A long time ago children, including myself, used to write our letters to Santa Claus and then throw them in the fireplace for delivery. When the letters burned they were carried away to Santa at the North Pole. I don’t think children do that anymore.
It is a tradition that came to Newfoundland, like so many other traditions, from England. The fireplace or the stove was a kind of portal to the strange world of spirits. I suspect that it is related to the use of incense in some churches carrying our prayers upwards to another realm.
Staring at Sparks
With the fireplaces and chimneys it was a two way street. Stuff went up and stuff came down. Now the fireplace or stove in the days before television became the central point of focus in the winter evenings in the homes of Newfoundland.
My brother and I in the pre-television days would stare at the sparks on the back wall of the fireplace created by burning ‘hard’ coal and pretend the sparks were warring armies.
It wasn’t as good as television, but it seemed okay. Actually it was the television set that replaced the fire as the family ‘gathering place’ in latter years. Marshall McLuhan knew that. The warm glow of the screen from your 54 inch Samsung is really the new hearth in the 21st century.
As an aside here I find it incredibly interesting that many TV stations at Christmas transmit images of a burning fireplace accompanied by Christmas music. It reminds me of another time when Christmas and the fireplace were part of the same thing. For those American television stations using a ‘yule log’ it is great on Christmas Day. Computer generated fires don’t ask for a lot of money.
Now in Britain burning letters in the fireplace took people into the world of elves and fairies who brought gifts to them. If the letter was wafted up the chimney you were in good shape but if it just burned and fell to the bottom of the fire then you had to rewrite the letter.
That part of the British tradition thankfully wasn’t part of any tradition in our family. By the way that idea of burning letters to get them to Santa was also part of the Christmas ritual in Appalachian coal country in the United States. I don’t know why.
Dispenser of Justice
With the complex notion of the chimney as the portal into the spirit world you can see that it was very much like a prayer. We sent the message up the chimney. The payoff from my Santa, the one from the early 1950s, came when he entered our home by coming down the chimney. He was all knowing and a dispenser of justice. How did he do that? Well there is no need to ask. It is, like ‘the holy trinity,’ matter of mystery and faith. You just accept it. Christmas remains one of the most important feasts of Christianity and like Christianity itself it is filled with tradition and ceremony and above all else… mystery.
NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]