Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Twelve Days: Stockings and Trees

The second article in a series on the ancient Twelve Days holiday.

In view of the looming threat of Santa's visit (see yesterday's article on Santa Claus), parents enforced a curfew with increasing rigor. Children were sent to the far end of the house, preferably their bedrooms, for protection from any physical or spiritual danger. Others also sought refuge, but by tradition one or more adult members of the household stayed up to guard against mishap.

The primary defense against Santa's malice was to set out tempting decoys. Upon arrival through the fireplace or engine room, Santa would encounter flammable articles of clothing, usually expendable items such as socks. This would prevent him from trying to find and set fire to clothing with a person inside.

Another common decoy was the fir tree. Left inside for several days to dry, the tree still retained the appearance of life while also being readily combustible. Early on it was thought that Santa Claus could not resist the temptation offered by the tree alone, but later generations seemed to think something else was needed. The first development was to place, paper-wrapped packages at the foot of the tree. The contents of these packages is unclear and was apparently variable, but in all cases they were items that could be damaged by fire and may have been considered sacrifices to the flame.

The most dramatic move, however, came about the time that the invention of indoor fire suppression made the practice tolerably safe, though certainly still hazardous. To make the tree the best possible magnet for the fire demon, lit candles were placed in the branches and left overnight. With an open flame beside the dry, sap-filled wood covered with pine-needle tinder, it was a  bonfire waiting to happen. Little wonder, then, that when belief in Santa Claus waned this became the principal mode of celebration. The years have seen ever more creative methods of lighting and enhancing these fires, and the creativity has always remained one step ahead of available safety measures. Once again, I encourage all to be vigilant in avoiding injury this season.

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