They are the ones with the kids who charge in like a pack of wild dogs who haven’t eaten in a week. While they tear through the house, mom and dad disappear to a corner and pretend for an evening they are childless.

By the time dinner is on the table, Uncle ? has made a dozen trips to the car carrying his glass of coke with him. Funny how it’s always full when he returns and his face has a rosy glow (from the cold, of course). At least he’s happy and not like Aunt ?, who finds something wrong with every dish of food on the table, even though she eats more than anyone else in the room. While everyone eats dinner, there is always one family member who runs back and forth to the kitchen, keeping the serving bowls and glasses full while baking pans of rolls throughout the meal so everyone will have hot bread. She’s also the one you never see eat. She never sits at the table with the rest of the family, but stays in the kitchen the whole time.

Yes, these wonderful people are your family, and at least once a year, you are reminded that what matters most is that you all are together because as the years swirl past, there are empty chairs where cousins, aunts and uncles used to sit. They are real people with real lives. They are not perfect, but you wouldn't have them any other way. They are your family and you are the one who has the job of keeping them alive - the family storyteller and this is your story.

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