Loretta Lynn Recalls Her Holidays in the Holler
Loretta Lynn means it when she says there's no comparison between her childhood Christmases in rural eastern Kentucky and the ones she spends with her extended family at her Tennessee ranch today.
The voice of the Southern singing icon, who has made a long career out of telling it like it is, doesn't falter when she recalls all the years she spent hoping Santa Claus would stop at her home on the night of December 24. "Christmas was not much of a celebration because Mommy and Daddy were so poor," she explains. "They didn't have money to buy stuff." But Lynn doesn't want to forget about the hard times. Even with a wildly successful music career and millions of dollars between herself and the scrappy little girl who once dreamed of a full belly, she still looks back on her childhood fondly. She's quick to say that even though her family was poor, they had a lot of love—and music.
Lynn was the second of eight children born to coal miner Melvin "Ted" Webb and his wife, Clara "Clary" Marie, in 1932. When she was growing up in the gritty mining community of Butcher Hollow—or Butcher Holler, as locals know it—there weren't paved roads, electricity, or cars. The nearest town, Van Lear, was about 3 miles away, and she estimates that the old mining camp had around 4,000 inhabitants at its height. Paintsville, with a population of a similar size, was about 10 miles away. If they wanted to visit either town, they walked. It was in Van Lear that 12-year-old Lynn saw electric Christmas lights for the very first time. She was only a little bit older when she experienced her first toilet with running water, which, she's not embarrassed to admit, scared her half to death. There were winters when all they ate for weeks at a time was bread dipped in a gravy made of brown flour and water. Sometimes when it snowed, they would scoop some up and sprinkle it with milk and sugar. She remembers that being the closest any of them ever came to eating ice cream.
But poverty didn't stop the Webb family from celebrating in the holler. In their small, drafty cabin set on a hill, they created Christmas traditions out of whatever they could find. Most years, Santa delivered a rag doll her mother handcrafted. Lynn happily recalls how she would find the biggest oak leaves from the yard and use them to make outfits for the homespun toys. The one holiday that was particularly memorable was when she received a real doll. And it was that December 25, which she wrote about in her 1976 memoir, Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter, that her father had only 36 cents to spend on gifts for the children, yet he found a present for each of them at the general store. Her 3-inch-tall plastic doll may have been tiny, but Lynn remembers cherishing it "like it was my own baby."
Like her dolls, her clothes were repurposed. For special occasions, her mother would transform old flour sacks into new dresses for Lynn and her three younger sisters. At some point, the flour companies started printing little flower patterns on the sacks, and the Webb girls got their very first floral dresses.
Wearing their best, the family would congregate with their neighbors for holiday services. "Every year, the preacher would
say the Gospel on the hill, and I would wear my little flour-sack dress," Lynn recalls. "It was button-down to the waist
in the front."
And the Webbs always managed to have a Christmas tree, which they decorated with DIY tinsel made out of the shiny wrappers inside Prince Albert tobacco tins. Her mother would save those wrappers all year long and scrunch them into little balls to add in between the branches. Even popcorn, which was a holiday treat, served two purposes. Popping it in a skillet helped to keep their little house warm while they sang carols. It's a scene similar to the one she recounts in the lyrics of her 1966 single "Country Christmas." "We'd eat our popcorn and look at our tree," Lynn says. "We waited all year for it. That was our Christmas. We loved it."
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There truly is no comparison between those times and how the country star celebrates now. These days, her four remaining children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends, in-laws, and the people she jokingly refers to as "outlaws" gather at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, where carefully curated decorations have replaced Prince Albert wrappers and Lynn has her pick of fairy-tale dresses. "We have a good time. I get those kids anything they want," she confesses.
She's still that same coal miner's daughter, but you won't find popcorn at her Christmas party this year. "We have whatever we like to eat," she says, referencing a feast that usually includes her mama's recipe for chicken and dumplings as well as her own famous banana pudding cake. "And we have candy. Back then, if we got half a stick of candy, we were in heaven."