Alabama Folkways Articles

December, 1993


by Anne Kimzey

A year ago Alabama Folkways featured a column by Doug Purcell describing the tradition of fireballing -- the practice of lighting kerosene-soaked balls of yarn or tightly-wound rags and tossing the fiery objects outdoors at night as a way of celebrating Christmas or the New Year.

The topic generated an outpouring of responses from readers who had participated in the tradition as children and recalled the excitement they felt watching the dazzling display of fireballs whooshing through the dark skies. One reader even drew a diagram of the field, placement of participants and path of the fireballs, and an illustration of the fireball bucket and the two people in charge of the fireballs and matches.

The responses greatly increased our knowledge of the tradition, particularly of how widespread it used to be. When the column appeared last year, Purcell told of an active fireball tradition in Barbour County. He also knew the practice once occurred in the Alabama counties of Henry, Houston, Dale and Russell and in Hancock County, Georgia. Our respondents indicated that fireballs have also flown through the skies of Chambers, Tallapoosa, Elmore, Bullock, Pike, Crenshaw, Geneva, Covington, Monroe, Dallas, Marengo, Perry, Bibb and Blount counties. While most respondents told of fireball memories dating back to the 1920s and '30s, Jeanette Gibson of Goodway in Monroe County, Alabama wrote that her family and friends began to gather on Christmas Eve a few years ago for "refreshments, fireworks, and fireballs," when she found it difficult to make the trip back to Blakely, Georgia, where her father's side of the family has thrown fireballs at Christmas for generations.

"On Christmas Eve our grandfather, George Edgar Bates, Sr., would have a place picked out in the back pasture usually where an old tree had fallen and needed to be burned. Our family (approximately 30) would gather around at dark and enjoy fireworks and throw fireballs," she wrote. "We would enjoy one another's company until past midnight and then hurry home before Santa got there."

The letters and phone calls revealed that fireball tossing was practiced in both white and black communities in Alabama. The origins are still a mystery. Those who were familiar with the tradition only among black communities speculated that the practice came from Africa.

Many white respondents emphasized their Scots-Irish ancestry and believed the game originated in Scotland. In fact, one caller alerted us to a radio advertisement for a car dealership in Mobile featuring a character with a Scottish accent talking about throwing the fireball to bring in the New Year. I called the dealership and the Scottish sales manager verified that he had spoken on the air about the ancient rite of throwing fireballs. He said, to his knowledge, it is not done in Scotland today, but he'd heard it was a custom that dated back to the "16th or 17th century." He had no idea that it was an Alabama tradition.

The radio provided another lead when a co-worker reported hearing a program on the Christmas memories of country music stars. She said Hank Williams, Jr. described throwing fireballs as a boy in Banks, Alabama.

Several readers wrote to explain that they made fireballs (also called "kerosene balls") as a homemade alternative to fireworks, which they were too poor to afford.

Instructions sent to us for making fireballs were all very similar, although only one person mentioned putting a rock in the center of the ball so that it could be thrown farther. Gladys Kitchens Foster of Lafayette wrote: "My Grandma would take men's Columbus knit socks which had holes in the toes and heels and unravel them, then rewind to make balls. She would sew them so they wouldn't unwind. At that time my uncle ran a small country store and he would put our balls in the kerosene tank a few weeks before Christmas for them to soak."

Mrs. Foster was one of several respondents who said she threw the balls "over the house top." Roy Ledbetter of Shorter wrote about a game called "Hail-E-Over," which he played in Tallapoosa County in the 1930s. First they made a softball-size ball from unraveled socks and soaked it in kerosene. "We would then light it and yell 'Hail-E-Over' and throw it over the house. The kids on the other side of the house were supposed to catch it before it hit the ground and throw it back over the house. The game was lost by the side that let it hit the ground first. (It had to be a tin roof because a shingle roof would burn.) This was our fire works on the 4th of July and Christmas."

Despite the dangers of playing with fire, the fireballers insisted they wore no gloves, although catching and throwing quickly or rubbing one's hands with dirt were mentioned as strategies for avoiding burns. Virginia Key of Troy wrote of growing up in Elmore County, "An Aunt of mine, probably about 12 years of age at the time, had a fireball stick to the back of her leg and she carried a bad scar from this accident." She went on to describe how the risks involved were part of the excitement of the game. "I watched terrified from our porch," she said. "My mother was so frightened of the 'game' that her terror was contagious, but it was an exciting sight to a 3 1/2 year old to see the ball of fire flying through the dark sky."

Mostly, respondents emphasized that fireball throwing was homemade fun in an era when you had to create your own entertainment. Many readers described other games that they played as children and other traditions associated with the holidays.