Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Serenading

During the olden days there was a tradition around here called “Christmas Serenading.” It is now long past but the older people in this community remember it.

Not to be confused with Christmas caroling, serenading involved dressing up and going door to door on Christmas Eve to beg for treats, similar to Halloween trick-or-treating today.

My mother, an aunt and a neighbor were my first-hand sources for information about serenading. They retold how when they were teenagers a group of friends would dress in a way they wouldn't be recognized and make rounds to neighboring houses. Knocking on doors, they would be invited inside and given a cookie, piece of cake, candy or fruit.

This form of Christmas entertainment didn't survive beyond my parents’ generation, but many of us grew up hearing their stories. Halloween wasn't celebrated at all during their childhoods, and Christmas Serenading was entertainment during a time when there weren't many other forms of diversion.

My mother recounted one of her father's stories about serenading when he was young -- which would have been around the turn of the 19th century -- when boys would engage in naughty tricks. One was going around to neighboring farmers’ barns, dismantling their wagons and reassembling them on the house rooftop. Imagine a farmer’s surprise the next morning! I’m thinking that there was no knocking on those doors for treats; but a matter of serenaders operating surreptitiously.

Research on the Internet did not provide much background information on this subject. I did, however, find two pieces of information about Christmas Serenading:

From a magazine article and subsequently the book Foxfire Christmas


A Real Appalachian Serenade

Just gettin' out and going around, sneaking up to someone's house [was our entertainment at Christmastime. That's what we called serenading.] They didn't know nothing about it, and we'd just come up making the durndest noise you ever heard. If they was in bed, they just as well to get up. They shore to God couldn't sleep! We'd just keep on making noise until they got up and gave us something to eat. They'd always invite us in and feed us. They'd have something for us to eat and sometimes give us a present or something.

"We'd never start out till about midnight. There'd be about twenty-five or thirty of us. The girls would join us, too, and we'd all go. We'd be sure everyone was in bed and had the lights all out. Everybody would make some kind of noise, one way or the other. You never heard such bells ringing, shooting, hollering, and beating old tin buckets and things. Take us half the night to get back after we got through serenading people; we might serenade a dozen and not get back until daybreak.

"People in them days would have a cow and a horse, at least, in the stalls in the barn. While they were asleep that night, we'd take the horse out of one stall and put it in the cow's stall, and move the cow into the horse's stall. They'd go in there to milk the next morning—we liked to be there to watch—and there'd stand the ol' horse in the cow stall. Boy, they could get mad! They'd throw their milk bucket down on the ground. Us kids got a lotta kick out of that. We'd do all kinds of stuff like that. We'd move people's stuff, hide their axes or somethin' else. Whatever we could find loose, layin' out, we'd hide it. Wouldn't put it where he couldn't never find it, but he'd maybe have to hunt for two or three days.

"Folks didn't care, though. Everybody else done it. Just like trick or treat here now on Halloween. It was just on that same basis—everybody done it. They'd just gather up, boys and girls, and they'd just take off. We thought if people ought to be serenaded, we'd give them a round. If anybody came in our settlement, they got serenaded whether they liked it or not.”

Foxfire magazine began in 1966. It is written and published as a quarterly American magazine by students at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private secondary education school located in Georgia. The magazine articles are based on the students' interviews with local people about aspects and practices in Appalachian culture. They captured oral history, craft traditions, and other material. The articles were collected and published in book form in 1972 and became a bestseller nationally and gained attention for the Foxfire project.

More information about Foxfire .

The other source is an article in The Sylva (North Carolina) Herald written by Gary Carden. He reports in Appalachian Christmas Traditions of accompanying his relatives on a Christmas serenade:

"In the company of my cousins (Lyndon and Fred), Aunt Irene and a collection of relatives (Daltons and Gibsons), we assembled on Aunt Nancy’s porch a little before midnight. I was given one of Cousin Irene’s dresses to wear (in serenading, the males dress like women and the women dress like men) and everybody put soot on their faces. Lyndon and Fred carried a washtub and a hammer. Uncle Pratt carried a shotgun. Cousin Irene led the way with a lantern as we walked along a dark road to a neighbor’s house, the Hasketts. On a signal from Uncle Pratt, who fired the shotgun, we screamed like banshees while Lyndon and Fred beat the washtub. We kept it up until the lights came on in the house.

"Later, it occurred to me that the Hasketts woke up, dressed and filed out on the porch in record time. I finally decided that they were not in bed at all. In fact, they had been sitting in the dark waiting for us. They laughed at our costumes and then invited us in the house for stack cake and hot apple cider (which had been prepared in advance). Then, we all went up on the ridge above the Hasketts’ house and burned a big brush pile that had already been soaked in coal oil. It lit up the whole holler, and I could see other fires on other ridges around us."

Sylva Storyteller
Gary Carden

Credit: The Sylva Herald
If you are interested in reading his complete article, including information about how the tradition may have originated, find it at The Sylva Herald.


  1. Another piece of Christmas tradition that is new to me. I do remember when carolers came to our house some sort of food was always offered to them, cookies usually - maybe homemade candy. I know some people invited them in for a drink of something hot but I think those were planned stops along their route.

    No mischief was made.


    1. I think this serenading at Christmas tradition may have been unique to the South. There were carolers during my childhood, usually organized through churches.

  2. New to me too. So funny to read the written text.
    We have an old Christmas tradition over here, which has become very popular again. It is actually a performance of the happenings on Christmas Eve. A play performed by four boys, called: Tierna pojat. Origin from northern Finland, accents and all. Performed to raise some goodies or money for the actors.
    A bit too long to be written here.
    Maybe other countries have similar traditions too!

    1. How would "Tierna pojat" translate into English. Just curious.

      Are we glad to be done with Christmas???YES

  3. I love your stories of old traditions Sanda. This one is new to me too. Sometimes we have gone around the neighbourhood singing carols with a church group, which is fun, but does not involve either mischief, or being fed treats!

    1. I consider it a compliment that you enjoy hearing about these traditions. I like thinking about them.

  4. The Brownies,church choirs,Salvation Army,use to sing carols round houses,remember my G/parents always invited them in for mince pies,warm punch and juices for children,plus money for whatever charity they were collecting for.

    You have so many interesting traditions,and I enjoy reading about them a side of American history I have no knowledge of.
    Looking forward to hearing more in 2013.Ida

    1. I admit that some of these stories wouldn't be found in the history books, but perhaps in books on folklore. I think some of these traditions date back to Scot-Irish heritage and were been "modified" over time.

  5. One story I remember is that the serenaders would take lawn chairs from one house to another and exchange them but not so far that the rightful owners didn't get their things back.
    I remember these stories so well and I'm afraid after our generation, all stories and memories of these things will be lost forever.
    Enjoyed this a lot!

    1. Thanks for that addition. And I know that you're right -- that the generations after us won't have heard these stories.

  6. My 73 year old Dad just told us about this just this past Christmas. Growing up in North Alabama in a poor farming county, he said there were no presents and there was nothing much to do. They also called this 'dry sitting.' When I researched this on the internet, your info was all that I could find. He was about 13 when he was first invited to go with the older kids. His aunt dressed him in a ladies skirt, an apron, a bonnet, and a pair of brown cotton stockings stretched over his face so he wouldn't be recognized. They would all knock on the door, enter quietly, and sit motionless. People they visited were to guess who they were. My dad's first time was a little more eventful. He entered without knocking during a neighbor's favorite radio program 'Behind the Creaking Door' and scared him so badly, he (a grown man) screamed like a woman and jumped into bed with his parents. He also told us that his father's barn animals had been bothered by serenaders one time (prank) and he decided to fix them. He and 3 other men took apart a wagon and reassembled it on top of the house straddling the peak of the roof where no wheels were touching.


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