January 1, 2010

Legends of “Old Christmas”

Category: News — Ira @ 4:47 pm


“Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.”

—William Shakespeare: Hamlet

The date never had any particular significance when we lived in Aylmer. It was a cold winter day, just like any other. The Aylmer Amish, mostly Daviess County stock, simply weren’t tuned in to the old Swiss-German lore that had been passed down through hundreds of years and many generations. Either that, or they just didn’t care.

But it wasn’t long after we moved to Bloomfield until we heard the murmurings. I was fifteen years old, and for the first time in my life, I learned that January 6 was Old Christmas. The day when folks celebrated Christmas before the Gregorian Calendar was adopted, way back when.

Old Christmas was a holy day. A somber day. And, I would learn, a day of unspoken fear pulsing from the dense fog of a dark and shadowy underworld. It was utterly devoid of all the festivities and good cheer of Dec. 25. All members of the church were required to fast that morning. And not work much that day, besides the necessary barnyard chores. But most of all, no one, but no one, was expected to be out and about that night. We were sternly warned to stay close to home. And stay inside.

People whispered furtively of that day with dread and foreboding. And the details trickled out, details preserved from some deep collective cultural memory of lurking malevolent evil, retold and passed down from generation to generation not by written history, but solely by word of mouth.

On January 6, Old Christmas night, the spirits were out. Evil spirits. Unleashed upon the land. Halloween was child’s play, compared to this. And on that night, and only on that night, one had better not lower his guard, or one might see and hear unspeakable things.

Even then, for the first year or so, I remained blithe and pretty much uninformed. I could feel a vague sense of uneasiness about Old Christmas, but most were reluctant to talk about it much.

And then one Sunday, as Old Christmas approached, a young Bloomfield preacher took it upon himself to teach specific details on what supposedly came down on that night. As a warning. A wiry nervous spindle of a young man, he stood and earnestly spoke of things, some of which I had never heard before.

These were powers from the darkness. And without faith, they would remain dormant. But on that night, at midnight, according to the young preacher, there were several evils that might be unleashed.

He stood there, tense and nervous, wringing his hands. Stammered and stuttered and cleared his throat incessantly. Some might feel these things should not be spoken of, he hemmed. So as not to tempt any young people out there to go and try this stuff. But he would share it as a warning, as he believed these things had actually happened in the past. And they were real.

He needn’t have worried about me. I wasn’t about to go in search of any spirits. I sat there, mesmerized, and absorbed this new dark knowledge.

The words tripped out in short chopped phrases, interspersed with warning after dire warning.

At midnight, if you ventured out to the water pump on your well, stooped down and listened, you would hear a voice. Emerging from the depths. The voice would speak to you, tell you of things to come. You would be as God and know the future.

At midnight, if you walked backward down the stairwell in your house, holding a mirror positioned so you could look over your left shoulder, you would see the one you would marry in the future. Assuming you were single, of course.

At midnight, if you went out to the barn, the cows and horses would speak to you in human tongue, in human voices.

And finally, if you slipped a comb under your bed before you went to sleep on Old Christmas night, you would wake up at midnight and see the devil.

You had to believe these things would happen. And expect them to happen. And act on your faith. That’s what the preacher said. After more dramatic warnings of how one should never try these things at home on that night, never tempt evil to unveil itself, the preacher meandered off on another subject. I sat there, fascinated and appalled.

As the years have passed, my thoughts have returned now and again to the strange things I heard that day. I’ve pondered them in my heart. Wondered if there was really any substance to the tales. The rational mind rejects such things as old wives’ fables. Old Amish fables. Superstitious folly, based on fear and ignorance.

But I don’t know. I didn’t then. And I don’t now.

The stories had to come from somewhere. Such tales are not woven from the air, out of nothing. At some point in the distant past, someone had to experience the events the preacher described.

Someone had to listen at a well at midnight. Someone backed down the stairs, peering over his left shoulder through a mirror. Someone went to the barn at midnight and heard something strange. And someone placed a comb under the bed and awoke at midnight to see something so evil that it could not be described.

Someone with faith in dark things.

Someone. Somewhere. Sometime.

But through the years, I have never met a single person, anywhere, who claimed to have experienced first-hand even one of those events.

I’ve met people who claimed to know someone who had. Always second-hand hear-say. Once I heard my sisters speak of some girl in northern Indiana who supposedly had backed down the stairs, holding a mirror to reflect over her left shoulder. She saw flames of fire. And the cousin of some of my friends placed a comb under his bed one Old Christmas night. He claimed to have awakened at midnight and seen the devil at the foot of his bed.

It might be just an Amish thing. It’s part of their identity. They’ve preserved the old customs in more ways than one. Somehow, they cling to old sayings. As mainstream culture did before the advent of modern media.

The Amish are steeped in the strange and supernatural. Ancient wisdom from dubious sources. Signs and wonders. Some have visions. Some have seen angels in the skies.

Each community has its own dark sayings. Its own legends. Its own beliefs. The more plain and conservative the church, the more steeped in superstitious fear.

In Daviess County, the land of my fathers, they know nothing of Old Christmas. But the old people there have an ancient saying. If it rains into an open grave, there will be an unexpected death in the community within two weeks.

In 1989, I attended my grandfather John Yoder’s funeral in Daviess. In early January. On the day of his funeral, the clouds swept in and rain poured into the open grave. An old woman, a bent and wrinkled old crone, dramatically proclaimed the dark saying, almost like a curse. She had seen it all before. She spoke with resigned confidence born from generations of knowledge and experience.

Within two weeks, a local Amish man in his thirties, with no history of health problems, collapsed and keeled over dead. Heart attack or stroke or some such thing. The Daviess people murmured quietly. They knew well the real reason for the young man’s death.

The dark sayings seem to fulfill themselves. And perpetuate themselves to the next generation of young people who see and believe.

Growing up, we heard many strange and terrible tales from traveling preachers from other communities over the years. Usually from the larger settlements. Northern Indiana and Holmes and Arthur, Illinois for some reason come to mind. Probably because their preachers told the wildest stories.

Stories of beer joints and demons lurking overhead, visible only to Amish eyes. Of a tombstone in one Amish country graveyard that has been seen to burn eerily at night with unearthly fire. Of the two fire-singed men who showed up at the wake of a rebellious young Amish girl who had lived a wicked life in Arthur, Illinois. Two smoke-blackened men who walked in unannounced and uninvited, viewed the corpse, looked at each other, and nodded. Then disappeared without a word into the night and back to hell, from whence they had emerged to claim their own.

Stories of the devil and all his works.

Stories specifically and conveniently designed to frighten into submission any young person who might rebel or harbor heretical thoughts of leaving the fold of the Amish church. That’s the bottom line. It always was. It always will be. To hold the youth at any cost. By any method necessary, including raw irrational fear.

It’s the only way the Amish culture can or will survive. That, and harshly shunning those who do leave as a warning to those who would like to.

The stories are what they are. And the tales about evil spirits on Old Christmas night. Told and retold from one generation to the next. Oral renditions of dark memories and dark practices, some of which likely predate the dawn of our cultural past. Remnants of which survive and even prosper today, in both memory and practice.

I believed it all for many years. If you heard it from a preacher in a sermon, it was as unquestioned as the gospel. Today, I’m pretty much an agnostic as to whether the stories and legends are actually based in truth. Could be they are. Could be they’re not. They are real enough, I know, to those who believe.

But once implanted, some old habits, some old customs are almost impossible to let go. Even for those who have otherwise shed the last vestiges of the Amish lifestyle.

Old Christmas. January 6. Even today, I’m always quietly aware, quietly alert as the date approaches. Not out of fear, but from a deep sense of respect for my cultural heritage. And deep respect for what I was taught in the days of my youth.

On Old Christmas night, you won’t catch me wandering around outside.

Especially not at midnight.