Celtic Stories: Coming Soon!

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Coming next week! 
Celtic legends and lore. Stories, songs, and folklore with me 

and fellow storyteller Judi Tarowsky. 

 Tales of ghosts,

Magical creatures,

selkies and sea people,

the folklore of stones,

tales of days of old,

 and more!

Many Appalachians trace their heritage back to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. 

Come listen to the stories and sing along with the ancient ballads that traveled across the sea with our forebears. 

Meet the Mari Lwyd, and go back to the time of selkies, fairies, broonies and more. 

Tuesday, March 20th, 6:30pm Parkersburg Public Library,3100 Emerson Ave, Parkersburg, WV.

The Great Bend of the Ohio River: Fact and Folkloremap from city-data

According to local lore and the State of West Virginia historical marker on Route 2, there is a perfectly good reason for the Great Bend in the Ohio River. It seems that Paul Bunyan, when faced with West Virginia's hilly terrain, decided to just give it a miss and stepped over the whole state. But he misjudged the distance and put his heel down at the western edge of the river, causing the Great Bend to form. And you know it's true because it's carved in cast iron on that historical marker.

Map from city-data.com

The Great Bend is not far from my home, about 10 miles, I'd guess, as the crow flies, and 16 miles by th shortest driveable route. There used to be a scenic overlook there but the undergrowth now blocks the view. I sure wish an Eagle Scout or civic group would take on the care of the site, because it really is a spectacular view.
George Washington camped just above the Great Bend at the present site of Ravenswood, and also a couple miles below the Bend, according to his journal. His description of this part of the river:
"29th.- The tedious ceremony, which the Indians observe in their counsellings and speeches, detained us till nine o’clock. Opposite to the creek, just below which we encamped, is a pretty long bottom, and I believe tolerably wide; but about eight or nine miles below the aforementioned creek, and just below a pavement of rocks on the west side, comes in a creek, with fallen timber at the mouth, on which the Indians say there are wide bottoms and good land. The river bottoms above, for some distance, are very good, and continue so for near half a mile below the creek. The pavement of rocks is only to be seen at low water. About a mile below the mouth of the creek there is another pavement of rocks on the east side, in a kind of sedgy ground. 
"On this creek are many buffaloes, according to the Indians’ account. Six miles below this comes in a small creek on the west side, at the end of a small, naked island, and just above another pavement of rocks. This creek comes through a bottom of fine land, and opposite to it, on the east side of the river, appears to be a large bottom of very fine land also. At this place begins what they call the Great Bend. 
"Two miles below, on the east side, comes in another creek, just below an island, on the upper point of which are some dead standing trees, and a parcel of white-bodied sycamores; in the mouth of this creek lies a sycamore blown down by the wind. From hence an east line may be run three or four miles; thence a north line till it strikes the river, which I apprehend would include about three or four thousand acres of valuable land. At the mouth of this creek is the warriors’ path to the Cherokee country. For two miles and a half below this the Ohio runs a north-east course, and finishes what they call the Great Bend. Two miles and a half below this we encamped."

So, How Did You Do?

Did you try yesterday's quiz? How well did you do?

Here are the answers, according to the Handy Book:

1. As poor as....a churchmouse
2. As thin as....a rail
3. As brown as....a nut
4. As stiff as...a board
5. As busy as..a bee.
6. As ugly as...sin
7. As red as...a beet
8. As bitter as...gall
9. As flat as...a pancake
10. As neat as...a pin.

There are many other fun word games in this little book, along will all kinds of games. I can imagine a teacher keeping The Handy Book handy on her desk for rainy days or those days when something new is needed to keep children interested.

Winter's Quiet, and a Quiz

Winter is usually a quiet time for me. Storytelling comes to a stop, usually, for several months. I use the time to recharge, to plan programs for the coming year, to write and to read. Especially read. We have the fireplace in our log room burning most events, and it's the perfect place to read.

Recently I re-organized all of my books, an undertaking that took a few days--perfect for winter. My library might not be as large as most, with around 1000 volumes, but almost every one is a research tool for storytelling and writing.

Every now and again I go through the stacks and try to downsize, and indeed I did manage to pull about 40 books this last round, but it doesn't take long for the empty spaces to be re-occupied. I mean, who can resist a Civil War diary by a woman living in their home county, or a collection of Irish or Appalachian ghost stories or out-of-print, rare volumes or poems or I?

In the process of sorting my books, I realized that there are quite a few I have not read, as well as old favorites that need to be re-visited. So I pulled out a reading stack. I plan to continue pulling a new volumes as I finish one in the stack, and work my way through the bookshelves over the next year--or two or three or more, probably.

Currently I'm reading:

The Civil War Diary of Henrietta Fitzhugh Barr or Ravenswood, VA (now WV) (completed)
Winter Morning Walks by Ted Kooser (poetry)
Irish Ghost Stories by Jeremiah Curtin
The Apple That Astonished Paris by Billy Collins (completed)
Volume 24, WV Encyclopedia
Volume 25, WV Encyclopedia (completed)
Windfall by Maggie Anderson (poetry)
Mountain Trace

I'm also listening to music both for its soothing presence and to search for new songs to add to my repertoire, especially for this summer's library programs since the theme this year is music. So John Langstaff's Songs for Singing Children, and the Watersons and Cherish the Ladies are my companions right now.

I suppose if I was really driven (or hungry) I would be working on drumming up more work during these winter months, but the pleasures of home, books, and music while watching the snow fall are all I really want right now. Life will speed up soon enough.

One little volume I found on the shelf is a small ring binder with the title "Handy" and a copyright of 1927. Apparently it was bought as a series of booklets that were hole-punched for the binder and cost 25 cents each. Each booklet focuses on activities on a specific topic: mental games, quiet games, outdoor games, leadership, etc. In mental games I found a game that challenges the players to complete old sayings. Here are a ten from the list; how many can you complete?

1. As poor as....
2. As thin as....
3. As brown as....
4. As stiff as...
5. As busy as...
6. As ugly as...
7. As red as...
8. As bitter as...
9. As flat as...
10. As neat as...

So, how did you do? Answers tomorrow!

Holiday Traditions of Childhood

I was raised in a large family---a lot of love but not much money. Extravagant gifts were not an option. We had to find other ways to make our holidays merry and bright. Now I find that many of the things we did are right in vogue as people look for ways to consume less, enjoy more, and live more gently on this earth.

My mother, a British WW II war bride, brought many holiday traditions to the US with her. She started the day after Thanksgiving--that was Fruitcake Day. When the batter was ready, everyone stirred three times each and made a wish. This was the signal that the holiday season had officially begun.

Saint Nicholas Day was the next holiday event. On December 6th Mom would wrap small gifts for each of us--a pencil, eraser, handkerchief--nothing expensive, but the gift beside our plates at dinner was always exciting. She usually re-used wrapping paper from the year before for these tiny gifts.

The Christmas Parade: We never missed it! The parade, held at night, passed the corner of our street. We'd bundle up and wave to the floats and to Santa at the end, then rush home for hot chocolate. Sometimes we'd go caroling in the neighborhood, stopping in at different houses to visit briefly and enjoy cookies and maybe some hot chocolate.

The Manger: Mom set up her nativity scene at the beginning of Advent, but the manger would remain empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men were also not present---they began their journey on the other side of the living room, moving a little each day until they finally arrived on January 5th, Epiphany.

The empty cradle was a challenge. In order for the baby Jesus to have a soft bed, we had to do good deeds, each one rewarded with a straw for the cradle. Some years I'm afraid His bed was a little hard! We stayed mindful of that cradle all month, and tried to do things that would earn a straw to add to the pile.

The Christmas Elf: this little fellow also moved about the house, watching children and reporting on behavior to Santa. We didn't want to be caught being naughty if the Elf was watching.

Cleaning: "You can't decorate dirt," Mom would say. So we'd polish the old house until everything shone--silver, wood, brass, mirrors. The house would be fragrant with the smell of floor wax and lemon oil. Then it was time to put up the tree and decorations.

The kissing ball: Mom re-decorated the ball each year with ribbons and greenery, and hung a sprig of mistletoe in the center. When we got older, we were allowed to help. She used scraps from sewing, ribbons from packages, any little bits and pieces she could find to make it glittering and pretty. It was usually hung in the dining room door and I can remember Dad catching her under it many times. We all loved to see them kiss.

The tree: Always a live one that we cut on a friend's farm, it was always lopsided and oddly shaped, and always decorated by Santa after midnight Mass. The tree would be put up a few days before Christmas, and the lights strung. The living room ceiling was twelve feet high, and the trees usually had to be trimmed to fit under them.

Decorations: lopped-off branches from the Christmas tree, holly, and a vine we called running pine were the main ingredients for our decorations. Greens were piled atop the mantles, around the front door, and twined down the stairs. Red ribbons and gold beads were added as we vied with each other for the best trimmings, re-used year after year and carefully stored away.

Yule log: made from a piece of the trunk of a former Christmas tree, Dad drilled small holes in it that we filled with greenery and Christmas bits of glittery stuff. Three larger holes held candles. The Yule log was always on the mantle in the living room, and the candles were lit on Christmas Eve to light in the Christ Child. A candle was placed in the window for the same purpose.

Christmas Day: On Christmas morning, we could see the tree through the crack between the big sliding wooden doors of the living room. It was shining and glimmering in the dusky light of dawn, and when the doors were finally opened--only after every single person in the house was present--it was a wondrous sight to behold. My parents collected Christmas balls, adding a few each year, making some, getting some for gifts. My last year at home, over 1000 balls hung on the green branches.

Gifts: with thirteen children to buy for, money didn't go far. We liked to buy for each other too but our money was practically non-existent. We learned to be happy with small gifts. Stockings were stuffed with apples, oranges, and nuts. We'd buy a pack of pencils and wrap one for each sibling, or penny candy, and wrap the gifts as carefully as if they had great value. They did--our hearts were in them. It didn't matter that the gifts under the tree were small--there were plenty of them and the joy when they were unwrapped was genuine. We’d have to hurry to get ready for early Mass at 7:30am.

Open House: Homemade eggnog, the fruitcake, and many other homemade goodies graced the table on Christmas night as friends and family came to visit. What happy times those were for a kid--lots of good things to eat, lots of noise, people singing carols, laughter. We baked for days before Christmas to prepare, always the same traditional fare--sausage rolls, mincemeat pies, wedding cookies, stollen (a sweet bread flavored with almond and laced with candied cherries), date bars, decorated sugar cookies, and so on.

Boxing day: this was the day after Christmas when we went visiting, usually wearing some of our gifts (mittens or toboggan hats knit by Mom, or new socks or a hanky from Granny).

New Year's Eve: even the littlest ones were allowed to stay up and see the New Year in, although they seldom stayed awake until midnight. Unspiked eggnog for the children and perhaps something a little stouter for the parents! Leftover goodies from Christmas, along with ham and rolls, were placed on the table once again for a repeat of the holiday feast.

Epiphany, January 5th: On this day our Wise Men finally made it to the crèche, and since they gave gifts to the Child, we also received small gifts at our places at dinner. This ended the 12 days of Christmas for us, although the tree remained decorated in all its glory until January 11th, my parents' anniversary and the occasion for more merrymaking.

And then the holidays were officially over, the decorations were regretfully taken down, and we looked ahead to the start of the next season--and by then it was only 10 and a half months away!

The Book Launch: Voices on Unity

Last night's book launch party was so much fun! It was a pleasure to see so many writer friends there, some with stories in the book and some who just came to support and listen. The books the publisher brought to sell sold out and the ones I wanted will be mailed to me. Now that's success.

The stories were fantastic--from a young woman's memories of the Women's March to tales of healing, stories that brought tears, laughter, thoughtful silence, intent listening. I have been reading the book today and am humbled to have my story be in such company.

And I am inspired to write more often. I have so many interests, too many I sometimes think, and it is difficult to carve out the quiet, reflective time it takes to write. Writing this blog is like writing a letter to friends and it keeps me thinking about writing, which is a good thing. Sometimes I feel like I am hanging on to that part of me by a thin thread. Then I go to a workshop or an event like this and come home recharged.

If you would like a copy of Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, just click on the Buy It Now Link in the sidebar, or send me a message at the email address that is also in the sidebar and we can work out how to get your book to you. You will not be disappointed, I promise.

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

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.