Some Christmas Strangeness

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Friday, December, 26 2014 12:03:00 am   , 799 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 6224 views




        Over the centuries with the spread and practice of Christianity, Christmas (meaning "Christ's Mass," the celebration of the birth of Jesus) has come to be celebrated in some pretty strange ways, which have incorporated a hodgepodge of pagan, Christian, and secular themes, resulting in some really odd Christmas customs, traditions, and beliefs.

        In spreading the religion, pagan practices and beliefs were often accepted by the Christian Church but with, of course, a non-pagan spin or interpretation.  In doing so, natives of areas being newly converted could have their cake and eat it too by retaining old cherished customs now viewed in a new light as supportive of Christian ideals and beliefs.

        Many of the customs of Christmas practiced throughout the world today had their origins among the peoples of northern Europe and in their original state had no association or symbolism at all relating to Jesus or Christianity. The word "Yule," for example, is from the Old English term Geola which was the period of December and January over which important midwinter feasts were held. Following conversion, Geola came to be a reference to the Christmastide or twelve-day feast of the Nativity. The Yule log, a feature of the Christmas celebration of several European cultures may originally have been associated with the pagan winter solstice festival and is associated also with the Christmas Tide, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Twelfth Night, as well as the English (Devon and Somerset) custom of the ashen faggot which is related likewise to the tradition of wassailing (or singing and drinking to the health of trees) during which celebrations a bundle composed of ash tree twigs and limbs is passed around before being placed on the fire.  In his 1864 Book of Days, Scottish author Robert Chambers wrote that "two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors -- the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log." Traditions such as focus on trees of the Yule celebrations syncretized with the gift-giving aspect from the Roman mid-December festival of Saturnalia to give us the current nature of the celebration of Christmas.

        Yet, some of the traditions which have developed over the centuries of observance of Christmastide seem peculiar and inconsistent with the current less raucous, more family-oriented focus of the season.  A couple particularly odd ways of celebrating Christ's Mass are the Catalonian customs of the Caganer ("the shitter" or "the crapper") and the Tió de Nadal ("the pooping log"). The Caganer is a figurine which depicts an individual in the act of defecation. Generally, these figurines which are placed into nativity scenes, but sometimes elsewhere, depict a peasant wearing the Catalan red cap (known as the "barretina), squatted, trousers down, in the act of...well, hmm....  In Catalonia and the rest of Spain, southern France and most of Italy, models of Bethlehem (similar to nativity scenes) were popular Christmas decorations. Thus, besides the figures contained in nativity scenes, other townsfolk figurines are featured. Among these are the Caganer. A Catalan tradition is to have children try to locate the figure.

        A variation of the Yule log celebration is found in the Catalonian tradition of the Tió de Nadal (meaning in English "Christmas Log").  The log is a character of Catalan mythology that brings small Christmas presents (larger gifts come from the Three Wise Men). Originally depicted as simply a dead log, in more recent times the Tió ("trunk" or "log") is featured as about a foot long (30 centimeters) having two or four stick legs and a painted, smiling face, and wearing a miniature Catalan barretina. Beginning at the December 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception, children begin to care for the hollowed out log being sure to cover it with a small blanket and to feed it things like nuts and pieces of fruit, which mysteriously disappear when the children are not around. On Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, depending upon each family's own traditions, the family places the caga tió ("shitting log") with one end into the fireplace (not essential now that many homes lack fireplaces). The children hit the log with sticks to make it "defecate" presents while singing songs of Tió de Nadal. Before doing so, however, they must leave the room to pray, asking that the tió leave them lots of gifts. Their absence thus gives adults opportunity to place the gifts to be dropped when the log is hit as each child takes a turn to sing and hit the log. The various songs always begin with the imperative "Shit, log!"

        And so now a tree set up indoors, draped in lights and tinsel, and ornamented with colorful glass or plastic balls, just doesn't really seem all that unusual after all.


Photos: (Top) Photobucket (Middle and Bottom) Wikipedia.

Haint Blue: The Shades for the Shades

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Sunday, October, 19 2014 08:35:00 am   , 614 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 168149 views


          The autumnal equinox having passed and the length of the nights increasing, you are probably pondering the usual concern of this spooky time of year: keeping the ghosts at bay and thus protecting your abode from a haunting. (Of course you are! No use denying it!) Well, one sure-fire method, long a tradition through much of the South and to certain degrees in a few other areas, has not only reputedly effectively warded off the spooks but added to the aesthetics of homes ghosts just might covet.

          Some of the reasons given for the popularity of shades of blue for porch ceilings are that sky and water hues are simply a traditional standard, bring good luck to residents, or provide more light through reflection as the late day sun goes down. Victorian era homeowners especially preferred the colors of nature, and blues were popular to lend verandas the impression of clear sunny days even in the midst of stormy weather.

          Folklore has it that painting porches any of varying shades known, particularly in the South, as haint blue will keep an abode ghost free! The origins of this particular folklore has been attributed to different cultures but a tradition of Antebellum slaves is most often cited.  It is said that the Gullah (also called Geechee) slaves on the Low-Country (Tidewater) plantations of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, held the belief that haints, being lost and wandering malevolent spirits caught between life and death, balk at the prospect of crossing bodies of water. Thus the colors of water confuse them and keep them from crossing verandas painted in such hues.  (So much for the various and sundry Lady of the Lake and La Llorona tales, one might scoff! But then those tales do not originate from African cultures.) Likewise the Gullah believed the heavenly color of sky blue was a certain deterent to these ill-disposed spirits, as the "up-lifting" shade would draw them up and away from the mortal denizens of the abode. Haint blue is not a specific shade. Rather, the term covers all color applications that historically were utilized to protect homes from restless spirits.

          Blues are averred not only to keep away unwanted guests of the bugbear sort but have been reputed to discourage the nuisance and unsightly housekeeping wrought by critters of the bug kind as well.  Eaves and porches act as magnets for spiders and insects, especially wasps and dirt daubers.  These small creatures find such havens as porches to be ideal locales for building their own abodes. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that blue hues specifically repel bugs, it has been theorized that they were discouraged by the lime mixed with milk to make paints in earlier days.  Over time, especially after the decline in the use of milk paints, the idea gained currency that blue porch paints discourage bugs from nesting because they are fooled into thinking the porch blue is actually the sky.  (Of course, this notion does not take into consideration that bees and many other insects see light in the ultraviolet spectrum.)

          Will painting your porch ceilings haint blue chase away the ghosts? You'll just have to try it for yourself. But just in case, you might want to stock up on treats come October 31st. No telling what manner of determined critter might then just turn up on your veranda.

(Top) The historic George Fox home in Galveston, Texas, utilizing blue porch paint for ceilings and floors.  (The home has since undergone two different paint jobs, today also sporting the blue porch ceilings.)
(Bottom) "The Anchorage" in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Haunting of Lock 49 East

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Monday, July, 14 2014 11:52:54 pm   , 758 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 45308 views





Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 17, 1875, following a trolley ride to near the Harrisburg (Penn Street) Bridge, Louisa Bissinger of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania, walked with her three children, Lillie (age 9), Mollie (age 6), and Philip (age 3), across the bridge and then two miles down the Union Canal towpath to lock number 49 East (having told them they were going on a picnic). At the lock, she loaded the basket with rocks, some of which she had got the children to gather along the way. Then she tied the basket to her waist, held her unsuspecting children tightly to her, and plunged with them into the murky waters of the canal. Though Louisa, weighed down by the basket of stones, sank immediately, the children struggled to stay afloat.

A witness to the event, who could not swim, ran for a boat at nearby Gring's Mill, across, on the west side of, Tulpehocken Creek,  but ultimately he reached them too late. Louisa and her children were drowned.

Louisa's commission of this her final desperate act came about as the culmination to her husband's longtime "undo respect" toward her and his open courtship of another woman whom he eventually brought into their home. A newspaper story, date-lined "Reading, Pa., August 21," explained that an argument had led to Louisa being ordered from the house and told to take the two girls, but to leave their brother, who was the youngest. Expecting her fourth child, a fact not known to most others until after the tragedy, and determined that she would not let another woman raise her children, Louisa decided to kill herself as well as her offspring.

Captain Philip Bissinger, the husband, long a respected, prominent, and prosperous member of the community nonetheless had to be placed under police protection soon after the drownings and was nearly killed by members of the procession of about a thousand persons who had attended the funeral. "When the bodies were lowered into the graves," the newspaper reported, "the people hooted Bissinger, and made a rush for him."  Only the quick action by policemen assigned for the occasion saved his life. He was hurriedly placed into a carriage and taken away. A shot had been fired before then and yet another was fired as the vehicle reached the cemetery gate.  Later, in an attempt to defend himself from public calumny, Bissinger wrote the newspaper that it was his wife who was to blame for listening to what he said were baseless rumors concerning extramarital affairs. Fred Eben, Captain Bissinger's former brother-in-law, answered Bissinger's remarks to the press, calling him "the murderer of my sister and your four children."

Louisa and the three children she drowned that sad summer day are buried in Reading in the Charles Evans Cemetery, next to the graves of two of her three other children who died before the tragic murder-suicide.  Philip Bissinger remarried, and he and his second wife are buried in the row of graves adjacent to the graves of his first wife and children.

It is said that the ghosts of Louisa and her children haunt the towpath near the lock. The legend states that since the time of the tragedy, people walking the towpath have sometimes seen Louisa and her children gathering stones. The spirits vanish as the viewer watches them. Others have reported hearing children's voices in the vicinity of the lock, as well as cries for help which cease when they approach near the site of the drownings.  Charles J. Adams III, an Exeter Township author who has written much about ghosts in Berks County and environs, writing in Ghost Stories of Berks County (1982), related his attempt to try to investigate the presence of ghosts at the lock. Disappointed by the lack of spectral evidence, he and several reporters who had accompanied him were leaving the area when suddenly one reporter clutched his chest and was unable to breathe or speak. Adams conjectured that the event could have been the result of a spirit attempting to enter the reporter's body.

Today the Union Canal is dry; however, the Berks County Parks Department maintains the towpath as part of its facilities for jogging and cycling.  The park would be an interesting and enjoyable place to visit. Who knows, it may also be a place where you can see a ghost!


Illustrations: 1) Louisa Bissinger 2) Captain Philip Bissinger 3) Gravestones of Louisa and her children: L to R: Mother, Mollie C., Lillie, Philip, Infant, Louis P. 4) Graves of Captain Philip Bissinger and second wife.


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