Harmon’s Histories: Visions of Christmas past … peacocks, tall tales and flaming raisins

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Christmas 2020 is going to be quite unlike Christmases past, just as 2020 itself will be quite unlike years past, under the shadow of politics and pandemic.

Religious and social gatherings are challenging, if even possible. Hopefully we all will be able to find ways to safely celebrate the holidays.

Meantime we can turn to history and lore for some great memories, and perhaps some inspiration, in these most unusual times.

First, apparently, we all need to go forth and find a “Yule Log,” whatever that is.

Luckily, the Big Timber Pioneer newspaper of 1898 has a description: “The ‘Yule Log’ is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve, laid in the fireplace and lighted with the brand of last year’s log.”

Dang! I don’t have any “last year’s log.” But my neighbor has been trying to burn a number of stumps for three years or more, with little success. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind if I borrowed one of those charred remains as my “Yule Log.”

Anyway, once my special log is ablaze, there is to be “great drinking, singing and telling of tales.” I can do that!

But then they tell me the log must burn all night. Should it go out, all sorts of “ill luck” is said to follow.

Geez! Now I have to stay up all night to make sure the darn thing keeps burning? That’s going to be a challenge after all that drinking and singing!

Some other old lore (yes, that’s probably redundant) mentions counting the sparks given off by the “Yule Log.” Each spark somehow provides a glimpse into “future fortunes.” Sounds intriguing.

But another piece of advice – to place the log under one’s bed “for luck” – sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Helena Weekly Herald, January 1, 1885

It brings back thoughts of Christmas Eve 1884, when Helena’s Episcopal church began filling with smoke just as “fifty little girls and boys had assembled … to admire the beauties on a Christmas tree set up for their benefit.” Luckily, no one was hurt and the fire department quickly contained the blaze.

Enough of Yule Logs and fires – well, sort of.

How about following a Swedish-Norwegian tradition of feeding birds? All you must do is gather up sheaves of oat stalks and place them on the roof of your house. Of course, in order to actually watch the birds feed from the comfort of your hearth, you’d have to convince your neighbors to do the same thing.

Once the bird feeding is accomplished, you’re to stay up all night with candles burning in the windows. Then everyone is encouraged to “flock to church at 4 o’clock in the morning, each carrying a torch.”

I’m not sure if your torch is supposed to be made up of oat sheaves, but I would suggest you blow out those window candles before you leave. And of course, be sure to wear your face mask and social distance as you do your “flocking.”

Now for holiday feasting, there are endless suggestions in old English lore.

Fort Benton River Press

A true English gentleman would be expected to “throw open his hall at daybreak to all his tenants and neighbors,” offering up beer, cheese, toast and a “great sausage.”

Said sausage “must be boiled by sunrise, or else two young men must take the cook by the arms and run her around the marketplace till she is shamed of her laziness.”

Then for dinner, one must have a boar’s head at the head of a table, brought in by one’s butler. (Note to self: Find out where one acquires a butler, post-haste – there’s little time remaining).

Even more daunting is finding a few peacocks. They are to be flayed and roasted, then reassembled with their colorful feathers. After that, spirit-soaked pieces of cotton must be placed in their beaks to be lighted as the waiters carve the birds. Yum?

Meantime, the seemingly endless staff is busied preparing all sorts of delights like December pies (aka, mince pies) and plum puddings.

Finally, once this festive feast is completed, the games are to begin. Apparently something called “Snap Dragon” would be appropriate. It was said to have been the favorite among the indoor holiday “sports” of the past.

Here’s how it worked: “Raisins were placed in a large shallow dish and brandy poured over the fruit and ignited. The lights in the room were extinguished, and in the weird glare the players attempted to pick the raisins out of the flaming dish.”

 Good grief. Enough with all this flambe!

Apparently, the English Parliament reached its limit as well. But it wasn’t because of fire hazards.

Big Timber Pioneer, January 20, 1898

In 1652, this whole Christmas-thing was deemed “not in harmony” with scriptures, and was abolished in a wave of Puritanism. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the English revived the celebration, this time in a very subdued way by comparison with its noisy, drunken predecessor.

This year – 2020 – from our family to yours, we wish you a Merry Christmas filled with “peace on earth and goodwill to all,” but with a cautionary note: Please follow health protocols and be careful with all open flames!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.