December 22, 2020

Fat Graveyards, Hay, and Magic Cows: Folk Magic for Christmas

This is definitely shaping up to be one of the stranger Christmases in recent American history, with most of the traditional festivities being canceled due to the pandemic. So why not cozy up by the Yule log (even if its on your computer screen) and enjoy some old New England folklore about Christmas?

As a lot of you know, for many years Christmas was not celebrated in New England. The Puritans didn't believe there was any basis for it in the Bible - the date of Jesus's birth is not given, after all - and suppressed Christmas celebrations here. New Englanders began to celebrate the holiday more widely in the 19th century as the Puritan influence weakened, and all of the folklore I present to you is from the late 19th century. 

Much of it concerns the weather, since Christmas falls close to the astronomical start of winter. I'm just going to give you the grimmest piece of lore first. Let's get it over with.

 A green Christmas make for a fat graveyard. 

Ugh. That's from Fanny Bergen's 1896 book Current Superstitions. This next one comes from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896):  

A green Christmas makes a full churchyard. The foundation for this saying is the fact that open winters with their constant freezings and thawing are very unhealthy.

I don't think there's any medical validity behind that, do you? I hope not, because with climate change we're going to get more "open winters." I'm going to chalk this one up to old time Yankees considering almost everything as an omen of death, which is true. These folklore books have a huge number of death omens. I think those sayings also demonstrate the law of inversion that shows up sometimes in folklore. A green, pleasant Christmas foretells death, or the groundhog seeing his shadow on a sunny day indicates six weeks of bad weather. Something foretells its opposite.

Here's another one from Clifton Johnson, which is less grim:

Half the pork and half the hay

On Christmas Day

Johnson notes that men used to visit their neighbors on Christmas to see how the hay and pork were holding out. It sounds very bucolic and a nice way to see folks, doesn't it? It's also practical. On Christmas there are still three more months of winter to come, so you definitely want to have enough food for your livestock and yourself. There are similar sayings about Candlemas Day on February 2.

To me, the most magical piece of Christmas folklore is the following:

There is a saying that on the night before Christmas when the clock strikes twelve the cows kneel in their stalls. Some young girls in Hadley, years ago, sat up to discover whether this was true or not. At midnight they went out to the barn, and sure enough when the hour struck the cows knelt. At any rate, that was what the girls said. (Johnson, What They Say in New England)
That story is very similar to the European belief that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. The exact origins of that legend are murky, but are probably tied to the belief that Christ was born in a stable. Some sources say God allowed the animals in the stable to speak so they could praise the newborn messiah, something they have been able to do once a year ever since. 

The New England version of the legend is a little more subdued. It's as if people wanted to believe in Christmas magic, but couldn't fully commit. "Talking cows? No way. Cows that kneel at midnight? Hmm. Well, maybe..." It's interesting that Johnson has the caveat "At any rate, that was what the girls said," as if he or his informant knew people would receive the story with skepticism.

He also includes this version of the legend:

A still older story told in town with the same theme is that at midnight when the Christmas Day begins, all the cattle in the yards and fields might be seen kneeling with their heads turned towards the east in adoration. Two girls of the olden time, who were eager to see for themselves whether this was true or not, sat up on Christmas Eve until the spellbound hour, and then visited the farm cattleyard. But the cattle made no sign that they were at all affected.

So which is it? Do the cattle kneel or not? For now, I am comfortable with the ambiguity and holding both possibilities in my mind. Please let me know if you happen to say up until midnight to see what happens. I'd be curious to know. 

Have a safe and happy Christmas!

December 15, 2020

The Festival: Christmas with H.P. Lovecraft

You might be surprised to learn that H.P. Lovecraft, Rhode Island's famous master of horror, wrote a Christmas story. "The Festival" was published in Weird Tales in 1925, and like much of Lovecraft's fiction it combines local folklore, horror tropes, and the his own personal obsessions into a weird, unnerving tale. 

The story begins with a man arriving in an old Massachusetts coastal town called Kingsport for the first time. He's also the narrator, and he tells us he's there to join a celebration that his family has kept for centuries. It's an old family tradition he's heard of but never participated in before.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts 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 also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten. 

Lovecraft was well-versed in New England colonial history, and he's probably referring to the 17th century when he mentions the "elder time when the festival was forbidden." The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they didn't think there was any evidence for the holiday in the Bible. In fact, Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until the 19th century. 

The narrator's ancestors were not English Puritans, though. He claims they "they had come as dark furtive folk from opiate southern gardens of orchids, and spoken another tongue before they learnt the tongue of the blue-eyed fishers." Lovecraft was something of a racist, and you can see some of that in this description, but he may also be alluding to the fact that New England's coastal towns were often more diverse than some of the area's other English settlements. Even if they were dominated by the Puritans, coastal towns did attract sailors and merchants from all over the world. 

A portrait of H.P. Lovecraft as an 18th gentleman by Virgil Finlay.

That was definitely the case in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which inspired Lovecraft's fictional Kingsport. Marblehead is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic from Salem, and is difficult to get to even today. It was even harder to reach in the past. Unlike its neighbors, Marblehead was first settled not by East Anglian Puritans but by fishermen from a variety of areas. In its early years Marblehead had a reputation as a rough, unchurched town where old practices lingered. For example, some British fairy folklore was remembered in Marblehead that was not found anywhere else in Massachusetts, brought there by its original colonists. In Lovecraft's story, something even weirder is found in Kingsport.

Marblehead was one of Lovecraft's favorite places. He first visited it in December, 1922, and described it in nearly orgasmic terms as "the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence." He returned several more times before writing "The Festival." Lovecraft was obsessed with New England's Colonial era, and he loved Marblehead's extensive and well-preserved colonial architecture. When the narrator finally reaches Kingsport and sees it glistening on a snowy night, he is basically describing Marblehead: 

...willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central park that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all levels like a child's disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs...

It sounds very charming, right? In reality Marblehead is very charming, but since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story and not a Hallmark Christmas movie we know something sinister is lurking under the Currier and Ives scenery of Kingsport. Our narrator will encounter something much more terrifying than eggnog and fruitcake. 

One giveaway is that he is coming to meet family he has never seen before. Many of Lovecraft's stories deal with people coming to bad ends after investigating their family tree. They find out their ancestors were cannibals ("The Rats in the Walls"), albino gorillas ("Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn..."), or evil, undead, murderous wizards ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"). Insanity and death usually ensue. Lovecraft was very concerned with his own heritage. He was obsessed with his role in America's racial hierarchy as white man of English descent, but also keenly aware that both his parents had died in an insane asylum. Ancestry is a double-edged sword.

These issues definitely appear in "The Festival." When the narrator reaches the home of his distant relatives it is a scene right from a history book. The main room has a thick-beamed ceiling and a massive fireplace. Old books line the walls. There's even an old woman spinning at a spinning wheel. What could be more proper and New Englandy? But something seems off. His hosts don't speak and their faces are oddly waxen, like masks. Their gloved hands are unnervingly flabby. And one of the old books is the Necronomicon, a forbidden book of ancient, evil knowledge.

His hosts take it with them when they leave for the big celebration, which is probably a good sign this won't be your average holiday party. The narrator follows them into the street, and they join a throng of hooded and silent people making their way up a hill towards an old church. Oddly, whenever the narrator bumps into someone he notices their body is unusually soft and pulpy. By the way, I also forgot to mention that four of the narrator's ancestors were hanged during the Salem witch trials.

Illustration by Virgil Finally for Colour Out of Space

"The Festival" has a bizarre ending, even for an H.P. Lovecraft story. The narrator and the other celebrants make their way down an enormous secret stairway carved into the bedrock under the church, finally arriving at a huge underground cavern. It's illuminated by a pale green fire that throws no shadows, and an oily black river flows through it. 

Fainting and gasping, I looked at that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire, and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. 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 flame, and throw into the water handfuls gouged out of the viscous vegetation which glittered green in the chlorotic glare.

The narrator joins in the celebration, but cannot maintain his composure when hideous winged monsters arrive to carry the hooded celebrants even further into the underworld. One of his hosts silently tries to convince him by pulling out a watch and signet ring that belonged to the narrator's great-great-great-great grandfather - which were buried with him in 1698. The host's waxen face slips off - it is a mask- revealing something so horrible the narrator throws himself into the river in terror. 

He wakes up in a hospital; the staff tell him he was pulled from the harbor. They diagnose him with 'psychosis' due to his ravings. As part of his treatment they let him read a copy of the Necronomicon, and a  passage in it leads him to believe that the people at the ritual were really long dead sorcerers and witches whose souls had created new bodies to inhabit from the worms and maggots that ate their corpses.

"Great holes secretly are digged where earth's pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl."

And that is the end of the story. It's one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and if you haven't read it you can do so online here. It's Christmas but filtered through Lovecraft's various obsessions. 

Speaking of obsessions, I realized when I was almost done writing this post that I had already written about "The Festival" a few years earlier. I guess it's one of those things I return to every year. Maybe it's my new holiday tradition. Happy holidays?

December 06, 2020

Mary Webster, the Half-Hanged Witch of Hadley

Here's something interesting I just learned: Margaret Atwood was inspired by to write her famous novel The Handmaid's Tale by the story of a 17th century Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft. That woman was Mary Webster.

Mary Webster lived in Hadley, Massachusetts. Like many women accused of witchcraft, Mary was older, poor, and cantankerous. Her neighbors in Hadley blamed her for many of their misfortunes. For example, they believed that she caused animals to misbehave when they passed by her house:

Teams passing to and from the meadow went by her door, and she so bewitched some cattle and horses that they stopped, and ran back, and could not be driven by her house. In such cases, the teamsters used to go into the house and whip or threaten her, and she would then let the teams pass. She once turned over a load of hay near her house, and the driver went in and was about to chastise her, when she turned the load back again. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

People also said she caused weird phenomena to occur inside their homes:

She entered a house, and had such influence upon an infant on the bed or in the cradle, that it was raised to the chamber floor and fell back again, three times, and no visible hand touched it. There is a story that at another house, a hen came down chimney and got scalded in a pot, and it was soon found that Mary Webster was suffering from a scald. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

You'll note that her neighbors in Hadley felt empowered to inflict violence on her when their animals misbehaved. They acted as vigilantes, but in 1683 Mary was formally accused of witchcraft and sent to Boston for a legal trial. Witnesses testified that she had "familiarity with the Devil," who came to her in the shape of a large black cat. They also testified that she suckled imps with her blood so they would do her bidding. The Boston magistrates did not find the evidence convincing and acquitted her. Mary Webster was freed and sent back to Hadley.

Italian woodcut from 1520.

The next year, in 1684, one of Hadley's most prominent citizens became gravely ill. Philip Smith was a church deacon, a lieutenant in the militia, and a representative to the Massachusetts General Court, the colony's legislative body. Philip's body was wracked with great pain, like he was being stabbed with hundreds of pins, and as a a pious man he at first  endured his illness as divine suffering inflicted from God. As the pain worsened he grew delirious, though, and eventually claimed that Mary Webster was bewitching him. He had been one of the officials responsible for sending her to Boston and they had exchange angry words upon her return to Hadley. 

Philip Smith's family began to notice strange things in their home after he named Mary as his tormentor. The house was often filled with an unnatural musky smell, as if a large unseen animal was hiding inside. Perhaps the smell came from the invisible creature, roughly the size of a cat, that could be seen roaming underneath Philip Smith's bedcovers while he tried to sleep. Or perhaps the odor was sent by Mary Webster herself - Philip said he could see her specter hovering by his bedside. 

A group of young men decided to take matters into their own hands (once again). But this time they did more than whip Mary. On a cold snowy night they dragged her from her house and hanged her from a tree. Eventually they cut her down. Miraculously she was still alive, so the vigilantes buried her body in the snow and fled. 

Mary Webster survived her hanging and being left for dead in the snow. She lived until 1696 and died at the age of seventy. Philip Smith succumbed to his illness shortly after Mary's hanging. The vigilantes apparently escaped punishment. 

It's a grim story about mob violence being inflicted on a social outcast. Now let's jump ahead three centuries. Canadian author Margaret Atwood was researching her ancestry when she learned about Mary Webster. Atwood at first planned to write a novel about Mary's life but eventually changed her plans. Instead she wrote The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which is dedicated to Mary Webster. You can certainly see how the violence, religious persecution, and misogyny that Mary experienced informed Atwood's novel and the ensuing TV show. 

It would be nice if Atwood eventually wrote a novel set in 17th century Massachusetts about Mary Webster, although I realize the research could be daunting. Still, it might just be too grim for me to read.