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Oysters are a staple of Christmas dinners in western Virginia, Pictured, Cheryl Petefish, of Luray, dishes out fried chicken and oysters for guests to the Neffs annual Christmas dinner for the needy in December 2017.

Arletta Clutteur said she remembers two things from Christmas in the 1940s.

The first thing is the beautiful angel that topped her Christmas tree.

“My mother … right before Christmas she’d pop a pan of popcorn and Christmas Eve, she decorated a Christmas tree. And right on top of it, she put an angel. And I thought that was the prettiest tree in the whole world. I was so excited about my Christmas tree,” Clutteur said.

The second thing Clutteur remembers was the strange, slimy things in a jar that an uncle brought one Christmas dinner when she was very young.

Those slimy things were oysters, a common Christmas food in the western part of Virginia.

“The family had never seen oysters, and the kids said, ‘Ew, that doesn’t look good,’” Clutteur said. “[It was] the first time I’d ever seen an oyster.”

Most often enjoyed fried, oysters are also an ingredient in Shenandoah Valley poultry dressing, using the meat and juice to flavor a basic stuffing recipe.

Oysters mainly hit nearby grocery shelves around the holidays, usually jarred and shipped in from the Rappahannock River or the Chesapeake Bay, where they’re prevalent.

What’s more, the product has been desirable in Appalachia since before grocery stores existed.

Following the Revolutionary War, oysters, frozen in the winter cold, would arrive to the Appalachian Mountains via merchants, who’d trade the food for other goods, perhaps cuts of meat, said Virginia food historian Joseph “Joe” R. Haynes.

“Since it got cold, they would fill barrels full of oysters and take them out to the rural parts of the country and trade them to farmers for turkeys and pork and other things like that,” Haynes said. “They didn’t have access to oysters all the time, and I guess [the rural people] felt the oysters were special.”

It’s likely the tradition of enjoying oysters in the countryside at Christmas has its roots in England in the 1700s, when a "Christmas oyster barrel” came around for people to buy from.

The Scots-Irish and Welsh who migrated to Appalachia from the countryside might have brought their taste for the salty shellfish along with them, he said.

“I think it was because of the tradition that was started in England, that kind of gave them a taste of home,” Haynes said.

Today, oysters are just another part of the Christmas tradition, like cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, said Darrell Spitler, Bridgewater Foods store manager.

“When I was a kid, we always had oysters Christmas breakfast. We pan-fried those,” Spitler said in a November interview. "Because of the cost of them, it’s like a special thing. Most people can’t afford to buy oysters weekly.”

It took decades, but Clutteur said she grew to enjoy oysters at Christmas — though not as much as handmade grape candy “brickle” her mother made at Christmastime or the oranges she’d find in her stocking.

When she got married, her in-laws prepared oysters every year, she said, and Clutteur prepared oysters for her own children on Christmas Eve.

Last year, Clutteur prepared oysters for family, but she’s not sure if she’ll make them again this year. In the meantime, she reminisced about a doll she’d received that same Christmas, decades ago.

“I was so excited I had a little dolly. But when I looked close at it, I was sad, because the dolly’s eyes were closed. I began to cry,” Clutteur said. “[My mother] took the doll in her hand and put it near the stove. She handed it back to me and the dolly’s eyes came open. I wanted the dolly to see the angel on top of my Christmas tree.”

Contact Jillian Lynch at 574-6274 or jlynch@dnronline.com. Follow Jillian on Twitter @lynchjillian_

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