One of the more curious Appalachian traditions I’ve heard has to do with the meaning of things that happen occasionally. Things like the fogs in August (which is not just Appalachian), that tradition purportedly tells you how many snows you’re going to get in the winter. I’m not sure these things carry much authority with them, but they certainly give fodder to conversation.
One of these traditions is the meaning of a bird in the house. I was home from seminary a few years ago, over Christmas Break, when my mother lived on Garden Creek in the Methodist Parsonage (in Buchanan County, Virginia). We found a bird in the room I was to spend the night in. We carefully urged it outdoors, after which my mother told me that the old folks used to say when ever a bird was in the house, it was a sign someone was going to die. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that, but was glad to pack it away in my store of Appalachian wisdom.
When I was preaching at the church at Belfast, Virginia, one Sunday, we had all the doors and windows open due to the heat (and lack of air conditioning), and a starling came flying in the church. It flew around a bit and landed on the window screen on the south side of the church. I stopped talking for a few seconds (which is a miracle in itself), while one of the men of the church went over to the window and grabbed the bird and walked outside to release it. I said something like: “on the day of Pentecost it says the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. I don’t know what it means that a blackbird has descended on us.”
I had grown up sleeping on a borrowed feather pillow. They said it had come from “Bockie’s” room at my grandmother’s house. Bockie was my grandmother’s uncle. His real name was Mark, but when she was little, all she could say was “Bockie” so everybody called him that. My mother decided to make a new cover for this pillow, and use the same feathers. So she ripped the seam of the old pillow to transfer the feathers and found a mat of feathers. As she pulled it out, she discovered what folks call a feather “Crown.” Another symbol, I was told, that someone was going to die. What is it about signs of mortality. Bockie had died about 17 years before I was born. So, maybe it was him. I lived to tell about it, so apparently it wasn’t me. Yet. She still has this thing stored in a little box somewhere.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is the tradition that says that on “Old Christmas” (again, an Appalachian tradition), the animals talk, or some say pray, in human languages. This is the notion behind the carol “The Friendly Beasts.” In it there is a verse about doves. I used to go to the barn in the winter and feed the cattle. I noticed the birds would roost there in the evenings, and stick around hoping for a morsel or two from the cattle feed. I can attest that I never heard one of them talk out loud. But it seemed they had plenty stored up they wanted to say should they be granted the ability. I’m still going out there one old Christmas (January 6) and find out.
Maybe these traditions are related to the coal miners and their canaries. The canaries were expendable. If they died they saved lives. There’s a redemption story there somewhere. But birds and death and life seem interrelated somehow.
Might be a good time to fix the Christmas turkey. That’s the only bird that’s welcome in the house right now.