December 29, 2017

Weird and Wonderful Folklore from 2017

I have been celebrating Christmas in the old-fashioned way: eating too much, sleeping a lot, and spending time with family and friends. I hope your holiday season has also been a good one!

I had a lot of fun blogging this year, and I hope you enjoyed reading my ramblings. In case you missed any of these, here is a list of the top five most popular posts in 2017 here on New England Folklore.

Number One: Why The Devil Loves Christmas

In a season filled with twinkly lights, eggnog lattes and holiday sweaters, sometimes it's nice to remember that Christmas hasn't always been about sweetness and familial love. It used to be a drunken party that lasted for weeks where the poor harassed the wealthy for gifts and everyone ate and drank way too much. That last part hasn't really changed much, but the attitude of our nation's religious leaders towards Christmas certainly has. They used to hate the holiday and claimed it was the Devil's work. Now they're demanding we all go around saying "Merry Christmas."

Number Two: Bradford College: The Necronomicon, Strange Lights, and Ghosts

I grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the city where Bradford College is located. Sadly I was unaware the Necronomicon, that legendary book of evil magic, is supposed to be hidden in a tunnel under the campus. If I had been my high school career would have been much more interesting. There are lots of classic ghost stories about Bradford, but this post also incorporated the personal experiences of someone who went to school here. Those experiences were particularly strange and and quite creepy.

Number Three: Apple Lore: Love, Death and Magic

I live near a farmer's market that sells a really great selection of apples in the fall. Who doesn't love to bite into a crisp, recently picked apple? But there's more to apples than cider and pie. There's also a lot of folklore. Some of it is spooky, like tales of corpse-eating apple trees and bloody apples that reveal the identity of a murderer. Some of it is charming, like using an apple peel to find your true love. And some of it is both spooky and charming, like the best folklore often is.

Number Four: Milton's Ghost Road 

Milton is a rural suburb just south of Boston, but one short stretch of road there has a really bad reputation. There are so many ghost stories about Harland Street that it's earned the nickname Ghost Road. Is it just that Harland Street runs through some dark swampy woods, or are there really a variety of spirits haunting it? People claim to have seen a family of ghosts, a man with no face, and a phantom car. Psychic investigators encountered glowing blobs of energy back in the early 1980s, so perhaps there really is something lurking on Ghost Road.

Number Five: Wild Men in The Woods: Strange Creatures Seen in Haverhill, Massachusetts

My hometown made it into the top five list twice. Just as I didn't know the Necronomicon was buried in Haverhill, I was also unaware that several wild men had been sighted there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What were these mysterious creatures? Were they disturbed individuals living in the woods, primitive ape men, or something else entirely? Witnesses described a 1909 wild man as "very lightly clad" so perhaps he was just a nudist caught sunbathing. Whatever they were, legends about wild men just demonstrate that our backyards can be strange and wonderful places.

Have a great New Year's Eve and stay tuned for more weird New England Folklore in 2018!

December 19, 2017

A Lovecraft Christmas: Fact and Fiction in "The Festival"

Christmas is a holiday about love, hope and charity. Trees are decorated with lights. Parents bake cookies with their kids. Everyone gets excited about Santa's big visit. It's really great, but if all the sweetness and joy is too much for you I suggest reading H. P. Lovecraft's 1923 story "The Festival" This morbid tale of an old-fashioned New England Christmas is full of horror, ancient secrets, and giant maggots. And like much of Lovecraft's work, there's a nugget of truth in it.

You can read "The Festival" here, but if you want to save your sanity I'll summarize. It begins on Christmas Eve with a man visiting Kingsport, an old Massachusetts fishing town that is his family's ancestral home. He has never been there before.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their heads it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where they also had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten. (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival")

At first the narrator is charmed by the old colonial buildings and narrow, crooked streets of Kingsport. But he is also a little creeped out as he walks through town. There are no people around, or even footprints in the snow, and all the curtains are drawn in the windows. He gets even more creeped out when he arrives at the really, really old house where his distant relatives live.

Inside is an elderly mute man wearing a hooded robe and gloves, while an elderly woman works without speaking at a a spinning wheel by the fire. There may also be someone sitting in a high-backed chair facing the window. Oh, and the elderly couple's faces may be waxen masks...

H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937)

The elderly couple welcome the narrator, who browses the couple's book collection while he waits for the family Yule festival to start. Most of their books are about demonology and witchcraft, and they have a copy of The Necronomicon, a book of unspeakably blasphemous knowledge. Just the usual light holiday reading. As the narrator reads the unseen guest in the chair exits unseen - through the window - with an odd noise. Creepy.

Eventually the elderly couple indicates it is time for the festivities. As they and the narrator walk through the streets towards an old church they are joined by other Kingsport citizens, also hooded and robed. Here is Lovecraft's description of people walking to church on Christmas Eve:

...cowled, cloaked figures that poured endlessly from every doorway and formed monstrous processions up this street and that, past the creaking signs and antediluvian gables, the thatched roofs and diamond-paned windows; threading precipitous lanes where decaying houses overlapped and crumbled together; gliding across open courts and churchyards where the bobbing lanthorns made eldritch drunken constellations.

Once inside the church the throng descends a staircase that spirals down through the earth. Down, down they go until they eventually reach a vast cave. The cave is illuminated by a "belching column of sick greenish flame," allowing the narrator to see they are on the banks of a river feeding into a dark subterranean sea. At this point the actual Yule ritual begins:

It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; the primal rite of the solstice and of spring's promise beyond the snows; the rite of fire and evergreen, light and music. And in the Stygian grotto I saw them do the rite, and adore the sick pillar of of flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare.

Until this point the narrator has maintained some modicum of composure, but he loses it when the celebrants mount hideous flying monsters that carry them off over the subterranean sea. As the elderly mute man encourages the narrator to mount one too it becomes clear that he is indeed wearing a mask and may not be human. In a panic the narrator hurls himself into the river.

The narrator awakens to find himself in a hospital; the authorities claim he was found floating in the harbor. They commit him to a nearby insane asylum, where they staff helpfully procure a copy of The Necronomicon for him to read. The narrator ponders a passage hinting that dead sorcerers can project their minds into the maggots that eat their bodies in the grave and then cause them to grow to human size. Were the elderly couple and the other celebrants really giant maggot-beings possessed by the minds of undead sorcerers? Merry Christmas!

I will confess I kind of love "The Festival," mainly because it is so fabulously weird but also because it has a nugget of truth in it. And I don't just mean the psychological truth that spending the holidays with family can be hard for some people. I mean some historical truth about coastal New England.

Lovecraft was inspired to write "The Festival" after visiting the Massachusetts town of Marblehead in December of 1922. He was delighted at the town's extensive Colonial-era architecture, and the narrator's walk through fictional Kingsport incorporates many of the sights Lovecraft saw. For example the elderly couple's house was probably inspired by one on Marblehead's Mugford Street, and the church was based on St. Michael's Church on Frog Lane, which is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in New England.

Mugford Street in Marblehead

As you probably know, Massachusetts was mostly colonized by Puritans, but non-Puritans settled here as well, particularly in the fishing towns like Marblehead. The Puritans tended to be farmers and craftspeople from East Anglia, but the fisherfolk who settled in Marblehead were more religiously and ethnically heterogeneous. The town had a reputation in its early years for being rough and a little bit wild. It was a place for hard-drinkers and outsiders. And it was also a place where people celebrated Christmas.

As I wrote last week, the Puritans despised the revelry of Christmas and tried to ban it from New England. They were not successful at tamping down the celebrations in Marblehead, though, and in 1729 Michael Pigot, the pastor of St. Michael's, held a service celebrating Christmas. The local Puritans were outraged, and preached a sermon against the holiday in response. Reverend Pigot responded in turn by publishing a pamphlet titled A vindication of the practice of the antient Christian, as well as the Church of England, and other reformed churches, in the observation of Christmas-Day : in answer to the uncharitable reflections of Thomas de Laune, Mr. Whiston, and Mr. John Barnard of Marblehead: in a sermon preach'd on the 4th. of January, 1729--30. That's a real mouthful of a title! Angry mobs from both groups confronted each other in the streets.

In "The Festival", Lovecraft writes that Kingsport is "where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden." Is this an oblique reference to the actual controversy in Marblehead over Christmas? I think it's possible. Lovecraft was a Colonial history buff and loved incorporating historical facts into his story. It's likely he knew the history of the town before he wrote the story. Let's just hope the giant maggot monsters aren't real too.

December 13, 2017

Why The Devil Loves Christmas

In 1662, Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut was arrested and charged with witchcraft. She confessed to meeting the Devil, but she denied having signed a contract with him. Well, at least she hadn't signed one at the time of her arrest. Rebecca and the Devil were waiting for a special day to sign it: Christmas.

The Reverend John Whiting of Hartford wrote the following in a letter:

But that the devil told her, that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. ... Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin, and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil's loving Christmas. (quoted in David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England.)

That sounds a little strange to modern readers. Why would the Devil love Christmas? Isn't it a holiday about hope, love and charity?

Merry Christmas?

Four-hundred years ago, Christmas was a very different holiday than it is today. It wasn't focused on family, gift-giving, and children. Instead, it was characterized by heavy drinking and public rituals that inverted the social order. Europe and its colonies were agricultural societies then, and food and alcohol were most plentiful during the late autumn and early winter. Crops had been harvested, herd animals slaughtered, and beer brewed. There was no more farm-work to be done.

In short, it was a great time to have a huge party. Wealthy people would feast themselves and their friends at home. People from the lower social classes, usually groups of young men, roamed around at night in disguise. The young men (called mummers) would usually target the homes of the wealthy, where they would perform a skit or song in return for food or beer. This is the origin of the wandering Christmas carolers so often portrayed in Christmas stories or movies. If they were denied entry or not given gifts for their performance, the mummers would retaliate with violence or by vandalizing property.


Some hints of this older-style Christmas can still be heard in the lyrics of Christmas carols. For example, "The  Gloucestershire Wassail" describes men threatening a butler to give them good strong beer and demanding entry to a wealthy person's home:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all. 
Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

The lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" describe something similar:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

Christmas was raucous, drunken, socially disruptive, and occasionally violent. The Puritans valued order, sobriety, and hard work. They didn't want anything to do with Christmas.

During their brief tenure ruling old England the Puritans tried to suppress Christmas celebrations. The Puritans who colonized New England did the same. It was even illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Anyone found doing so could be fined five shillings.

Puritan ministers in New England wrote sermons against Christmas. The Reverend Increase Mather wrote the following, equating Christmas with pagan deities and Satan:
The Feast of Christ's nativity is attended with such profaneness, as that it deserve the name of Saturn's Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil's Mass, rather than have the holiday name of Christ put upon it. (A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New-England, 1687).
Mather mentions Saturn for a very specific reason. The Bible doesn't provide a date for Christ's birth, and the early Christian church fathers decided to place it on December 25 to coincide with pagan Roman winter holidays like Saturnalia, which venerated the harvest god Saturn. This compromise between Christianity and paganism was another argument the Puritans used for hating Christmas.

So there you have it. That's why the Puritans thought the Devil loved Christmas. Their efforts to suppress Christmas were modestly successful. Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in New England until the mid-nineteenth century. Christmas is now the biggest holiday in the United States. The Puritans would have blamed Satan, but I think it's just because people like to have fun.


My favorite source for information about Puritans and Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaums's fantastic book The Battle for Christmas. It's great for anyone who wants to really understand the weird history of Christmas in America.

December 08, 2017

The Monster of Lake Champlain

I recently was up in Burlington, Vermont, which is located on the shores of Lake Champlain. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Lake Champlain is big! Really big! It's over 100 miles long and 14 miles wide. Strange things might lurk in a lake that big.

Well, according to local legends, something strange does indeed lurk in the lake. It's a monster named Champ, and it supposedly has been seen more than one-hundred times.

A lot of books and websites claim the creature was first seen by French explorer Samuel de Champlain way back in 1609, who described as "a 20- foot serpent, with a horse-shaped head and body as thick as a keg." This claim was even repeated by Discover magazine in 1998. Unfortunately, it just isn't true. De Champlain never wrote about a giant serpent in his journal. The story that he had seen Champ first appeared in a 1970 issue of Vermont Life and spread from there.

Lake Champlain in November. It looks like a good home for a monster...
The real first sighting of Champ was reported on Saturday, July 24, 1819. A letter to The Plattsburgh Republican claimed that one Captain Crum had seen a monster while he was on the lake:

Captain Crum took a particular survey of this singular animal, which he described to be 187 feet long, its flat head with three teeth, two in the center and one in the upper jaw, in shape similar to the sea-horse - color black with a star in the forehead and a belt of red around the neck - its body about the size of a hogshead with hunches on the back as large as a common potash barrel - the eyes large and the color of a pealed (sic) onion... (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster)

This account appeared shortly after a wave of sea serpent sightings near Cape Anne in Massachusetts. The letter was titled "Cape Ann Sea Serpent on Lake Champlain," and was signed "Horse Mackerel," so perhaps it was meant to be taken as a joke.

Later sightings were not quite so humorous. In 1826 two men fishing reported that a thirty foot serpent slithered out of a cave. They said it was covered in black and red spots and smelled terrible. In the summer of 1873 a group of men working on the lake's shore claimed they saw a large serpentine monster. According to the July 9, 1873 issue of The Whitehall Times,

From his his nostrils he would occasionally spurt streams of water above his head to an altitude of about 20 feet. The appearance of his head was round and flat, with a hood spreading out from the lower part of it... His eyes were small and piercing, his mouth broad and provided with two rows of teeth, which he displayed to his beholders. (quoted in Robert Bartholomew's The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster.)

Other people also reported seeing the monster that summer, and it was blamed for a rash of missing farm animals.

Help the homeless by feeding Champ spare change in Burlington.
Champ has made many other appearances over the years. For example, in 1915 it disrupted a canoe race:

"The Lake Champlain sea serpent has again appeared to the astounded inhabitants of this place. He was seen at the encampment of the American Canoe Association when, coming to the surface in the neighborhood of a flotilla of cruising canoes, he scattered the occupants in panic." (The Burlington News, April 1915)

I also like this testimony from someone who saw Champ in 1981:

"I said, 'Holy Jesus, look at that thing.' I've seen porpoises and whales when I was in the Navy, but this wasn't like that. It was 40 or 50 feet long, the whole thing." Walter Wojewodzic of Port Henry, N.Y, quoted in The Burlington Free Press, Feb. 10, 1981.

Is there any conclusive evidence that Champ exists? No, not really. If there was you'd read about Champ in biology class and not on this folklore blog. On June 30, 1981 the New York Times published the following photo of Champ taken by Vermont resident Sandra Mansi. Many people take this as the best evidence yet for Champ's existence:

It's a great photo, but no one has ever been able to affirm its veracity. Mansi unfortunately threw away the negative, which prevented experts from looking at the image for more details. She also said she couldn't remember exactly where she took the photo. Several people have taken videos of Champ as well, but they are equally inconclusive.

Is Champ a giant prehistoric plesiosaur that has somehow survived for millennia in Lake Champlain? That seems unlikely. Is Champ just a hoax? I think that's unlikely too. Some Champ sightings may be pranks, but I think a lot of people sincerely see strange things on the lake.

Good benches for monster viewing.
Bodies of water are mysterious and full of latent power. Folklore and legends tell us that water hides secrets, like lost Atlantis, sunken treasure, and mysterious monsters. Maybe the initial Captain Crum story, which was probably a hoax, acted like a magic spell, summoning something people always suspected lurked in the water but had never been named. Champ could be a manifestation of Lake Champlain, given form through local folklore and showing itself to a select few. I didn't see Champ while I was in Burlington, but maybe one day you'll be lucky and see him yourself.


Additional sources: John Bartholomew's excellent articles in The Skeptical Inquirer (here and here), Wikipedia, and this newspaper article: "Just maybe, scientists say, a monster's in Champlain," The Boston Globe, June 28, 1981, p. 1.