Henderson family carries on flame-throwing tradition

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, January 3, 2012

“Welcome to the SEC,” someone called to the young woman wearing a Texas A&M sweatshirt.

“And welcome to an Alabama tradition,” another called.

Perhaps the second caller was a little zealous in his welcome. Perhaps, he should have said, “Welcome to an Enon tradition.”

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For 22 years or more, the Willie Henderson family of the Enon community has been “throwing” a party to celebrate the coming of the New Year – a fireballing party.

Fireballing is a tradition that dates back to the 1920s in America but probably originated “across the big pond” as early as the 16th century.

Barbara Henderson Currie, said the annual fireballing is just “carrying on a family tradition.

“It stated with our family and then others wanted to participate,” Currie said. “Every year there was more interest and more people came. Now, we have huge crowds so the fireballing is for anyone and everyone who enjoys participating in an old tradition.”

Currie said fireballs, which are long burning, kerosene-soaked balls, were probably the first fireworks.

“Back around and during the Great Depression, people didn’t have money to buy fireworks so they had to invent their own,” she said. “I can remember my mother telling about how they would sit around the fire during the wintertime and make fireballs.

“They had to unravel worn-out cotton socks to wind the fireballs. So, it took a lot of long winter nights and a lot of winding to make enough fireballs for a big ‘’fireworks’ display and a long night of fireballing fun.”

Currie is the one who makes between 25 and 30 fireballs each year.

“A long time ago, they used old worn-out cotton socks to make the fireballs, but it’s hard to find all-cotton socks these days,” she said. “I use cotton crocheting yarn and I start right after the New Year.”

For Currie, making fireballs is a year round activity. She winds while she as watches television, as she rides shotgun on road trips and often to the beat of bluegrass being played at local festivals.

“I start with an old cotton sock that I wad up and then I start winding the thread real tight around the sock,” Currie said. “I wind it until it’s just the right size to handle and throw.

I sew the fireballs together so they won’t come apart when they are thrown. I soak them in kerosene for several months so they will burn longer. It’s a long process but I enjoy it and I enjoy seeing others have so much fun participating in an American tradition and an Enon one.”

Most of those who attend the annual event are locals who are experienced fireballers but many are greenhorns when it comes to throwing and catching fireballs.

“Fireballing is a family tradition that has become a community tradition,” said Currie, who along with her four brothers, hosts the fireballings each year.

“There’s no set time for the fireballing,” Currie said as she fired up one of the fireballs that she had so carefully crafted since the Fireballing of 2010. “When we have the fireballing depends on when all five of us and our dad can be here, the weather and football games. This year, Auburn is playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl Saturday night, so New Year’s Eve was not a possibility. We’ll be watching the game.”

But word spread like wildfire that the Henderson’s were throwing a pre-New Year’s Eve fireballing and, as if it were a better mousetrap, the “world” beat a path to Enon on Wednesday night.

A large group of young people from Clayton made their way to Enon and Ben Price said they wouldn’t have missed the fireballing for the world.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “But it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get to do something like this often and most people have never thrown fireballs.”

Price said there is an art to fireballing.

“When you catch it, you have to have quick hands,” he said, laughing. “You have to get rid of it in a hurry.”

John Williams said that it seems like the blazing balls would burn your hands.

“It’s just a weird feeling to have a ball of fire in your hand,” he said. “It’s fun.”

Most of the fireballers wear gloves to protect their hands, “just in case,” however, some of the more experience fireballers like to barehand the flaming balls.

Sheila Sanders has been bringing her children to the fireballings for several years.

“It’s always a lot of fun for everyone and I’ve learned that if you wet the gloves, that’s added protection,” she said.

Currie said fireballing isn’t teaching young people to play with fire. “We’re teaching them about a tradition.”

“I think even the younger children understand that fireballing is something that you do in a controlled setting and with adult supervision and that they must always respect fire,” she said. “Fireballing is a game that you play to celebrate the New Year. That’s it.”

For most of those who go fireballing, it’s a thrill, — from the time they turn down the rural Pike County road and see the sky a-blaze with flaming balls until they hold one in their own hands.

“It’s thrilling,” said Madison Carpenter of Troy as she wiped a black smudge from her face. “It’s so much fun and not many people get to do this. And, what I like so much is the sound. The ‘whoosh.’ You seen the fireballs flying through the sky and hear the whooshing. It’s better than fireworks because you’re playing. Not just watching.”

But there are plenty of spectators at the annual fireballings. They cluster around the huge bonfire, backsides toward the flames, and watch and chatter.

Every now and then, the spectators and throwers and catchers will venture toward the long tables ladened with food and drink. But not for long. There’s too much fun to be had where the real party is being thrown.