Inside Appalachia: Traditions Make Holiday Season Special

Dec 21, 2018

This week we’ve put together a special holiday episode about seasonal traditions. Holidays in these mountains have always been meaningful. In Appalachia, it’s usually a time to go home, or to carry on traditions of home in a new way.

Learning about family traditions during a youth reporting project.
Credit Kara Lofton, WVPB

Most major holidays around the world revolve around eating special foods together, and the memories that come with the traditions aren’t always about the taste. We take a look at how food plays into our holiday traditions, in general, through the eyes of a fifth-grader. 

We'll also visit Helvetia, W.Va. This time of year, the tiny mountain town's distinctive Swiss heritage is on display, with tales of Saint Nicholas, sweet treats, square dancing, a potluck dinner -- and perhaps best of all, Swiss grittibanz, a special kind of holiday bread.

If you want to join in this tradition, we’ve posted the recipe for grittibanz bread here. Be sure to let us know how it turns out if you try it.

To learn more about how Helvetia got its name, listen to this What's In A Name story

We'll also learn about cured country ham, the centerpiece of many tables during Christmas. Inside Appalachia contributor Fred Sauceman visited with a man in southeast Tennessee who cures country hams the old-fashioned way, a process involving many months -- and knowledge accumulated over generations.

Freshmade traditional rosettes
Credit Jesse Wright, WVPB

Another beloved food tradition revolves around the making of rosettes: light, crispy, deep-fried pastries made using a floral-shaped iron mold. Mike Costello, head chef at Lost Creek Farms in Lost Creek, W.Va., inherited a rosette iron last Christmas in an old box of his late great-grandmother's things.

Without any specific instructions, this year he carried on the tradition of making rosettes with a passion for learning more about his ancestors and a little help from an old family cookbook.

You can find the Helvetian recipe for rosette batter here.

One consistent holiday tradition around the Christmas holiday is Saint Nick himself. The annual photo with Santa can be difficult and scary for any child, but it can be especially overwhelming for a child with special needs. We take a look at how some Santas are seeking training to handle those situations.

Most traditions evolve with time. But one holiday tradition has been around for 200 years and is still going strong. On Christmas Eve, 1818, Father Joseph Mohr, a parish priest from Austria, approached organist Franz Xaver Gruber about writing a music score for a Christmas carol. Mohr had written the lyrics a few years before. The men debuted the song in the St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Austria.

About 100 years later, Gruber’s nephew, a doctor, moved to West Virginia and eventually settled in Helvetia. The local community choir keeps the Silent Night tradition alive, singing the song in German each year on Christmas Eve in the local church. The song has become one of the most loved, and most recognizable, Christmas songs of all time.

For some, the holiday season is a great time to hit the slopes in parts of Appalachia where winter spots generate millions every head. Unfortunately, climate change is creating more challenges to those traditions.

And the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count is yet another tradition that has endured for more than 100 years. The group wanted to discourage people from shooting birds around the holidays, and it called on the public to help. Citizen scientists look to the skies, trees and bird feeders to identify and count as many birds as possible in a 24-hour period between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Last year, about 77,000 people particpated.

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We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from Fred Sauceman and Mary Meehan from the Ohio Valley Resource. Music in today’s show was provided by the Jack Gibbons and the Helvetia Community Choir.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright, and he also helped to edit this show. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to Inside Appalachia@wvpublic. org.