Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Legend of the Christmas Flounder

North Carolina holiday customs are unlike any I've heard elsewhere. In Cherryville they bring out the big guns to fire on New Years day, big old muskets that make a whale of a racket.

In Rodanthe they celebrate Old Christmas on Jan. 6, a custom that dates to days before the revision of the Julian calendar.

And in Wilmington, or so this quaint old story goes, some old timers still revere The Christmas Flounder.

I dunno how much credence to attach to this story -- or the notion that some impecunious youngsters once hung Christmas Flounders on the mantle in hopes that Santa would stuff them with goodies. I think our someone's pulling our dorsal fins, if you take my meaning.

But here's a piece that for years has appeared on Christmas Eve in the Wilmington Star, its editors used to say, in "an effort to keep this grand tradition alive."

Here 'tis:

Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the sound

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even a flound(r). --- Anonymous


If there is an old-timer in your house today, he probably is not reminiscing about the grand old tradition of The Christmas Flounder. It is practically forgotten.

The Christmas Flounder is a Yuletide custom unknown outside Southeastern North Carolina, according to Paul Jennewein, the veteran newsman who is the world's only authority on the matter.

As is the case with many traditions, the origin of The Christmas Flounder is obscured in the mists of memory, but according to Mr. Jennewein it apparently began during the Great Depression, when people in this area were even poorer than usual.

Buying and stuffing a turkey for Christmas dinner was out of the question for many. Something else was needed, something that poor folks could procure in the days before food stamps. And so it came about that one Christmas Eve in the reign of Franklin the King of Four Terms, the merry glow of kerosene lanterns and - for those who could afford the Ray-O-Vacs - flashlights gleamed over the waters of the sound.

Westward wading, still proceeding, went wise men who knew that dull-witted fishes would be sleeping in the mud at that time of night. Suddenly the sharp splash of steely gigs shattered the starry stillness.

Next day, the unfortunate flounders, lovingly stuffed with native delicacies such as oysters, crabs, collards and grits, graced Christmas tables all over the area. Non-Baptists who knew a reliable bootlegger accompanied the humble dish with a jelly glass of high-octane cheer.

It was a tradition born of hardship, but it is unique and deserves to be remembered as part of the folklore of the Lower Cape Fear.

46 comments:

karenc said...

Dear Jack,
As a native Wilmingtonian, I am particularly proud of our Christmas Flounder tradition, and was delighted to see it reprinted in your column of late. While some scoff at the notion of truth to the tradition, I can tell you that people from my neck of the woods did eat fish at Christmas. And, in the full truth, I'm really from Shelter Neck, which is outside of Burgaw. Sometimes, it was a spot or a bluefish, or sometimes a catfish from the river, depending on what was biting, and who went with the pole, but a fish on the dinner table was expected.

My husband and I are spending a few weeks in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, and while we didn't eat fish today, we will eat fish tomorrow, when we go to the coast. Thanks for keeping the message alive!
karen carter,
Wilmington, NC (most of the time)

karenc said...
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