Here in the South, we love a good tradition, and despite the fact that Christmas is celebrated across the country, we like to think that—like most all things—it’s benefited from its time spent in proximity to the South. Not to say that we don’t welcome other traditions—quite the contrary, in fact—we tend to treat them like any other weary, bedraggled passerby: greet them at the door, gussy them up a bit to make them presentable for company, then sit them down at the warmth and welcome of our Christmas table as though we’d been expecting them all along.
- Citrus in the Stocking Despite the ready availability of citrus fruits today, the tradition of putting oranges in the toes of Christmas stockings persists (photo courtesy of Henry10)Just as in other places in the country, Southern Christmas mornings are all abuzz. As soon as the first watery rays of the morning sun start to peek over the horizon, children all across the South throw back their blankets, leap from their beds, and rush to their stockings, which they’ll find stuffed and bulging with a bountiful supply of . . . oranges. Yes, oranges. Since Southern stockings have had toes, they’ve been stuffed with citrus fruits on Christmas morning. This tradition can be traced back to the earliest days of our nation, when citrus fruit out of season was a luxury that few could afford. Yet thanks to the South’s proximity to the balmier latitudes that could grow the winter fruit and to the bustling port cities that brought it into the States, citrus was a within-reach indulgence for the specialist of occasions, and hence, found its way into the stockings of good little boys and girls across the South.
- EggnogGeorge Washington’s signature smirk may have less to do with wooden teeth, as some suspect, and more to do with the potent nature of his nogSoutherners may not have invented eggnog, but few can argue that it hasn’t been improved by our influence. One of the country’s earliest recorded recipes for eggnog was penned by none other than native Virginian George Washington, whose high-octane version not only called for the traditional cream, milk, and sugar, but for a heavy-handed pour of brandy, whiskey, sherry, and Jamaican rum, along with the instructions to “taste frequently.” Today’s best recipes may turn down the tipple a bit, but that’s not to say they don’t still benefit from Southern good taste; there’s nary a nog that can’t be bettered by a healthy helping of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
- Old Christmas Residents of the Outer Banks have long celebrated two Christmases: a traditional version with Santa Claus on December 25, and Old Christmas, which takes place on January 6 and features a particularly virile bull named “Old Buck” (photo Courtesy of: North Carolina County Photographic Collection #P0001, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives)Lucky is the one who happens to find himself in the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the holiday season: thanks to a bit of poor communication and a long history of stubborn self-reliance, these contumacious coastal dwellers celebrate Christmas twice. The tradition can be traced back to 1752, when England adopted the Gregorian Calendar, a fact that no one, apparently, saw fit to relate to the King’s isolated colonies on the Outer Banks. By the time the news of the shorter calendar reached the islands, they had been celebrating Christmas twelve days “late” for decades. Having already developed a keen bit of obdurate independence, the hard-tack islanders thoughtfully chewed on the concept, then informed the messengers that they were more than welcome to celebrate the season any day they wished, but for them, the old date still worked just fine.
- Coconut Cake Light and fluffy as new-fallen snow, traditional coconut cake is a labor of love (photo courtesy of Toby Oxborrow)Much like citrus in the stocking, the prevalence of coconut cake at Christmas time is a Southern tradition born of seasonal indulgence: coconuts would arrive in Southern port cities from the Caribbean just in time for the holidays. But the Christmas coconut-cake tradition can also be largely attributed to Southern weather. Coconut cake calls for seven-minute icing, which—under the best of conditions—can be done with about the same ease and grace as putting socks on a rooster. Success depends largely on maintaining the delicate balance of three factors: beating the ingredients steadily over simmering water, timing the process to the nth degree, and, most importantly, staying away from humidity at all costs. For those fortunate enough to live in the blessed mugginess of the Southern region prior to central air conditioning, this last commandment of seven-minute icing was all but impossible except in the brief, winter respite of the holiday season.
- Magnolia WreathsMagnolia wreaths are a staple of Southern holiday decor (photo courtesy of Tony Alter)Here in the South we know it’s impolite to brag, but sometimes it’s just too hard to resist. Such is the case when it comes to holiday decorating, a Southern art form if ever there was one. While our northerly neighbors must resign themselves to the limitations of bushy and bedraggled evergreens like pine and fir, we’re fortunate enough to also be blessed with the genteel magnolia, an evergreen whose lustrous and symmetrical foliage makes it ideally suited for the most polished of seasonal adornments. While Northerners busy themselves chinking withered red berries and needle-tipped holly leaves out of ice-encasements for their centerpieces, we can simply step outside and pluck a few perfect, waxy leaves from the backyard, artfully arrange them in a circle, and (politely, humbly) hang them on our front door for all to see.