Christmas Traditions in the South

By Jessica Azar

There’s nothing like Christmas in Dixie, and the roots of Southern Christmas celebrations run deep. The American South was making merry long before it became the standard practice in other areas of the country. Alabama was the first state to declare it a legal holiday in 1836, with Louisiana and Arkansas following a couple of years later. Christmas wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday until 1870.

While some facets of our Southern Christmas has been adopted outside of the South, many traditions and customs have remained unique to our way of life. If looking at a few of these fun Southern Yuletide customs doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, you might need to check your pulse:

  • Citrus Fruit- A long-standing Southern Christmas custom is for parents to leave oranges in the fire-side stockings of their children. This puzzling gift finds its origins in the previous rarity of citrus fruit and the expense of such a luxurious gift. The Southern Christmastime craving for the flavor of oranges influenced the popularity Christmastime recipe staple known as Ambrosia, and for many it’s just not Christmas without that.  Citrus also appears frequently in Southern holiday décor in the form of slices for fragrant potpourri or as whole oranges in garlands.
  • Pecan Pie- Due to the harvest season falling between September and December, pecans are a readily-available, favorite flavor for the Christmas season in the South. Folklore has it that the French settlers in Louisiana developed this holiday dessert staple. Divinity and Pralines are two other pecan-based treats of Southern origin that have become treasured holiday items as well. It’s hard to imagine visiting friends during the holidays and NOT seeing a tin of sugared pecans on the coffee table, or bringing the hostess some toasted pecans for a present. The delicious snack breaks up the monotony of the cheese straws we bring during the rest of the year.
  • Poinsettias– This beautiful plant with red blooms has become synonymous with Christmas cheer. Originally the poinsettia was a popular decoration for the Christmas season in Mexico, and the botany-loving U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett brought back clippings of the plant to his South Carolina home. The shape is said to be evocative of the Star of Bethlehem, and it’s popularity spread throughout the nation, especially after Congress declared Dec. 12 National Poinsettia Day. It’s just (picture) not Christmas without a cheerful poinsettia blooms.
  • Magnolia and Pine Décor– We have the settlers that landed at Jamestown, Virginia to thank for this tradition. After they noticed pine was an evergreen, they began using it as a symbol of good fortune and hope in décor. First popularized in the South, it can now be seen in holiday swags, wreaths, and garlands nationally. Many widely-read styling magazines have also featured stories on how to best use magnolia leaves to achieve a rustic, country feel. It’s common to see wreaths out of these gorgeous, dark-green, shiny leaves than any kind of fir tree branches.
  • Coconut Cake– Like citrus fruit, coconuts were seen as exotic and difficult to obtain, so enjoying this flavor was a rare treat. Hand-grating coconut for the cake is a labor-intensive job that no one looks forward to doing, so making a cake with it would be reserved for only the most special of occasions. The seven-minute icing it requires is also much easier (less-impossible) to make during the wintry absence of insane humidity the South experiences. When completed the cake looks like a gorgeous snowball, which makes us happy in the Deep South because it’s likely the only snow we’ll see at Christmas.
  • Oysters– Southerners love Oysters. Because December is considered a safe month to consume them due to the colder water temperatures in the Gulf, these appear frequently on the half-shell at holiday gatherings across the South. Oyster dressing is also a staple at a lot of Christmas Dinners, and many tout its superiority over other varieties of the dish. (I’m still a celery and onion in the cornbread kind of girl, though.)
  • Deep-Fried Turkey- In the South we love to fry anything and everything, so why not fry the most delicious piece of poultry we can find? It leaves a delicious crunchy texture outside while keeping the meat flavorful and juicy. This tradition is starting to catch on in other parts of the nation, naturally.

The myriad of wonderful Southern Christmas traditions is long and varied, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Just like every other holiday event in our culture, Christmas in the South is full of beauty, fun, and delicious food.

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