Appalachian Christmas

Sometimes our fondest memories are simple things that didn’t cost much. I know they are for me, because Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

My wife is from rural West Virginia. Her parents were tenant farmers, meaning they worked long hours running someone else’s farm for very little pay. Fancy gifts were never an option.

That said, Christmas was always special. Roberta and her younger brothers scoured the local woods for a tree each December. By the time they dragged it home it had lost numerous needles.

Their dad would build a wooden stand for the sparse white pine and the whole family helped decorate. They used whatever lights they had, usually gaudy multicolored blinking ones. Sometimes Roberta’s parents stayed up several evenings removing and replacing bulbs until the strands would light.

Countless evenings were also spent cracking hickory nuts. Some they sold and others they used in some of the best mincemeat cookies imaginable. More were wrapped up as gifts.

Her dad hunted raccoons by night. He also trapped foxes, muskrats, and just about anything else that would bring in a few bucks. The whole family collected black walnuts to sell at the farmer’s market.

One sunny fall afternoon the children’s trip up the hill for walnuts proved costly. A chair perched upon the wheelbarrow so the youngest could reach the lowest branch was not a good idea. His broken arm consumed all their walnut money that year, but the homemade gifts still made Christmas great.

Lack of funds never interfered with their Christmas spirit. Caroling on a hay wagon with other church members was always a big event, even though nobody possessed a stellar singing voice. One of the church ladies crocheted crosses every year for all singers to use as bookmarks for their bibles and hymnals.

The Minney’s never had much money, but you’d never know it if you arrived at their house at dinner time. Elloise had a hard earned reputation as one of the finest cooks in the area. Her country fried venison steak was a treat nobody ever turned down.

The whole family helped process produce from the garden and apples, berries and nuts from nearby woods. Every year they canned over 300 jars of green beans alone. Homemade chunky applesauce and tomato juice were also staples.

Then there were all the relatives. Ezra was one of 21 siblings and Elloise one of seven. Company was inevitable. Food was plentiful. It made for great fellowship.

Whether the coon hunting and trapping were productive or lean, it made no difference. Late spring frosts sometimes eliminated the walnuts and hickory nuts. That didn’t matter either. Christmas was always a joyous occasion.

Many people today might consider my wife’s family poor. They lived in a house with no central heat, drove a clunker and seldom went shopping. What they had was love for family, friends, the Lord and life in general. They were one of the richest families I’ve ever met and I’ve been fortunate to be a part for nearly 30 years.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
This entry was posted in foraging and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Appalachian Christmas

  1. awhitenhs12 says:

    that’s a pretty good story, never heard of the type of tree possibly could be related to the fir family?

  2. Cool story and your wife family seems really nice !

  3. susiehedley says:

    This was beautiful! A Christmas like that is so foreign to me; it’s very interesting that that was how she spent her holidays growing up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s