Just as in all things, Southerners love to take holiday traditions and make them their own. Whether it’s slapping pecans in a kugel or lighting a bonfire to guide in an alligator-drawn sleigh, we find that there are few traditions that can’t be made just a bit better with a dash of Southern sparkle.
- Chanukah Massive menorahs stand as a testament to the prevalence of Jews across the South; a nine foot menorah stands in Cary, NC, a ten foot menorah in Decateur, Florida, and a towering 18 footer in Hallandale Beach (photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz)Christmas isn’t the only holiday that the South does right; Chanukah has been celebrated with trademark Southern grace and gusto across the region for hundreds of years, and we’re not talking small latkes here. Between the years 1776 and 1820, there were more Jews in Charleston than anywhere else in the United States, and the city’s still home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the country. The freilich festivities don’t stop at the borders of the holy city, though; happy combinations of traditional Jewish and Southern culture can be seen all across the South: spicy cayenne matzo balls in New Orleans, an annual parade of over sixty cars with menorahs strapped to their roofs in Orlando, and the world’s largest spinning (seashell encrusted) dreidel in Miami Beach.
Originally named Euphorbia Pulcherrima–“very beautiful”–the poinsettia eventually took on the name of it’s Southern patron, Joel Roberts PoinsettDespite the fact that poinsettias may be a species native to Mexico, you can still thank a Southerner’s forethought for bringing it to the United States. When native South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett was called to serve as the Ambassador to Mexico in the early 1800’s, he probably thought he’d earn his way into history books through his service as a statesman and not through his penchant for amateur botany, but such is not the case. During one of his evening strolls in late December, Poinsett saw the trademark crimson glow of the poinsettia among the Mexican roadside bramble, tucked a few carefully cut slips in his pocket, and shipped them off to his greenhouse in Greenville. By the time he returned stateside, the plant had earned a reputation as a Christmas favorite, taken on his name (Euphorbia pulcherrima just didn’t roll off the tongue), and secured his place in holiday history.
- New Year’s Superstitions Faithful Southerners will have a meal of greens, hog jowl, and black-eyed peas (365 for the best luck!) on New Year’s Day (photo courtesy of Julia at I Believe I Can Fry)The South is no stranger to superstitions, but there are few times of year that come with such a densely packed slew as the holiday season. Don’t wash and iron that Christmas sweater—you’ll wash out the good luck and press in the bad! Don’t let your fire go out on Christmas morning, or you’ll have a whole lot more than Santa coming down that chimney. And—perhaps most famously—make sure that your New Year’s Day feast includes greens, black-eyed peas, and hog jowl. This tradition is deeply rooted in Southern lore. Winter greens and peas were purportedly the only things left in the wake of the Union Army and were therefore almost singlehandedly responsible for the continuation of many an antebellum line. Dutiful Southerners make them a New Year’s meal not only in remembrance, but in hopes of a little luck in the year to come: greens to bring cash, peas for coin, and something swine as a reminder to keep rooting forward.
- Single Candle in the Window A single candle lit in the window is a sure symbol of Irish, and now Southern, hospitality (photo courtesy of Martinak15)Take a snowy drive down any Southern backroad around Christmas time, and you’ll find many a window lit by the warm glow of candlelight. Like many Southern traditions, from bluegrass music to the word “hillbilly,” we can thank the Irish for the practice. Lighting a single candle in the window has long been an Irish tradition, one with as many layers as the people who brought it to the country. The gentle flicker symbolizes the light that once guided Mary and Joseph so long ago, as well as a signal of sanctuary to any other weary travelers that might be passing by. During the period of harsh Penal Laws in Ireland, the candle served as a silent indicator that the traditions of Catholicism were still quietly kept, and today it’s grown into a universal symbol of Irish—now Southern—hospitality.
- Feux de Joie During St. John Parish’s Festival of Bonfires, over 100 wooden pyres (laced with sugar cane for pop and sparkle) go up in flames (photo courtesy of Kim Welsh)For some folks, a crackling fire in the fireplace is enough to put them in the holiday spirit, for others—like the folks in St. John’s Parish, Louisiana—it takes just a bit more sparkle. Every year on Christmas Eve, the banks of the Mississippi River in St. John’s are alight with the crackling glow of over 100 wooden pyres set aflame against the night sky. The roots of the tradition extend far beyond the parish, all the way back to French, German, and Celtic traditions, but here in Louisiana, they’ve taken on a unique Southern twang. The incendiary creations take the shape of everything from riverboats to fleur-de-lis, and are the special secret to guiding Papa Noel (complete with alligator-drawn flatboat, of course) to the deserving little parish of St. John’s.