Wednesday, November 25, 2009
APPALACHIAN CHRISTMAS, HAMLET, FIRE AND YULE LOGS
APPALACHIAN CHRISTMAS, HAMLET, THE FIREPLACE AT AUNT NANCY’S AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF YULE LOGS.
Back in 1955 when I was sitting in Doc Deans’ Shakespeare class at Western Carolina Teachers College (WCU), I was amazed to discover a graphic description of Appalachian superstitions regarding Christmas Eve in Act I, scene i. As three nervous watchmen, Francisco, Bernardo and Marcellus, (and a nobleman named Horatio) stand on the ramparts of a castle in Denmark peering into the darkness, they discuss the wondrous events associated with this night. The ghost of Hamlet’s father has just departed, leaving the four witnesses a bit stunned, when Marcellus delivers the following speech:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
I find it amazing that over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote those seven lines of iambic pentameter, it is not uncommon for ministers to tell their congregation that on the night of Christ’s birth, barnyard roosters used to crow all night! As a child, I was told that on Christmas Eve, the Devil and all of his demons are forbidden to appear. On this night,nothing can harm mankind, including witches, fairies and the malignant powers of planets.
When I listened to my great grandmother talk about a host of taboos associated with Christmas Day and fire, I found that they made more sense if I remembered that my great-grandmother lived in a world before electric lights. Her huge fireplace had provided light, warmth and food for a large family. If you lived in a remote cove in Appalachia, you learned to never let the fire go out. When neighbors appeared at my great-grandmother’s door asking for a burning pine knot, great grannie provided it ... except on Christmas Eve. A hundred years ago, it was a common superstition in Appalachia that “loaning fire” on December 24th and 25th could be dangerous since this was the only time that supernatural beings could “steal” the life and vitality of your home by taking your fire. Think of all of the fairy tales (including Cinderella and Baba Yagi) in which a family must deal with the consequences of an extinguished fire.
I also remember that the big log that burned in the fireplace on Christmas day was thought to have magical powers. Ashes from the log was sometimes sprinkled on bread dough thereby curing common colds and the croup. In addition, when the big log (the Yule log) was reduced to a small piece of charred wood, it was customary to remove it from the fireplace, wrap it in a piece of cloth and store it for the next year when it would be used to ignite the new Yule log. I guess that in a symbolic sense, the fire in Aunt Nancy’s fireplace was “eternal.”