English traditions at Christmas

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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Christmas around here in the 1950’s still had a few parallels to Christmas in the 1800’s — and for that matter, the 1700’s.

And well it might have. The families who inhabited small farms here a half century ago, in many instances, were the 12th to 15th generation of English stock to live in Isle of Wight and Surry. It was their ancestors who had first hacked out fields from virgin forests south of the James, who had first run hogs and cattle on Hog Island and Ragged Island.

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Things tend to get passed down in such families, be it a table, a chest, a quilt or a tradition. And the traditions of Christmas were among the most enduring.

It’s not surprising, then, that some of the things we did with our parents to celebrate Christmas were things that our grandparents, great grandparents and generations before that had done as well. They were notably English in origin, and that too was perfectly natural.

One tradition that I enjoyed but didn’t understand at the time was my father’s habit of firing a shotgun on Christmas morning. No, it wasn’t a declaration of the right to bear arms. It was a greeting. During the centuries before telephones and automobiles, Christmas celebrants would greet their rural neighbors by firing a gun, a salute which was returned by anyone who heard it. It was a sign that all was well and that neighbor was wishing neighbor a Merry Christmas. It was a custom that dated to the early days of the Virginia colony.

I didn’t trust my memory on the gun-firing tradition, so I asked around this week and found that some other farm-raised natives remember their parents doing the same thing.

Related to firing guns was the much more widely held custom of shooting fireworks. We often didn’t buy fireworks for the Fourth of July, but our fathers made sure we had them for Christmas. My father took particular pride in buying the loudest firecrackers — cherry bombs or two-inchers — and the biggest Roman candles he could find. There were also sparklers and rockets, but the firecrackers and Roman candles were the most popular.

By the 1960’s, any fireworks worth having were becoming illegal in Virginia, so you had to buy them from “under the counter” at some service station or country store. Still, they weren’t hard to find, and police pretty much looked the other way as people stuck doggedly to the traditions of their youth.

Food was traditional as well. By the time I came along, store-bought turkeys were plentiful and were used by us as well as most people. But my father insisted on domestic goose for Christmas on several occasions. It was his mother’s food of choice for Christmas, and undoubtedly, generations before.

Steam pudding was another family tradition, and my mother could make one that would make you, as we used to say, swallow your tongue.

We also had fresh oysters, not from a jar, but shucked in the kitchen just before they were eaten. We picked them up ourselves from oyster rocks at Morgart’s Beach or Ballard’s Marsh Creek a few days before Christmas.

And, of course, there was a Christmas ham. Laid down for curing the previous January, a Christmas ham was aged just enough to have the rich flavor we expected from our smokehouse. Another tradition, now made obsolete by efforts to lengthen the Christmas buying season, was the beginning of the Christmas celebration. We shopped in the weeks before Christmas, but certainly not months in advance.

Nor did we decorate as early. In our family, the tree wasn’t brought in until Christmas Eve, and the few other decorations were displayed at the same time.

Decorating just before Christmas was another nod to tradition, a recognition that Christmas doesn’t begin right after Thanksgiving, but rather on Christmas Day. It then runs for 12 days until Epiphany, which falls on Jan. 12. By the time Epiphany roles around these days, the tree and decorations are gone and the only thing left of Christmas is the credit card bill, which has usually arrived by then.

Old traditions die, and new ones take their place. That’s as it should be. It’s nice, though, to have some that survive for more than a few generations. I think I’ll fire a gun this Christmas.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Short Rows is a repeat of a Christmas column published in December 2001.