Mistletoe: Legend and Lore

While searching for folklore and legends about mistletoe, I came upon a reference to a ballad called "The Mistletoe Bough." Of course that sent me searching for lyrics, melody and more information.
What I found was intriguing: a ghost story, set at Christmas time, that is also a tragic love story, written as a poem that was later set to music. Opinions differ on the location of the story's events, the time they supposedly occurred, when the poem was written and even if it is a true story or merely a romantic tale.

The story apparently struck a chord with many people over the years. The ballad has been recorded by artists even recently (and available as a ringtone!). The story has been performed as a play and as a pantomime.

Something else that I found interesting was that the name of the young lady's lover, Lord Lovell, is the title of yet another ballad. Is it one and the same man? Proably not, but an odd coincidence all the same.

The ballad/poem continues to draw lovers of old mysteries and the singers of today. And if you should happen to buy an old English trunk, you might find that what you have was the final resting place of the young lady in the song.
This is the ballad version of the poem:
The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayley

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall.
The Baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping the Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Lord Lovell's bride.
And she, with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of that goodly company.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

"I'm weary of dancing, now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide,
And, Lovell, be sure you're the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place."
Away she ran, and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan.
And young Lovell cried, "Oh, where do you hide?
I'm lonesome without you, my own fair bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

They sought her that night, they sought her next day,
They sought her in vain when a week passed away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly, but found her not.
The years passed by and their brief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past.
When Lovell appeared, all the children cried,
"See the old man weeps for his fairy bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

At length, an old chest that had long laid hid
Was found in the castle; they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.
How sad the day when in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest,
It closed with a spring and a dreadful doom,
And the bride lay clasped in a living tomb.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Here is the poem:

The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayly (spelled variously in different documents, as you can see)
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;
And the baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.

The baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, young Lovell's bride;
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company.

'I'm weary of dancing now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment - I'll hide - I'll hide!
And, Lovell, be sure thou'rt first to trace
The clew to my secret lurking place."

Away she ran - and her friends began
Each tower to search, and each nook to scan;
And young Lovell cried, "O, where dost thou hide?
I'm lonesome without thee, my own dear bride."

They sought her that night! and they sought her next day!
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away!
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly - but found her not.

And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
"See! the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle-they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay moldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!

0, sad was her fate!-in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring!-and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasp’d in her living tomb!

So there's the story. Now for all the background sources:
Information and the melody of the ballad can be found at this website.
This site offers a brief background of the song and its origins, but for a full, detailed history of the song from the book, Stories of Famous Songs, go here.
One version of the ballad, and a link to a sung version that didn't work for me; perhaps you will have better luck.
A little more trivia about the poem and the place where the events supposedly happened.
The poem arranged as a play--an interesting idea for a Christmas play, if a bit on the dark side.
A New York Times article from 1877 about a pantomime performance of the story.
Today you can have the song as a cell phone ringtone performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Anthony Trollope's story of the same name speaks more of romance than folklore.
An entirely different poem by the same name, by American poet Ellis Parker Butler (b.1869, d.1937).
There you have it: The Mistletoe Bough in many shapes and forms. It wasn't what I started to research, but I found myself following the trail of this old story, and thought many of you might find it as interesting as I did.
Caroling Program Scheduled in Ripley

from the Parkersburg News & Sentinel, Parkersburg, WV

RIPLEY — The history of caroling is coming to Alpine Theatre in Ripley on Nov. 26.

Storyteller Susanna “Granny Sue” Holstein and musician Jeff Seager have been a-caroling across the region for more than five years. They are bringing their sing-along folk performance to Ripley.

“Here We Come A-Caroling” is a combination of Christmas carols and the stories behind the songs and will be presentee at 2 p.m. Nov. 26 in the historic Alpine Theatre, 210 W. Main St., Ripley.

Admission at the Alpine is $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and students.

“I have always loved carols,” said Holstein, whose mother was a World War II bride from England. “Mom brought many of her English customs and folklore with her to America, especially the Christmas ones.”

That meant she grew up with plum puddings, fruitcakes and a mistletoe ball in the house.

“We also grew up with carols,” she said. “Mom would play them from the beginning of December until the 12th night, and we often sang them as a family. Sometimes we went caroling in our neighborhood.”

The West Virginia History Hero recipient from Sandyville learned that she had a common interest in the songs with Seager, a guitarist from South Charleston. A conversation led to the development of the program.

Seager says they have performed in state parks, libraries and churches.

“Each year we find more songs that have intriguing stories behind them, so our repertoire keeps changing,” he said. “Many of the songs we perform have Appalachian connections. Some are versions of old songs from the British Isles and others were written right here in the mountains.”

Songs range from “The Huron Carol,” from the 17th century Native Americans. It was the first carol written on the continent. Among the more modern tunes, “Frosty the Snowman” was written by West Virginian Jack Rollins. “Silent Night” is popular in multiple languages.

Holstein has been storytelling as “Granny Sue” for more than 20 years. She leads the annual “Do You Believe?” ghost walk through downtown Ripley each October.

The Storyteller and the Writer

Check out my article that considers the intersection of writing and storytelling, on the Inspiration for Writers blog. It was an interesting question. Just what do these two artforms have in common, and how do they differ, besides the obvious presentation style?

"I was a storyteller before I thought about trying my hand at writing, and I have seen over the years how each craft informs the other." Read more here.

Coming Soon: Voices on Unity

Coming soon: Voices on Unity

It will be here soon! And my story about making fruitcakes with my sisters will be in it, along with stories and poems from many other fine West Virginia writers.

Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart is the new anthology soon to be released by Mountain State Press.  The book launch event will be held Tuesday, December 12, from 6:00pm-8:00pm at Hidden Creek Mercantile, The Copper Room, 2803 Main St, Hurricane, WV.

Contributing writers will be there reading from their stories. And you know, this weekend I'm making fruitcakes with my sisters again so if they come out well, I might just bring some with me to the launch!

I am excited about this book, which has stories and poems from many perspectives. In this time of national divisiveness, a collection like this is timely and needed. I am indebted to editor and publisher Cat Pleska, for envisioning and nurturing this project to completion.

I hope you can join us on December 12 to celebrate the launch of this exciting new work.

The Strange Case of Drusilla Myers: A History Mystery

The Strange Case of Drusilla Myers: A History Mystery

What happened to Drusilla Myers, a little girl growing up in Webster County, West Virginia, at the start of the Civil War? Was she the woman found years later and miles away in Gilmer County?

Drusilla was born around 1857 in Pocahontas county, Virginia, one of seven children born to Nancy (Leonard) and Cutlip Myers. Cutlip was born in Germany in 1810, and was quite a few years older than his wife who was born in 1827. The family seems to have moved around a bit, possibly following coal or timber work in the Pocahontas, Nicholas and Webster county areas of what is now West Virginia. When the South seceded from the Union to start the Civil War, the Myers family cast their sympathies with their home state which at the time was still Virginia, and supported the Confederate cause.

Drusilla, who was between four and eight years old, was living with her family in Webster county on Laurel Creek near the community of Bolair at the time the war was just beginning. One day she went to visit some nearby neighbors, possibly sent thereby her mother on an errand.  Some time later her parents sent her brother Jacob (called Jake) to fetch her.

Jake obliged, but on the way back and just a short distance from home he ran into a friend who invited to come and stay for a few days. Drusilla told her brother that she could get home by herself from there, and he left with his friend. Jake didn’t return home for several days; it was not uncommon in those days for people to make long visits without much planning or forethought; my husband often went to stay with friends and neighbors when he was a boy and would stay for several days or even weeks at a time. Those were surely different times from today! Drusilla’s parents probably heard through someone else where Jake was and assumed that Drusilla was with him. Can you imagine the panic that must have ensued when they learned the truth? I am sure a frantic search was mounted, and that the whole community turned out to help.

But it was to no avail. Drusilla was never seen again. It seemed as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up. No one remembered seeing her and there was not one trace of her clothing, no sign that anyone could find that might explain what had happened to her. The mountains were steep, largely unpopulated places, teeming with wildlife. No place for a little girl alone, and searching for her must have been a difficult task. 

Drusilla disappeared, it seemed. Vanished without a trace.

But did she?  Or did she turn up, years later and miles away, unable to recognize her own name?

Drusilla had a sister named Mary who married a William Hall of Wirt county, and there the couple made their home. Mr. Hall was a laborer who traveled to many places in search of work and it was in those travels that he heard the story of a woman living near Glenville, in Gilmer county, who claimed she had been kidnapped as a child. He went to visit this woman and heard a strange tale.

She told him that when she was just a little girl she was walking along a road near where she lived, and a man came up in a wagon. He offered her a ride, and she accepted. Then suddenly he grabbed a blanket and threw it over her, and began driving the wagon much faster. There was another girl in the wagon and she supposed the man had kidnapped that girl too. The name Drusilla Myers meant nothing to this woman, so Hall left without her.

So who was this mysterious woman? And was Drusilla the other girl in the wagon? I thought this was where the story ended, and indeed in Comstock’s West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia that is the end of the trail. But as I was searching online for information about this story and the Myers family, I came upon this article from the Virginia Democrat, dated July 14, 1873:

“In 1863, a little girl about 7 years old, a daughter of Cutlip Myers, of Laurel Creek, was sent on an errand to a neighbor's house. She arrived at her destination safely, and was on her return home when she was picked up by a Yankee soldier named Devees. It afterwards appeared that Devees, who was a married man, but had no children, was struck with the rustic beauty of the little wanderer, and he determined to carry her to his home in one of the river counties of Ohio. Avoiding all the settlements he accomplished his journey through Webster without being seen, and carried the child to his wife.

Mr. Myers and his family waited with all the patience they could bring to bear, and the child not returning, they scoured the woods and mountain paths in search of her. The neighbors were summoned, and days and nights were spent in searching for [any] trace of the lost one, but without avail, and it was finally concluded that she had been carried off and destroyed by boar, wolf, panther, or another of the wild animals which were then frequently seen in the mountain country. Her father, stricken by the loss of his youngest and prettiest child, sickened and died.

The war passed. Years flew by; and in 1871 the Myers family heard that a man named Devees had stolen a child from Webster county, and then had her living at his home in Burning Springs. A brother of the girl immediately mounted his horse and went there. He found the family and recognized his sister, but she seemed to be satisfied with her home, and refused to regard as true the story her brother told her. In despair the poor fellow returned home, and nothing more was heard of the matter until a few weeks ago, when the news came that some time ago Devees and his wife had quarreled and separated, and that Devees (whose conscience began to trouble him) had given a man named Dolan $20 to take the girl back to Webster.

Dolan, it appears, after the departure of Devees, failed to perform as he had promised, but was detaining the girl, (*he had now ascertained for a certainty all about her parentage against her will). And when we left Webster a party of men were about to start to where Dolan lives, and bring her home. She is now 17 years of age, and is said to be a very beautiful girl. Her name is Lucinda Myers. That is the story, just as we heard it.”

So there you have it, the possible solution to a long-ago mystery. Cutlip Myers died in 1869, jus one year after the birth of his youngest child; his wife Nancy continued to live in Bolair until her death in 1903, outliving her husband by over 30 years. As for Drusilla, I found no more mention of her, although if she did keep the name Lucinda, there might be yet another trail to follow.


Comstock, Jim. Drusilla Kidnapping. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, vol 7 DIS-FIR, page 1386. 1976, Richwood, WV.

Rootsweb, Ancestors of Munza & deVaux Families

Virginia Chronicle/Democrat, July 14, 1873. https://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=TDC18730714.1.2

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Meeting the Devil and Mixed Up Girls

A woman we met at a restaurant in town told us this story. She was having dinner with her parents and had overheard us telling a friend that we were going to Matewan and Mingo county the next day.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't mean to interrupt you, but we're from Mingo county!"

The world throws strange coincidences our way, doesn't it? We stayed and talked with these nice people for probably half an hour. West Virginians are like that--we talk to strangers and end up being friends by the end of the conversation. And we hear some good stories in the process, like this one.

The mother at the table said that her grandfather (or maybe it was great-grandfather) had a store at the top of Ben's Creek Mountain in Mingo county. The mountain is known for its foggy conditions, and one night as her grandfather was riding home on horseback he found himself enveloped in a thick, almost impenetrable fog. He's been out late and he'd had a bit too much to drink, so between the fog and his foggy brain it was a difficult ride.

from Microsoft Clipart
He was making his way his way slowly along the narrow track when his horse suddenly stopped. A quick look revealed the reason: the Devil Himself was holding the horse's bridle.

The horse stomped and tried to rear, laying back its ears and rolling its eyes in fright. "Turn loose of my horse!" the grandfather shouted. He was scared too, but drink can make a man braver than he might normally be in such a situation.

The Devil replied, "You keep drinking like that and you'll be mine in the end. You better stop your drinking, old man."

And then the Devil disappeared. The old man, probably feeling even older after that encounter, continued on to his home.

"So," I asked, "did your grandfather stop drinking?"

"No," the lady who told the story replied, "he said he just quit riding over Ben's Creek Mountain in the dark!"

While we were in Matewan, the man we met in the restaurant there told us this story:

photo from History of Colorado
There was an elderly man who lived somewhere close to Matewan (he named the man's name, but I cannot remember it now) who had six daughters and one son. The old man had always lived a simple life, cooking with wood or coal, and an outside privy for a bathroom.

The girls grew up and moved away to Cincinnati, Cleveland and other places where they all prospered and had good lives. They decided that it was time for life to be a little easier for their father too, so they devised a plan to go home and fix up the house for the old man.

They did it up right--all modern conveniences in the kitchen, and a bathroom complete with shower, sink and toilet. When the work was finished, the sisters threw a party--an outdoor cookout. They bought a grill, picnic table, steaks, the works. While they were eating, their father spoke up.

"You girls have got it all mixed up! What are they a-teachin' you in those cities? You've got it all backwards!"

"What do you mean, Dad?" The women were surprised and confused by his comments.

"You're eating outside and going to the bathroom in the house! That's not how it's supposed to be! You're supposed to eat in the house and use the bathroom outside. You've got it all backwards!"

A Classic Appalachian Story for Halloween

This is one of my favorites, the old Appalachian tale of the Tailypo. Spellings and tellings of this story vary from one storyteller to the next, but the gist of the tale remains the same.

Listen, then tell it to someone this Halloween season!