Down the Chimney

Tis the day before Christmas and there are some last-minute traditions to observe in my house – one of which is safety-pinning a stocking to my wooden mantelpiece. Unable to escape the folklorist in me, watching the red and gold over-sized sock hanging above my electric fire puts me in mind of another custom: the concealed shoe.


The hanging of a stocking is remarkably similar to the custom of putting a shoe into the fireplace or up the chimneybreast – only this has the opposite effect. Instead of deterring the demons and witches who threatened to enter via the chimney, the stockings are displayed to welcome what is essentially another supernatural being: Santa Claus.

“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound” wrote Clement Clarke Moore in his poem of 1823, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’). This shows that by the 19th century it was a well-established tradition that Saint Nicholas -like so many other supernatural entities – gained access to the house through the chimney. The below painting by  Jan Steen, ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, painted in the 1660s – which shows members of the party looking up the chimneybreast in expectation – demonstrates that in the Netherlands, at least, it was a tradition established even earlier.

File:Jan Steen.Het Sint Nicolaasfeest.jpg

It’s no surprise that Saint Nicholas would enter through the chimney; being the only permanent open access into the house, it was considered the most vulnerable – hence why so many concealed items are found up there, such as this Victorian child’s shoe found up the chimneybreast of a 17th-century farmhouse in Ilkley, Yorkshire:


The most prominent theory is that the shoe was placed in the chimneybreast to act as decoy to the evil forces which might enter through the chimney. Mistaking the shoe for its wearer (see the blog post on the metonymical connection between the shoe and its wearer) the evil force attacks the shoe instead and becomes trapped inside it.

The stocking over the fireplace, however, isn’t there for trapping unwanted malevolent forces. It’s there to hold presents. But what’s interesting is that shoes were historically used as well as stockings for this custom- a tradition which possibly stems from the Scandinavian custom of children leaving out their boots filled with food for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. In return, Odin would replace Sleipnir’s food with gifts for the children. Why the shoe? Probably because of its ability to act as a container, much like the stocking, and because most people, no matter how poor they were, would have had some form of footwear to utilise in the custom.

So I hang my stocking over my fireplace, content in the knowledge that there’s a wealth of history and folkloric belief behind my actions – and hoping, like anyone else, that I’ll find it filled with sweets tomorrow morning.

Folklore in My Christmas Shopping Trolley

Today I girded my loins and braved the chaos of the pre-Christmas supermarket dash. As per tradition, I spent an inordinate amount of time deliberating over the most insignificant of details – which, at the time, feel like life-or-death decisions. Will I want my potatoes mashed or roasted? Do I want the cheap crackers or the expensive ones? Wensleydale or stilton? Trifle or Christmas pudding? Cream or custard? Chocolate log or mince pies?


Usually I end up throwing both into the trolley (hence the post-Christmas gym membership) and today was no different, so in went the chocolate log and in went the mince pies. But this time as I wound my way between the masses of shoppers and artfully stacked towers of Quality Street tins, I found myself thinking of the contents of my shopping trolley in a new light. On the one hand, chocolate logs and mince pies are mass-produced desserts purchased because the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is to eat yourself into a sugar-induced coma. But on the other hand, these are items with long and interesting histories, that can tell us a lot about past customs and belief systems.


Today the ‘Yule log’ is a chocolate-sponge roulade, though historically, of course, it was an actual log. Ronald Hutton, in Stations of the Sun, traces its history back to the early 17th century, when it was first recorded in Britain by Robert Herrick, who referred to it as the ‘Christmas log’. In 1725 Henry Bourne described it as a Germanic pagan custom:

‘the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons…

Whether its history can be traced back to Germanic paganism is unclear, but the Yule log certainly maintained some ritual significance throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It was traditionally burnt on the hearth over Christmas (the significance of the hearth – as the centre of the home – is obvious), but as the original Yule ‘log’ would have been an entire tree, probably only one end of it was burnt and the rest was gradually fed into the fire over the period. In the image below, which is an illustration from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days (1864), we can see people dragging a large Yule log to their house:


And this image, from a c.1870 Christmas card, again shows the size of these ‘logs’ – and the amount of effort that went into getting them into the home.A lot of folklore surrounded the Yule log. It was, for example, considered apotropaic, said to keep evil forces away, and it was believed to be good luck if it stayed lit until the whole log had been burnt – and bad luck if its flame went out beforehand. Even its ashes were considered powerfully protective: in Derbyshire, they’d be piled in the cellar to keep witches away, while in some parts of Wales they were spread in the fields to deter evil and ensure a good crop.

As for mince pies, they may not boast as lengthy a history as the Christmas log but there are a plethora of ‘superstitions’ surrounding their consumption. It was, for example, considered unlucky to cut a mince pie because it would ‘cut your luck’, and it was particularly bad luck to eat one outside of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On the other hand, children were told to make a wish as they took their first bite of a mince pie. And it was believed to bring good luck if you could eat twelve mince pies provided by twelve friends, preferably at twelve different houses.

So to protect my house from evil and ensure good luck over the Christmas period, I need to keep a chocolate log in my house and eat twelve mince pies. Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry… And after all, ‘every little helps’!





Concealed Shoes and the Theoretical Archaeologist

This week I gave a paper at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at Bradford. I was contributing to the ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Interdisciplinary perspectives on archaeology’ session, and my paper was entitled ‘If the (concealed) shoe fits: The logical pairing of archaeology and folklore’. Having introduced the concealed shoe and proposed some theories for its uses, I then outlined the logic – indeed, the necessity – of analysing the shoe from an archaeological perspective, by considering the shoes’ locations, shapes, materials, and conditions in theorising why and how such seemingly innocuous items were ritually recycled as concealed objects and, possibly, apotropaic devices.


I was curious about how my paper would be received by a room of theoretical archaeologists. Fortunately it seemed to go down well and, during my post-paper discussion, some interesting questions were asked and some insightful theories were flagged. I intend to take each point raised separately and write a more detailed post for each one, but for now I’ll give the highlights.

One woman, Kate, asked if some shoes might have been concealed more as a memento than as an apotropaic device, and she offered a modern parallel. Recently she’d been digging around under her stairs and had come across a pair of tiny wellington boots that had once belonged to her child. Long outgrown, Kate had considered throwing them away years ago but had been reluctant to simply discard them, nostalgia staying her hand, and so they ended up under her stairs. Their recent discovery led to re-concealment; Kate had buried them deeper beneath the stairs, wanting to keep them out of the way but somewhere safe, somewhere close by. Kate has kindly agreed to be interviewed by me, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to go into this modern concealment in more depth.

Another archaeologist was particularly interested in the notion of the concealed shoes acting as lures: the malevolent forces mistake the shoes for their wearers, thus attacking the shoes themselves, leaving the people of the household unharmed. He noted the empathy evident in this notion: malevolent forces can make errors of judgment, can mistake the identity of someone or something, just as humans can. I guess it’s no surprise that humans would populate the supernatural world with beings and entities that are on the one hand very different to us, but on the other, very much alike.

Another listener drew parallels between my research and his own. Philip Tonner has written about German philosopher Heidegger’s theories concerning Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes, and he linked this painting to the theories I’d presented about shoes and their metonymical connections with their wearers (see my blog about selfhood and shoes in Paris).

Pair of Shoes Van Gogh

In Philip’s paper ‘Are Animals Poor in the World? A critique of Heidegger’s Anthropocentrism’ Tonner quotes Heidegger as saying:

‘From out of the dark opening of the well-worn insides of the shoes the toil of the worker’s tread stares forth… The shoes vibrate with the silent call of the earth, its silent gift of the ripening grain, its unexplained self-refusal in the wintry field… This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth and finds protection in the world of the peasant woman… In virtue of this reliability the peasant woman is admitted into the silent call of the earth; in virtue of the reliability of the equipment she is certain of her world.’

This is a fascinating perspective on shoes, one that – not having come from a background in philosophy or art history – I hadn’t come across before. But that’s the joy of speaking at an interdisciplinary session: you may think that all angles of a topic have been exhausted, but you’ll quickly be proven wrong.

Shoe Concealment and Interdisciplinarity at TAG


If anyone is going to be at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference in Bradford next week, you might be interested in the session: ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Interdisciplinary perspectives on archaeology’, organised by Sarah Morton and Stephen O’Brien, to be held on the morning of Wednesday 16th December (programme here). I’ll be giving a paper entitled: ‘If the (concealed) shoe fits: The logical pairing of archaeology and folklore’, and will be talking about – as you might have guessed – shoe concealment.

The line-up for the session looks fantastic, with speakers hailing from a wide range of disciplines:

Artur Ribeiro: ‘Philosophy and archaeology: an underrated relation’

Owen Hatherley: ‘Reconstruction and Stalinism: historical fakery, populism and capital in the Soviet Bloc’

Marie Fox: ‘Automating causal explanations of observed features using temporal planning’

Torgrim Guttormsen: The idea of the carnivalesque: a theoretical approach for public archaeology?

Phillip Tonner: Reflections on a thesis: the dwelling perspective: Heidegger, archaeology and the Palaeolithic origins of human mortality’

David Jennings: ‘The Manchester’s Improving Daily Project: re-interpreting the Manchester ballads using archaeology and reggae’

Natalie Zhuravska: ‘Text and matter intertwined: testing interdisciplinarity on the case of inscribed stirrup jars’

Jamie Cameron et al.: ‘Challenges and opportunities in the interdisciplinary study of religious relics’

The abstract for my paper reads: “If I had to label myself – and academic trend suggests that I do – I would employ the term ‘folklore archaeologist’. This is an innocuous enough pairing with a simple meaning: basically, I study folkloric beliefs and customs through their material manifestations. Yet this term has been met with blank looks and raised eyebrows, with more than a few fellow archaeologists advising me against employment of the word ‘folklore’, which appears to have become an academic taboo in some disciplines.

However, such a pairing is far from unreasonable. While ‘folklore archaeology’ may not be an officially recognised academic title, the two subjects have a long history of affiliation, and it is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate the value – indeed, the logic – of employing methodologies from both folklore and archaeology in elucidating the material manifestations of popular beliefs. Arguments and theories will be drawn from my own experiences researching the post-medieval custom of shoe concealment, whereby shoes were enigmatically employed as domestic apotropaic devices.”




Concealment in France: The Asse-le-Boisne Cache

In February 2010 Owen Davies was contacted by Danny Rippon about some very interesting concealed objects he’d uncovered. Danny was living in France at the time, in a 16th-century farmhouse in Asse-le-Boisne, Normandy. He’d hired a builder to do some renovation work and, while he was raising a door lintel in a part of the house that was originally a barn, he came across what he initially took to be a nest. He intended to discard it as rubbish. However, on closer inspection the builder realised that it was a ball of hay and, unpacking it, discovered a rather odd assortment of objects inside: a child’s leather glove and a corked glass bottle containing a feather.

The bottle and feather. Copyright Danny Rippon

Gloves, bottles, and feathers aren’t uncommon apotropaic devices. Gloves have been found concealed within buildings in Britain (e.g. the Cupar Glove: details here). The corked glass bottle, which contained dark staining as well as the feather – suggesting it once held liquid (possibly blood) – has an obvious parallel in the British witch-bottle (details here). While the feather itself may have parallels with the concealed chickens found in England and with the string of feathers discovered in a Somerset attic, believed to have been a ‘witch’s ladder’ (details here). However, their French location makes them very unusual, as similar finds really haven’t been recorded in the area – and as Danny tells me, a close friend of his, who had renovated dozens of old French farmhouses, has never made any similar discoveries. So this certainly isn’t a common find.

Danny Rippon Image 2

Danny and his wife kept their finds out for a few days, photographing them and conducting research into why such items might have been revealed – research that led them to Owen, and subsequently led to their contact details being passed onto me. Five years after their discovery, I was fortunate enough to speak with Danny via Skype and find out what became of these concealed objects.

One of my first questions to Danny was what had been his reaction at the time of discovery? In a word: curiosity. “Lots of curiosity about why was it put there. But other curiosities…like I wonder who on earth ever wore the glove? Did this glove belong to somebody who had helped build the house and maybe there were children involved in building the house? Or maybe it was somebody’s child that had died, that they put in as a memento for them. You know, lots and lots of questions.”

When I asked Danny how the objects had been treated upon discovery, one word really stood out: reverently. “We brought them inside and we looked at them and we studied them and we photographed them and we researched them. But we treated them very reverently. We kept them in their straw ball that they had been originally bound in. I think we probably even put them back in that area of the house close to where they were [found] during nights when we weren’t handling them. So I’d say it was almost like a religious artefact or something, the way we kept them, very reverently.”

And what did they decide to do with them in the end? Apparently this had been a subject of much discussion, and while Danny and his wife did weigh up the option of donating the finds to a local museum, it was their “gut” feeling that they should re-conceal them – and as soon as possible: they “felt very strongly very quickly that we wanted it to be back in the wall where it was uncovered, because it was there for a reason.” And so, only three days after they’d been found, the glove, feather, bottle, and ball of straw were placed back within the wall, about a metre and half above their original place of concealment. The builder – who apparently was also “quite keen to get it back” within the wall – placed it just behind the new keystone while Danny and his family watched on with some ceremony. They moved out of the farmhouse in 2011, leaving the concealed objects in situ “so that any…spirits that it’d captured or any power that it held was still being kept with the house where it belonged and where it was originally intended.”