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 Southern Christmas have been adopted outside of the South, many traditions and customs have remained unique to the South. 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- When I was a kid, we always found oranges in our Christmas stockings. I would never have guessed that this is a long-standing Southern Christmas custom. This 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 infused wonder. 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
*Note to Cat Owners: Poinsettia leaves are poisonous to cats. Best to buy fake Poinsettia plants if you have felines in the home.