Old Timey Christmas in Catawba


“And now Teddy Carroll will say his Christmas piece.” I slid off of the church pew and slowly walked to the area in front of the pulpit knowing that this was not going to go well. It was the annual Christmas program at Catawba Methodist Church when all the children would participate by reciting a “piece”. A piece was something in the Christmas scripture that we had been given to memorize in preparation for this moment during the Christmas program. The older children would have longer pieces to say than the younger ones like me. The girls always remembered theirs and said them perfectly. My mother was in charge of the program and had coached me for the past two weeks to get up, say my piece and sit back down. Easier said than done! My piece was from Luke chapter two verse eight. It had twenty words but Mama shortened it to six.  I stood there fidgeting as a packed congregation waited. Mama was standing off to the side as she was directing the children’s program. She had a copy of each child’s piece enabling her to cue kids like me who got stage fright. I glanced over at her and she gave me that “wait until I get you home” look. This was definitely not going well at all. Finally, she prompted me:

Mama: “There were”.

Teddy: “There were”.

Mama: “shepherds”.

Teddy: “shepherds”.

Mama: “in the fields”.

Teddy: “in the——–”

Mama: “fields”.

Teddy: “fields”.

I received a soft, sympathetic applause as I walked back to the pew. As I passed by Mama she whispered, “wait until I get you home.” I was hoping the program would last longer.

This Church Christmas program format would be repeated at all the Catawba Valley churches the Sunday night before Christmas or on Christmas Eve, with mostly identical programs. There would be a large freshly cut cedar tree that had been decorated mostly with handmade ornaments and such. There would be presents under the tree and each child would get one. At the end, we would all get small, brown paper bags full of edible goodies. There would be an orange, hard candy, bubble gum, and nuts. Let me tell you right now, that was a big deal. I got my first orange at my first Christmas program and that would be the only orange I would get that entire year. Oranges and bananas were rare in the mountains. Now don’t get me wrong, we had fruit in the mountains: apples, pears, peaches, watermelon, cherries, berries, etcetera, but no citrus. Except at the Christmas program at our church. I will never forget those little brown paper sacks each Christmas. That was the only time during the year we all got an orange.

Christmas Comes to The Mountains

Christmas trees were introduced in Williamsburg in 1842. Christmas was declared a National Holiday in 1870. The practice of Christmas trees was introduced around 1900 in Appalachia by teachers who came to teach in the one-room schools sprinkled throughout the Mountains, including Catawba. It is believed that decorated trees in houses did not occur until the 1930s. I would assume the celebration of Christmas, Santa Claus, and gift-giving would have gotten its start at the same time. Once Christmas came it is for sure the celebration would be centered first and foremost in the churches and homes.

It was not unusual to have snow at Christmas since the snows came early in the mountains.  They were usually deep and stayed late into the Spring. Getting one at Christmas was a real treat, but not as big as getting that juicy orange at church. The mountains are especially beautiful in the winter when snow is present and ice cycles hang down on buildings and trees, sometimes two or three feet long. Nature did her own Christmas decorations. I can remember the many snow fences that were placed along highways to prevent big drifts blocking travel. I guess they helped some.

Most families celebrated Christmas in the same manner when it came to gift giving. There was usually not much money in most families to spend on Santa Claus giving, although the priority would be focused on the children. We did not have any money in our house in the early years for toys, dolls and such. Oh, we believed in Santa Claus and wrote our letters to Santa each year hoping the Roanoke radio station would read them on the air. Dreaming about visions of sugar plums we would fantasize about all the many things boys and girls would desire to have left under the tree. I was one of those dreamers, but reality set in when we went to the living room where the Christmas tree was on Christmas morning. There would be presents for all, some wrapped, some unwrapped. Instead of a doll or a BB gun, there would be socks, underwear, jeans, mittens, scarves or some other article of necessity. I was heartbroken at times, as were my sisters although deep down we knew what was coming. Things would get better in the years to come but most of the children in the Valley in the 1930’s and 1940’s got things they needed, not things they wanted. Christmas was still a happy time as we would have a big meal, visit with kinfolk and do fun things. I had always wanted a train set but that was definitely a “dream”. I did take care of that at age 56 when I went to K Mart and got a train set to run under the tree.  I  used it for a few years after that, too.

Looking back, as a child growing up in those hard times I have never felt I was deprived or missed out on anything. We made do with what we had and we all pretty much had the same things. I learned lessons that serve me today knowing that I did not miss out on anything of value. After all, how many people can say they grew up in Catawba!

One of my cousins fondly remembered a typical Christmas. She wrote this:

“My early memory of Christmas was always going to Shiloh Church on Christmas Eve to participate in the program. I was nervous and excited to be a part of this special event but always happy when it finished, and I didn’t forget or mess up my part.”

Author’s note:  Now, I want to point out a comparison between cousin Sandra’s experience and my experience, at a church Christmas program. Notice she says she got to participate while I had to “say a piece”. And she was “excited” while I “dreaded”. She was “happy”. I “doubled-dreaded”. She finished by saying, “I didn’t forget or mess up!” As for me, I bombed big time. My point: Those children’s Christmas programs back then should have been ‘girls only’. Boys should be there of course, so we could get an orange. Now that I have said my piece, er, made my point, I will let Sandra continue: “

— I loved when we drove home and we were in sight of our house, seeing the beautiful blue candles that Mama always placed in the windows. The family, usually, came over and we had so much good food and opened gifts, too. I am ashamed to say, but I was always anxious for everyone to leave so I could go to bed knowing that Santa was on his way. I was never disappointed because I always got everything on my list and more. I was one fortunate little girl, not because of the presents but all of the love that surrounded me in my home at Christmas time in Catawba”. By: Sandra Abbott.

Christmas Traditions from others:

There were Christmas traditions that different ethnic groups brought to the Mountains. The English settlers brought the tradition of hanging stockings on or near the fireplace. On Christmas morning they would be filled with goodies to eat or perhaps a small gift. In some cases, there would be coins in one’s stocking. The German settlers, (and we had some in Catawba), believed in a tradition called setting a table for Santa. Everyone’s plate was placed upside down on the table in their usual place and the table was moved to between the Christmas tree and a window. The next morning the plates were right side up and filled with candy, sweets and a small gift.

[Author’s note: If you recall in the Taylor-Made article in the Echoes From Catawba Book-Volume 1, there is a comment about two young sisters who substituted live chickens for doll babies. I got a lot of comments from readers of that story about the ‘chicken dolls’. With that in mind you will enjoy this comment on Ole Time Christmas].

“On Christmas Eve we went to Shiloh Church for the annual Christmas program. When we got home, Daddy and Mama made us go to bed so Santa could arrive. On Christmas morning we rushed to the tree, where usually we had some candy and fruit, but this year there were two dolls, one for me and one for my sister Lola. We were so excited and happy since we now had dolls to carry instead of chickens! (Imagine how the chickens must have felt.) I was around 9 years old at that time. Years later, we learned that the dolls were given to Mama for us by our Uncle John Garman, who worked at Heironimus Department Store. What a wonderful and happy Christmas it was. (Yes, there was a Santa Claus- Named John.) By: Peggy Halsey

Catawba’s “Live Nativity Scene” Lives on. By: Betty Munsey

A simple idea suggested by a bunch of Catawba guys and spearheaded by Ted Carroll over sixty years ago has dominated my Christmas Eve plans for over forty years. Let me explain further. Members of the Catawba MYF(Catawba Methodist Youth Fellowship) thought it would be a good idea to build a simple wooden lean-to structure on the lawn in front of the Catawba Methodist Church and create a replica of the first nativity as it occurred in Bethlehem. The guys quickly constructed the nativity shed while others sewed costumes for church members who would serve as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and even the wise men. A doll wrapped in a white sheet was laid in a roughly built manger filled with straw. As cars stopped to view the scene, we were reminded to stay rigidly still and never talk. Visitors commented on the scene reflecting the true meaning of the season. Many left with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.


So now the rest of the story: Shortly after moving to Bland County where my husband and I have lived for over fifty years, I mentioned to our small rural congregation how Catawba Methodist held an outdoor live nativity scene to reenact Jesus Christ’s birth. The next year after time devoted to sewing robes and constructing a simple wooden nativity shed, our church’s first nativity was held on our church lawn over fifty miles to the west of the first I ever experienced. It has continued through the years regardless of the weather and is still attracting a steady stream of visitors on December 23rd and 24th.  Every Christmas Eve you will find our family and friends helping with the nativity and in many cases holding the donkeys from our farm that have learned to stand as still as the Biblical characters.

Christmas Eve always held a special place in our small community as the Catawba Methodist Church youth gathered to go caroling in “downtown Catawba”. The church lot was the gathering place as cars filled with youth heavily bundled in winter clothes to offset the evening’s cold temperatures. We carried small, wallet-sized paper songbooks of favorite Christmas carols, usually starting with “Joy to the World” and always ending with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. Most residents were aware of our caroling tradition and had their porch lights on to welcome visitors. Sometimes we walked the side road, leaving our cars in the Store parking lot with Roy and Ellie Baugh’s house as the turn-around point. We looked forward to Ellie’s snicker-doodle cookies and Madeline Edwards, later Crawford’s hard candies. The evening usually concluded at the Tuck Garman house where Sue and Pam’s mother had delicious hot chocolate and more cookies waiting for us. One particularly memorable evening some of the youth group guys had shot fresh mistletoe from a tree on Catawba Mountain and used it to share Christmas kisses before we left to celebrate Christmas with our families.  By: Betty Munsey

The Catawba Blizzard of 2009 and The Christmas Samaritan. By: Ted Carroll

It was exactly one week before Christmas 2009 as Tina and I departed our home in Greensboro, North Carolina heading to Catawba and Mama’s house. We drove separate vehicles, me in my pickup and Tina in the car. Our plan was to spend the night and Tina return to Greensboro on Friday morning while I would remain in Catawba until Sunday. I would be house-sitting and dog-sitting as Mama was in Williamsburg, having traveled with Barbara and some of her family. So, on that Friday, December 18, 2009, I was at the house with a big chow dog named Heidi and a major snowstorm on the way. I finished putting up outside Christmas lighting and loaded my pickup bed with firewood from the basement that I had intended to do before. I needed to get some weight on my truck for the anticipated snowfall. At 2:20 p.m., it started to snow through the afternoon, into the evening and was still falling as I went to bed at 10:15 p.m. The snow at that time measured seven inches.

Saturday, December 19, 2009, at 6 a.m. I crawled out of bed and got the coffee maker started.  Opened the door to go outside and the storm door was blocked with snow. After pushing the storm door open with my feet, little by little I managed to open it wide enough to get outside. I looked out over the yard and was astonished. Having grown up in Catawba I was used to deep snows but that was in the 1940s and 1950s. Catawba did not have snows like this anymore, until that December day. I used the same level spot that I measured the evening before and took a reading. Seventeen inches and well over my boots. My first emergency was where to take the dog to use the bathroom. I had a good snow shovel that I had kept at Mama’s house for snowfall situations. I dug a path out into the yard so the dog could care of business, which she did. Back into the house, I fixed breakfast for me and Heidi while contemplating what to do next. In the meantime, I discovered Mama’s phone service was out.

The driveway was blocked and I could not get out and no one could get in. Mama would be due back the next day and not be able to get down the driveway. I wanted the driveway opened after she got back home and after I headed back to Greensboro. In case of an emergency, a vehicle could get to her.  So I prayed to God to help me, not knowing at the moment what that might be. I could not shovel that driveway out by hand for sure. After a brief rest, I went back outside and the wind was blowing hard with snow starting to drift in places. I gazed across the road looking up at the Methodist Church Parsonage. I remembered that a lady was renting the house and she had two small children. I walked up to the Parsonage, which was not easy because of the snow depth. The lady answered my knock on her door and assured me she and her children were fine. Feeling better about that I trudged back to Mama’s house pouring myself another cup of coffee. I sat down in the kitchen and looked out at the winter wonderland being thankful that the electricity was still on, although phone service out. I then heard a noise that sounded like a vehicle on the road but quickly dismissed that thought until it became very loud. I stepped down from the kitchen area into the garage and looked out the garage door window. There was a large truck with a big blade attached to the front, push snow to the right looking like a huge ocean wave. All the way down to the end of the driveway near the grape vines. The driver backed up and started pushing snow off so as to clear a parking area near the house. Back up to the road the vehicle roared while widening the driveway and throwing a wave of snow that still hid the driver of the truck. It was something to behold and, I will admit, tears welling up in my eyes as I began to believe that God had sent me a driverless truck to clear away the snow. As I stepped out of the garage and the mist of snow finally settled I could see inside the truck cab. A young boy was in the passenger seat and the driver was exiting the truck on the far side. I recognized the driver who walked towards me with a smile on his face. It was Greg Duffy, whose father Paul I had gone to school with. He asked me if I was okay and I answered that I was now. He turned to walk back to his truck and I asked him, “how much do I owe you, Greg?”  He turned back around and said: “just tell Mrs. Elizabeth I said Merry Christmas”. Off he sped, to push another driveway.

Greg Duffy went to be with the Lord on July 19, 2018, at age 54. Long before that day, he had told my mother that he was going to take care of her in any way he could over the years. And he kept his word. He was, as fine a person as I have ever known.

In Luke chapter 10 we read about the good Samaritan who came upon a man who was lying beside the road bleeding to death from being robbed and beaten. The Samaritan was just a regular person who would be unknown to most people but was a kind, thoughtful, humble person that would be the first to help someone in need. The Good Samaritan was not named in the Bible. The one in Catawba was named Greg Duffy!


Echoes From Catawba

Ted & Tina Carroll

2 thoughts on “Old Timey Christmas in Catawba

  1. Sue and Pam are my aunts, my mom’s sisters. I too attended church there as a child. Grandma Lucy thought I could sing and was always my encourager as Aunt Sue played the piano.

    1. One of the greatest joys I get from my writings is when someone, like you, are moved to go back in time and revisit in your heart and mind those treasured memories. Your heart was warmed and your comments have warmed my heart. Thank you.—-Ted

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