OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

Today’s poem is one often encountered by high school English students in the United States, though it may be less frequently seen in other English-speaking countries.

It is by the poet, novelist and teacher Roy Helton (1886-1977), who was born in Washington, D.C., but resided mainly in Pennsylvania.

In spite of his urban upbringing and residence, he also spent much time in the Appalachian regions of South Carolina and Kentucky — places settled in early days by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Education Manual (EM 131) — put out by the United States Armed Forces Institute — says of him in its Volume 1, which deals with “Modern American and British Poetry”:

Roy (Addison) Helton was born at Washington, D. C., in 1886 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908.  He studied art — and found he was color-blind.  He spent two years at inventions — and found he had no business sense.  After a few more experiments he became a schoolmaster in West Philadelphia and at the Penn Charter School in Germantown …

…Helton became intimately connected with primitive backgrounds, spending a great part of his time in the mountains of South Carolina and Kentucky.

Of today’s poem, it says:

Old Christmas Morning” is a Kentucky Mountain dialogue in which Helton has introduced an element rare in modern verse.  Told with the directness of an old ballad, this drama of the night twelve days after the universally celebrated Christmas unfolds a ghost story in which the surprise is heightened by the skillful suspensions.

Appropriately, Helton wrote the poem in Kentucky dialect.  Though it may be over-explaining for some readers,  I will nonetheless thoroughly define the dialect words for those who may know English only as their second language.

Before we begin, you should know that due to use of a different calendar, Christmas used to be celebrated in early British colonial America on January 6th.  In 1752 the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Britain and its colonies — including America — which meant that the date of Christmas shifted earlier to December 25th.  In spite of the change, many people kept the memory of the original date of celebration as “Old Christmas,” as opposed to the new December 25th celebration.  Given the conservative nature of the hill people of the southeastern United States, it is not surprising that the memory of the old date was retained, along with some of its traditional beliefs and superstitions.  Some considered “Old Christmas” the true Christmas, and even continued to celebrate on the old date as late as the 20th century.

The poem is a dialogue between two  hill women in the Appalachian mountains of the state of Kentucky.  As usual, I will take it stanza by stanza.  We begin when one woman finds another at her door in the dark hours early on the morning of “Old Christmas” — January 6th.

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

“Where are you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

The housewife asks the other woman where she is coming from so early in the snow.  And she asks her “what’s them pretties you got in your hand…?

In Kentucky mountain dialect, a “pretty” or “purty” is a word with several meanings, but in general it is something that is pretty, like flowers, or little ornamental objects or decorations, etc.  In the form “play-pretty,” it means a child’s toy.  Here I like to think that in spite of the winter snow, Lomey Carter is carrying something that looks like flowers.

She also asks Lomey, “…where you aiming to go?”  — meaning “Where are you intending to go?”

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

She invites the woman at her door to step inside the house, using the term of endearment “Honey.”  She politely and apologetically adds that, though it is Old Christmas morning, she does not have much to offer her guest to eat in hospitality — perhaps a little of something sweet and some corn bread, and a little ham and such things.

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

In spite of her simple food offerings, she urges Lomey to come inside the house.  She adds that “Sally Anne Barton” — meaning herself — is hungering after Lomey’s face.  By that she means she has missed seeing her face and having her company and conversation.  Sally asks her to wait a moment while she lights a candle, because it is still very early and the house is dark inside.  And as she attempts to light the candle, she tells her guest, “Set down!  There’s your old place.”  By “set down” she means “sit down.”  And in saying “There’s your old place,” she lets the reader know that these two women used to be close friends, so close that Lomey had her own accustomed place to sit in when she came visiting at Sally’s house.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally asks Lomey where she has been so airly/early in the morning.  Lomey replies that she has been to the graveyard, up by the trace/footpath in the salt lick meadows.  A salt lick is a place where mineral salts are found in the ground or near a spring.  They were important because animals — both wild and domestic — need salt, and will seek out a salt lick — so called because there the animals lick up the salt.  Many salt licks exist in Kentucky, and there is even a town called Salt Lick.  So Lomey is speaking of meadows where a salt lick is found.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

Sally tells Lomey that “Taulbe ain’t to home this morning“, or in standard English, “Taulbe is not at home this morning.”  Taulbe — pronouncedTall-bee and usually spelled Taulbee — is a surname found in Kentucky and elsewhere in the Appalachians, but it can also be used  — like here — as a first name.

Sally adds that she is having trouble trying to “scratch up a light,” that is,  trying to get a match to light so that she may light the candle with it.  She explains that the dampness in the air gets into the heads of the matches, which makes them hard to ignite by scratching them on a rough surface.  So not being able to light a candle, she says, “I’ll blow up the embers bright.”  She will blow on the hot coals remaining in the fireplace, to get a little light from them to illuminate the dark room.

Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

Lomey tells Sally she need not bother trying to blow up the embers, because Lomey will not be stopping/staying.  She adds that she still has a long way to go.  We shall see the significance of this “long way to go” later.

Sally asks, “You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter, up on the graveyard hill?”  By that she is really asking, “Did you see anything at the graveyard up on the hill?”

What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.

Lomey replies by asking, “What should I see there?”, and Sally tells her that “sperits do walk last night.”  She is repeating the belief that on the night before Old Christmas, ghosts and spirits walk about.

Lomey replies that “there were/was an elder bush a-blooming while the moon still give/gave some light.”  Traditionally the elder is considered a bush with supernatural qualities, and for it to bloom on Old Christmas in the midst of winter cold, is a supernatural event — heightened here by its being seen in moonlight.  That flowers might bloom at midnight on Old Christmas was a traditional folk belief.  And we may consider that these blooms relate to the “pretties” Lomey carries.

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:

Sally agrees that such an unusual thing can happen at the time of Old Christmas, and she also repeats the folk belief that at midnight, the critters /creatures in the barn will kneel in the straw, which originally was believed to happen in honor the birth of Jesus.  Sally asks Lomey if she noticed anything else in the graveyard, and Lomey replies that she saw one more thing:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?”
He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

This stanza tells us that Lomey’s man — her husband — had earlier been murdered by Sally’s husband Taulbe.  Now we know why Sally told her earlier in the poem that Taulbe was not at home:  it would be safe for Lomey to come in while he was away.  Lomey says that she saw her husband — meaning the ghost of her husband — in the graveyard, with his head still bleeding from the bullet wound Taulbe had given him.

Sally asks what the ghost said, and Lomey replies, “He stooped and kissed me,” but does not answer Sally’s question, so Sally repeats it.  Lomey then answers:

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

Lomey tells Salley that the ghost said, “Lord Jesus forguv/forgave your Taulbe,” but he also said “another word” — something else, very softly, when he kissed her.  And that was the last thing she heard him say.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally repeats what she told Lomey earlier — that Taulbe ain’t/is not to/at home this morning.  Lomey responds by saying she knows that, because she kilt/killed him coming down through the meadow where Taulbe kilt/killed her man/husband.  She explains:

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun

And kilt him as he come past.

Lomey met Taulbe on the meadow trace/footpath when the moon were/was fainting fast, that is, close to fading or setting.  She had the rifle of her dead husband, and she shot and killed Taulbe as he passed by her.

Sally responds, and Lomey answers:

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

Sally says she heard two shots, not one.  Lomey explains the second shot:  “‘Twas/it was his”.  Taulbe shot Lomey before he died.  Here we may assume that Lomey’s ghost husband’s last and soft “word” to her was essentially that though Jesus may have forgiven Taulbe, Lomey’s husband did not, and wanted him dead.  And finally Lomey reveals to Sally that she too is a ghost, and that Sally will find both Lomey’s body and that of Taulbe lying together dead when daybreak brings light to the scene.

 

So that’s it.  This poem is a ghost story based on one of the bitter grudges that sometimes turned into family feuds and killing in the Appalachian mountains.  It is very reminiscent of the Child Ballads, old songs of England and Scotland that were sometimes also passed down in the folk musical traditions of the Appalachian immigrants from those regions.  They are called the Child Ballads because they were collected in the latter half of the 19th century by Francis James Child.  They often dealt with love and death and murder.  In this similarity we see how cleverly Roy Helton formed his poem, and his use of a regional dialect — also found in the Child Ballads — adds to the effect, making the poem seem older than it is.

Now you will recall that early in the poem, Lomey Carter says she won’t be stopping, because she still has a long way to go.  That refers to an old belief that on death the soul must make its long journey into the afterlife.  There is a similar view in the old English poem in Yorkshire dialect titled “Lyke Wake Dirge.”

In explaining this poem, I mentioned a town in Kentucky named Salt Lick, and it is perhaps an interesting side note that according to local belief, the Polksville Cemetery at Salt Lick is one of the most haunted in the state.

For ease of reading, here is the whole poem at one go:

“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

“Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.‘”

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?”
One thing more I saw:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?” “He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

3 thoughts on “OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

  1. Lawrence Reh

    Thanks for this. This poet is new to me, and the story-telling is exquisite. (I also much appreciated your discussion of “Marks of Rat Teeth.”

  2. Thomas DeMaximillium

    Thankyou so much for re-writing and explaining the Kentucky Appalachian meaning to this fine piece of American poetry. My mother first read this to me when I was 5 yrs old before bed on Christmas Eve 1962. She said she’d read it in her early school age days and loved it as she was familiar with this type of speaking as she herself was from the Appalachia area. She read this poem to me every Christmas Eve thereafter as it was one of my favorites. At her age of 72 on Christmas Eve I asked her once more to read aloud to me this poem as it was her last. I will forever hold this poem near and dear to my heart. Thankyou for sharing and explaining its meaning. I’m now 63 yrs old.

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