The South is a place where traditions are plentiful and followed with devotion and superstition... especially around holiday time! From the type of food you serve to how you decorate your tree or adorn your front door, there are certain seasonal tasks that don’t merely just come natural to locals, but are almost considered mandatory within communities of families, friends, and neighbors. While most festive traditions vary greatly depending on region, age, and upbringing, here are some charming — and surprising! — ones you can expect to see down south.
1. Hanukkah touches in Southern holiday meals
It might surprise you to know that between 1776 and 1820, the majority of Jews in the country named Charleston, S.C., their home, and even today, the third-largest synagogue in the U.S. is just a few hours away, in Savannah G.A. Some big Jewish festivals — the Shalom Y’all in Savannah and the Hard Lox festival in Asheville, N.C. — are held in the south too. That’s why so many elements of the Southern meal have been influenced by Hanukkah’s traditions: sweet potato latkes that resemble the Jewish variety in most Southern households, while green onion and cayenne pepper matzo balls are found on a Louisiana Christmas menu.
2. Celebrating on January 6
The old tale goes that before England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, "Christmas Day" (or as it’s widely known by Christians as Jesus’s birthday) was on January 6, not December 25. The stubborn inhabitants of the Outer Banks didn’t want to follow suit and change their ways, so they kept to the old date. Nowadays, they celebrate both with Old Christmas held on January 6 and really, just another reason to get together, drink, and potluck.
Even if you weren’t raised in the bible belt or anywhere near the Southern states, you might have memories of seeing poinsettia plants during the holiday season. What you might not know is their rich, interesting history: an ambassador from South Carolina who spotted these red-leafed beauties while visiting Mexico brought them back to his home state. They became so popular and associated with the Christmas holiday that Congress made December 12 National Poinsettia Day, hence the nationwide recognition.
4. Magnolia and pine decor
When the first of the southern ancestors made their way to Jamestown Virginia, they had a certain affinity for the pine tree. Because of its evergreen nature, they started to associate its branches with hope and good fortune. While many states use pine in their decor, recipes and holiday-inspired scents, it was in the South where they were made famous.
5. Oyster dressing
Chances are when you associate a food with Christmas Day, your mind doesn’t go straight to seafood. But, if you’re from the lowcountry of South Carolina or the hottest parts of Florida, you might. Why? Christmas dinners that are held near the Gulf always have oysters as part of their menu because the colder water temperatures make them okay to serve. Usually, oysters are an appetizer or a tasty dressing is made to put over those ‘taters.
6. George Washington's eggnog
Headed to a festive shindig down South and you need an idea for a beverage to bring? Consider the Southern-born eggnog recipe that was beloved by the first president of the United States, George Washington. It’s not all that different from the traditional mix, but as you can imagine with most dishes in the South, it’s all about the gluttony. There’s not only milk and cream (and sugar!), but rum, sherry, and whiskey. Just don’t have one too many and start the gossip train on Christmas Eve.
7. Telling the tale of General Lee
Infamous Civil War leader Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army apparently had some communications with Santa Claus himself, if you ask Southern superstitious elders. The folklore claims that three young girls wrote a letter to General Lee to complain that Santa hadn’t shimmed down their chimney in three years (ahem: this was wartime, so goods and food were rationed). Legend has it that he wrote back, detailing about his encounter with Santa when he instructed the jolly ol’ man to sell the toys he made to give clothing, medicine and meals for soldiers. You might just hear this story if you don’t mind your mama... and she threatens to "pull a Lee!"
8. Boiled custard
It’s estimated by culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler that boiled custard, served as a dessert, has been a holiday tradition down South since 1607. (Whew.) What is it? As simple as it sounds: boiled milk, eggs, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla, and nutmeg. Served hot or cold, it might remind you of creme brulee, sans the flame.
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