Christmas Folk Tales: An Excerpt from Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
The United States is full of folklore. From scary ghost stories to Christmas miracles, there’s plenty of stories to be had in every corner of the fifty states. In From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois, John J. Dunphy explores some of the unique tales from the southern region of Illinois. Read on for an excerpt from his book, and to learn about where his passion for folklore comes from!

I attribute my passion for folklore to two factors: my great-uncle, who possessed an Irishman’s gift for storytelling, and my good fortune in being a native of the folklore cornucopia that is southern Illinois. Uncle Joe, assistant editor of the Alton Evening Telegraph, introduced me to the customs and beliefs of the old-time Irish and kept me regaled for hours with tales of magic and mystery. He also encouraged me to pursue writing as a career by explaining his work at the newspaper while taking me on tours of the Telegraph. I still remember those huge, noisy printing presses, the clacking of countless manual typewriters and desks with rotary phones that rang incessantly.

I absorbed Uncle Joe’s Irish stories, as well as his accounts of local history and lore, like a sponge soaks up water. As I grew older, I began to realize the historical and cultural richness that lay beyond Alton and its stretch of the Mississippi, popularly known as the River Bend. One could follow the river south to the old French Colonial District and see where European settlement of Illinois had begun. Towns such as Cahokia, Kaskaskia and Prairie du Rocher had been founded by French soldiers and pioneers, passed into British hands at the conclusion of the French and Indian War and became part of the fledgling United States with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. But the traditional French ways lingered, kept alive by residents who were proud of their region’s Gallic heritage.

Later, I began to study the deep southern Illinois region known as Egypt. The old ways lingered there as well, although different in custom and lore than those found in the French communities. Egypt had been settled by families of English and Scots-Irish stock who had migrated from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas. A smattering of other ethnic groups further enriched the cultural potpourri.

I discovered the works of Vance Randolph while a student at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University and remember being astounded by the sheer volume of lore he collected during his years of fieldwork in the Ozark country of Missouri and Arkansas. Randolph stressed the futility of trying to gather folklore by distributing questionnaires or running “old-timer” columns in newspapers. If one is serious about learning a region’s legend and lore, he maintained, one must live among that region’s people.

A giant Christmas tree at Lincoln-Douglas Square in Alton.
That assertion made sense to me. But I loved living in the River Bend. Besides, many—perhaps most—of the beliefs and customs that so intrigued me had vanished in much of southern Illinois. I needed to connect with older southern Illinoisans, as well as family members with whom they had shared their stories. But how?
I soon learned the importance of networking. My mantra became, “Connect with as many people as you possibly can and let them know what you’re seeking.” Although some stories and tidbits began to come my way, I wasn’t terribly successful until 1979, when I became a regular at Crivello’s Book Shop in downtown Alton. Bookshop patrons are always an interesting bunch and come from widely divergent backgrounds. I began to hear some great stuff.

Renamed the Second Reading when it changed hands in 1985, I purchased the bookshop in 1987 and kept it open seven days a week. Now folks knew where to find me at any given time, and the volume of folklore I heard increased greatly. I had begun writing for publication in the early 1980s, just about the time that Gary DeNeal co-founded Springhouse, a magazine devoted to everything southern Illinois—particularly its history and folklore. Illinois Magazine, a downstate literary institution, had changed hands and was seeking new contributors. I began freelancing for both periodicals, and some of the folklore I had collected found its way into print. The 1990s saw my articles on southern Illinois folklore appear in publications such as Country Living and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

I have loved Christmas since childhood and delighted in collecting and writing about the folklore of that enchanted season. I noticed last year that the file containing my Christmas articles was bulging. Time to put them into a book, I thought.

There was no question in my mind that such a work should also include the celebration of New Year’s and Twelfth Night. A nineteenth-century scholar wrote that “Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year’s Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night.” I’ve always agreed with that assessment and have no desire to shortchange readers in relating an account of the Christmas season in southern Illinois.
Some of the traditions you will read about apparently no longer exist, such as the observance of Old Christmas. Others, such as the singing of “La GuiannĂ©e” on New Year’s Eve, are alive and well, thanks to the efforts of southern Illinoisans who recognize the importance of preserving our region’s cultural heritage. And you can be one of them, gentle readers. All that’s required is an appreciation of the region’s rich legend and lore and a willingness to keep one’s eyes and ears open. I believe there are many more treasures just waiting to be rediscovered.