Holiday Traditions of Childhood

I was raised in a large family---a lot of love but not much money. Extravagant gifts were not an option. We had to find other ways to make our holidays merry and bright. Now I find that many of the things we did are right in vogue as people look for ways to consume less, enjoy more, and live more gently on this earth.

My mother, a British WW II war bride, brought many holiday traditions to the US with her. She started the day after Thanksgiving--that was Fruitcake Day. When the batter was ready, everyone stirred three times each and made a wish. This was the signal that the holiday season had officially begun.

Saint Nicholas Day was the next holiday event. On December 6th Mom would wrap small gifts for each of us--a pencil, eraser, handkerchief--nothing expensive, but the gift beside our plates at dinner was always exciting. She usually re-used wrapping paper from the year before for these tiny gifts.

The Christmas Parade: We never missed it! The parade, held at night, passed the corner of our street. We'd bundle up and wave to the floats and to Santa at the end, then rush home for hot chocolate. Sometimes we'd go caroling in the neighborhood, stopping in at different houses to visit briefly and enjoy cookies and maybe some hot chocolate.

The Manger: Mom set up her nativity scene at the beginning of Advent, but the manger would remain empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men were also not present---they began their journey on the other side of the living room, moving a little each day until they finally arrived on January 5th, Epiphany.

The empty cradle was a challenge. In order for the baby Jesus to have a soft bed, we had to do good deeds, each one rewarded with a straw for the cradle. Some years I'm afraid His bed was a little hard! We stayed mindful of that cradle all month, and tried to do things that would earn a straw to add to the pile.

The Christmas Elf: this little fellow also moved about the house, watching children and reporting on behavior to Santa. We didn't want to be caught being naughty if the Elf was watching.

Cleaning: "You can't decorate dirt," Mom would say. So we'd polish the old house until everything shone--silver, wood, brass, mirrors. The house would be fragrant with the smell of floor wax and lemon oil. Then it was time to put up the tree and decorations.

The kissing ball: Mom re-decorated the ball each year with ribbons and greenery, and hung a sprig of mistletoe in the center. When we got older, we were allowed to help. She used scraps from sewing, ribbons from packages, any little bits and pieces she could find to make it glittering and pretty. It was usually hung in the dining room door and I can remember Dad catching her under it many times. We all loved to see them kiss.

The tree: Always a live one that we cut on a friend's farm, it was always lopsided and oddly shaped, and always decorated by Santa after midnight Mass. The tree would be put up a few days before Christmas, and the lights strung. The living room ceiling was twelve feet high, and the trees usually had to be trimmed to fit under them.

Decorations: lopped-off branches from the Christmas tree, holly, and a vine we called running pine were the main ingredients for our decorations. Greens were piled atop the mantles, around the front door, and twined down the stairs. Red ribbons and gold beads were added as we vied with each other for the best trimmings, re-used year after year and carefully stored away.

Yule log: made from a piece of the trunk of a former Christmas tree, Dad drilled small holes in it that we filled with greenery and Christmas bits of glittery stuff. Three larger holes held candles. The Yule log was always on the mantle in the living room, and the candles were lit on Christmas Eve to light in the Christ Child. A candle was placed in the window for the same purpose.

Christmas Day: On Christmas morning, we could see the tree through the crack between the big sliding wooden doors of the living room. It was shining and glimmering in the dusky light of dawn, and when the doors were finally opened--only after every single person in the house was present--it was a wondrous sight to behold. My parents collected Christmas balls, adding a few each year, making some, getting some for gifts. My last year at home, over 1000 balls hung on the green branches.

Gifts: with thirteen children to buy for, money didn't go far. We liked to buy for each other too but our money was practically non-existent. We learned to be happy with small gifts. Stockings were stuffed with apples, oranges, and nuts. We'd buy a pack of pencils and wrap one for each sibling, or penny candy, and wrap the gifts as carefully as if they had great value. They did--our hearts were in them. It didn't matter that the gifts under the tree were small--there were plenty of them and the joy when they were unwrapped was genuine. We’d have to hurry to get ready for early Mass at 7:30am.

Open House: Homemade eggnog, the fruitcake, and many other homemade goodies graced the table on Christmas night as friends and family came to visit. What happy times those were for a kid--lots of good things to eat, lots of noise, people singing carols, laughter. We baked for days before Christmas to prepare, always the same traditional fare--sausage rolls, mincemeat pies, wedding cookies, stollen (a sweet bread flavored with almond and laced with candied cherries), date bars, decorated sugar cookies, and so on.

Boxing day: this was the day after Christmas when we went visiting, usually wearing some of our gifts (mittens or toboggan hats knit by Mom, or new socks or a hanky from Granny).

New Year's Eve: even the littlest ones were allowed to stay up and see the New Year in, although they seldom stayed awake until midnight. Unspiked eggnog for the children and perhaps something a little stouter for the parents! Leftover goodies from Christmas, along with ham and rolls, were placed on the table once again for a repeat of the holiday feast.

Epiphany, January 5th: On this day our Wise Men finally made it to the crèche, and since they gave gifts to the Child, we also received small gifts at our places at dinner. This ended the 12 days of Christmas for us, although the tree remained decorated in all its glory until January 11th, my parents' anniversary and the occasion for more merrymaking.

And then the holidays were officially over, the decorations were regretfully taken down, and we looked ahead to the start of the next season--and by then it was only 10 and a half months away!

The Book Launch: Voices on Unity

Last night's book launch party was so much fun! It was a pleasure to see so many writer friends there, some with stories in the book and some who just came to support and listen. The books the publisher brought to sell sold out and the ones I wanted will be mailed to me. Now that's success.

The stories were fantastic--from a young woman's memories of the Women's March to tales of healing, stories that brought tears, laughter, thoughtful silence, intent listening. I have been reading the book today and am humbled to have my story be in such company.

And I am inspired to write more often. I have so many interests, too many I sometimes think, and it is difficult to carve out the quiet, reflective time it takes to write. Writing this blog is like writing a letter to friends and it keeps me thinking about writing, which is a good thing. Sometimes I feel like I am hanging on to that part of me by a thin thread. Then I go to a workshop or an event like this and come home recharged.

If you would like a copy of Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, just click on the Buy It Now Link in the sidebar, or send me a message at the email address that is also in the sidebar and we can work out how to get your book to you. You will not be disappointed, I promise.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Mistletoe: Legend and Lore

While searching for folklore and legends about mistletoe, I came upon a reference to a ballad called "The Mistletoe Bough." Of course that sent me searching for lyrics, melody and more information.
What I found was intriguing: a ghost story, set at Christmas time, that is also a tragic love story, written as a poem that was later set to music. Opinions differ on the location of the story's events, the time they supposedly occurred, when the poem was written and even if it is a true story or merely a romantic tale.

The story apparently struck a chord with many people over the years. The ballad has been recorded by artists even recently (and available as a ringtone!). The story has been performed as a play and as a pantomime.

Something else that I found interesting was that the name of the young lady's lover, Lord Lovell, is the title of yet another ballad. Is it one and the same man? Proably not, but an odd coincidence all the same.

The ballad/poem continues to draw lovers of old mysteries and the singers of today. And if you should happen to buy an old English trunk, you might find that what you have was the final resting place of the young lady in the song.
This is the ballad version of the poem:
The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayley

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall.
The Baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping the Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Lord Lovell's bride.
And she, with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of that goodly company.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

"I'm weary of dancing, now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide,
And, Lovell, be sure you're the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place."
Away she ran, and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan.
And young Lovell cried, "Oh, where do you hide?
I'm lonesome without you, my own fair bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

They sought her that night, they sought her next day,
They sought her in vain when a week passed away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly, but found her not.
The years passed by and their brief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past.
When Lovell appeared, all the children cried,
"See the old man weeps for his fairy bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

At length, an old chest that had long laid hid
Was found in the castle; they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.
How sad the day when in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest,
It closed with a spring and a dreadful doom,
And the bride lay clasped in a living tomb.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Here is the poem:

The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayly (spelled variously in different documents, as you can see)
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;
And the baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.

The baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, young Lovell's bride;
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company.

'I'm weary of dancing now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment - I'll hide - I'll hide!
And, Lovell, be sure thou'rt first to trace
The clew to my secret lurking place."

Away she ran - and her friends began
Each tower to search, and each nook to scan;
And young Lovell cried, "O, where dost thou hide?
I'm lonesome without thee, my own dear bride."

They sought her that night! and they sought her next day!
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away!
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly - but found her not.

And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
"See! the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle-they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay moldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!

0, sad was her fate!-in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring!-and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasp’d in her living tomb!

So there's the story. Now for all the background sources:
Information and the melody of the ballad can be found at this website.
This site offers a brief background of the song and its origins, but for a full, detailed history of the song from the book, Stories of Famous Songs, go here.
One version of the ballad, and a link to a sung version that didn't work for me; perhaps you will have better luck.
A little more trivia about the poem and the place where the events supposedly happened.
The poem arranged as a play--an interesting idea for a Christmas play, if a bit on the dark side.
A New York Times article from 1877 about a pantomime performance of the story.
Today you can have the song as a cell phone ringtone performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Anthony Trollope's story of the same name speaks more of romance than folklore.
An entirely different poem by the same name, by American poet Ellis Parker Butler (b.1869, d.1937).
There you have it: The Mistletoe Bough in many shapes and forms. It wasn't what I started to research, but I found myself following the trail of this old story, and thought many of you might find it as interesting as I did.
Caroling Program Scheduled in Ripley

from the Parkersburg News & Sentinel, Parkersburg, WV

RIPLEY — The history of caroling is coming to Alpine Theatre in Ripley on Nov. 26.

Storyteller Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein and musician Jeff Seager have been a-caroling across the region for more than five years. They are bringing their sing-along folk performance to Ripley.

“Here We Come A-Caroling” is a combination of Christmas carols and the stories behind the songs and will be presentee at 2 p.m. Nov. 26 in the historic Alpine Theatre, 210 W. Main St., Ripley.

Admission at the Alpine is $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and students.

“I have always loved carols,” said Holstein, whose mother was a World War II bride from England. “Mom brought many of her English customs and folklore with her to America, especially the Christmas ones.”

That meant she grew up with plum puddings, fruitcakes and a mistletoe ball in the house.

“We also grew up with carols,” she said. “Mom would play them from the beginning of December until the 12th night, and we often sang them as a family. Sometimes we went caroling in our neighborhood.”

The West Virginia History Hero recipient from Sandyville learned that she had a common interest in the songs with Seager, a guitarist from South Charleston. A conversation led to the development of the program.

Seager says they have performed in state parks, libraries and churches.

“Each year we find more songs that have intriguing stories behind them, so our repertoire keeps changing,” he said. “Many of the songs we perform have Appalachian connections. Some are versions of old songs from the British Isles and others were written right here in the mountains.”

Songs range from “The Huron Carol,” from the 17th century Native Americans. It was the first carol written on the continent. Among the more modern tunes, “Frosty the Snowman” was written by West Virginian Jack Rollins. “Silent Night” is popular in multiple languages.

Holstein has been storytelling as “Granny Sue” for more than 20 years. She leads the annual “Do You Believe?” ghost walk through downtown Ripley each October.

The Storyteller and the Writer

Check out my article that considers the intersection of writing and storytelling, on the Inspiration for Writers blog. It was an interesting question. Just what do these two artforms have in common, and how do they differ, besides the obvious presentation style?

"I was a storyteller before I thought about trying my hand at writing, and I have seen over the years how each craft informs the other." Read more here.

Coming Soon: Voices on Unity

Coming soon: Voices on Unity

It will be here soon! And my story about making fruitcakes with my sisters will be in it, along with stories and poems from many other fine West Virginia writers.

Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart is the new anthology soon to be released by Mountain State Press.  The book launch event will be held Tuesday, December 12, from 6:00pm-8:00pm at Hidden Creek Mercantile, The Copper Room, 2803 Main St, Hurricane, WV.

Contributing writers will be there reading from their stories. And you know, this weekend I'm making fruitcakes with my sisters again so if they come out well, I might just bring some with me to the launch!

I am excited about this book, which has stories and poems from many perspectives. In this time of national divisiveness, a collection like this is timely and needed. I am indebted to editor and publisher Cat Pleska, for envisioning and nurturing this project to completion.

I hope you can join us on December 12 to celebrate the launch of this exciting new work.

The Strange Case of Drusilla Myers: A History Mystery

The Strange Case of Drusilla Myers: A History Mystery

What happened to Drusilla Myers, a little girl growing up in Webster County, West Virginia, at the start of the Civil War? Was she the woman found years later and miles away in Gilmer County?

Drusilla was born around 1857 in Pocahontas county, Virginia, one of seven children born to Nancy (Leonard) and Cutlip Myers. Cutlip was born in Germany in 1810, and was quite a few years older than his wife who was born in 1827. The family seems to have moved around a bit, possibly following coal or timber work in the Pocahontas, Nicholas and Webster county areas of what is now West Virginia. When the South seceded from the Union to start the Civil War, the Myers family cast their sympathies with their home state which at the time was still Virginia, and supported the Confederate cause.

Drusilla, who was between four and eight years old, was living with her family in Webster county on Laurel Creek near the community of Bolair at the time the war was just beginning. One day she went to visit some nearby neighbors, possibly sent thereby her mother on an errand.  Some time later her parents sent her brother Jacob (called Jake) to fetch her.

Jake obliged, but on the way back and just a short distance from home he ran into a friend who invited to come and stay for a few days. Drusilla told her brother that she could get home by herself from there, and he left with his friend. Jake didn’t return home for several days; it was not uncommon in those days for people to make long visits without much planning or forethought; my husband often went to stay with friends and neighbors when he was a boy and would stay for several days or even weeks at a time. Those were surely different times from today! Drusilla’s parents probably heard through someone else where Jake was and assumed that Drusilla was with him. Can you imagine the panic that must have ensued when they learned the truth? I am sure a frantic search was mounted, and that the whole community turned out to help.

But it was to no avail. Drusilla was never seen again. It seemed as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up. No one remembered seeing her and there was not one trace of her clothing, no sign that anyone could find that might explain what had happened to her. The mountains were steep, largely unpopulated places, teeming with wildlife. No place for a little girl alone, and searching for her must have been a difficult task. 

Drusilla disappeared, it seemed. Vanished without a trace.

But did she?  Or did she turn up, years later and miles away, unable to recognize her own name?

Drusilla had a sister named Mary who married a William Hall of Wirt county, and there the couple made their home. Mr. Hall was a laborer who traveled to many places in search of work and it was in those travels that he heard the story of a woman living near Glenville, in Gilmer county, who claimed she had been kidnapped as a child. He went to visit this woman and heard a strange tale.

She told him that when she was just a little girl she was walking along a road near where she lived, and a man came up in a wagon. He offered her a ride, and she accepted. Then suddenly he grabbed a blanket and threw it over her, and began driving the wagon much faster. There was another girl in the wagon and she supposed the man had kidnapped that girl too. The name Drusilla Myers meant nothing to this woman, so Hall left without her.

So who was this mysterious woman? And was Drusilla the other girl in the wagon? I thought this was where the story ended, and indeed in Comstock’s West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia that is the end of the trail. But as I was searching online for information about this story and the Myers family, I came upon this article from the Virginia Democrat, dated July 14, 1873:

“In 1863, a little girl about 7 years old, a daughter of Cutlip Myers, of Laurel Creek, was sent on an errand to a neighbor's house. She arrived at her destination safely, and was on her return home when she was picked up by a Yankee soldier named Devees. It afterwards appeared that Devees, who was a married man, but had no children, was struck with the rustic beauty of the little wanderer, and he determined to carry her to his home in one of the river counties of Ohio. Avoiding all the settlements he accomplished his journey through Webster without being seen, and carried the child to his wife.

Mr. Myers and his family waited with all the patience they could bring to bear, and the child not returning, they scoured the woods and mountain paths in search of her. The neighbors were summoned, and days and nights were spent in searching for [any] trace of the lost one, but without avail, and it was finally concluded that she had been carried off and destroyed by boar, wolf, panther, or another of the wild animals which were then frequently seen in the mountain country. Her father, stricken by the loss of his youngest and prettiest child, sickened and died.

The war passed. Years flew by; and in 1871 the Myers family heard that a man named Devees had stolen a child from Webster county, and then had her living at his home in Burning Springs. A brother of the girl immediately mounted his horse and went there. He found the family and recognized his sister, but she seemed to be satisfied with her home, and refused to regard as true the story her brother told her. In despair the poor fellow returned home, and nothing more was heard of the matter until a few weeks ago, when the news came that some time ago Devees and his wife had quarreled and separated, and that Devees (whose conscience began to trouble him) had given a man named Dolan $20 to take the girl back to Webster.

Dolan, it appears, after the departure of Devees, failed to perform as he had promised, but was detaining the girl, (*he had now ascertained for a certainty all about her parentage against her will). And when we left Webster a party of men were about to start to where Dolan lives, and bring her home. She is now 17 years of age, and is said to be a very beautiful girl. Her name is Lucinda Myers. That is the story, just as we heard it.”

So there you have it, the possible solution to a long-ago mystery. Cutlip Myers died in 1869, jus one year after the birth of his youngest child; his wife Nancy continued to live in Bolair until her death in 1903, outliving her husband by over 30 years. As for Drusilla, I found no more mention of her, although if she did keep the name Lucinda, there might be yet another trail to follow.


Comstock, Jim. Drusilla Kidnapping. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, vol 7 DIS-FIR, page 1386. 1976, Richwood, WV.

Rootsweb, Ancestors of Munza & deVaux Families

Virginia Chronicle/Democrat, July 14, 1873.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.