fire (domestic)

   The domestic fire has attracted a bewildering number of beliefs, and most of the standard folklore collections include several, which are often contradictory, and are normally concerned with the fire's behaviour being lucky or unlucky, or with divination. Opie and Tatem list nine superstitions about the fire's behaviour, although only one or two of them date from before the 19th century. If you discover the fire still alight from the night before, you will hear of an illness (Shropshire/Staffordshire servant-maid, quoted in N&Q 6s:9 (1884), 137), but fire burning on one side of the grate only could be considered even worse: '... all the fires in the house burnt only one side of the grate, which she considered a sure sign that a death would shortly occur in the family' (Essex: N&Q 8s:9 (1896), 225). Nevertheless, in Herefordshire this could mean a wedding (Leather, 1912: 87).
   An extremely widespread practice reported regularly from the 18th to the later 20th centuries, was to place a poker against the bars of the fire-grate to induce the fire to burn briskly. It was widely stated that the poker and top bar of the grate made a cross which kept the devil (or other interfering forces) away from the fire. Rationalists tried to argue that the poker helped to cause a beneficial draught. You must not poke someone else's fire unless you have known them for seven years - first reported in 1880, but a writer in 1938 claimed to have known it for 70 years, and added the rider 'or been drunk with him three times' (N&Q 174 (1938), 142). 'If a servant be trying to light a fire and it will not burn, she will frequently say "Oh dear, my young man's in a temper!" If by chance the fire-irons are all at one end of the fender it is a sign of a quarrel' (Leather, 1912: 87). Approaching the middle of the 20th century, fires could still be problematic for domestic staff:
   The housemaid watches a newly-lighted fire and does all she can to prevent it parting in the centre. For should it happen that the embers suddenly break into two parts, it portends she will lose her situation. She also believes that if a fire roars it is the sign of a row in the house, while there is a somewhat similar saying about a fire - 'When it burns without blowing, You'll have company without knowing'. (Igglesden, c.1932: 174)
   One of the few beliefs which can be shown to be older is the idea that if the fire spits and roars it betokens a quarrel or displeasure from a superior, which Opie and Tatem report from 1668. Another sign that a stranger is coming is the presence of flakes of soot on the bars of the grate, first mentioned in the mid-18th century. Much older and more widespread is the belief that fire should not be taken out of the house - to be avoided at any time, but particularly bad at certain seasons such as * Christmas and *New Year. Opie and Tatem start their list of examples with a 7th-century Irish manuscript, and a late 12th-century source, and it was still being reported well into the 20th century.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 150-6, 313.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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