A Christmas Story

Many thanks to all my readers over the last year. Thank you for stopping by this blog, and for taking the time to read my posts. May your days be merry and bright, and every blessing to you for 2018. Here is a short Christmas story for you – hope you enjoy it.Happy Saint Nicholas DayPhoto: playeatlove.com

The snowbank curved like a spine, each house a notch of vertebrae, sweeping west from Old Arthur Pa’s place, and then south through the homes of the Russell clan and Mother Paphides and Corkscrew Jones, then winding a little east and south-south-west to the manor of Big Charles, and the Jacksonvilles’, and Ma Laundry’s place, until finally it rested, with a point so neat a pâtissier might have done it, over the onion dome of the Blessed Martyrs, its cross peeking out like a golden bird above the clouds.
The snow was up to the roofs of the buildings, and swaddling doors, and blanketing the startled sheep. And Mad David cried that there would be no more fish for supper if the river did not unfreeze, which only God in His mercy could do, and the hinges weakened in the doorjambs, and the wind curled her fingers into the sockets of the flagstones.
This was the sight that greeted Saint Nicholas on Christmas morning, may my word never be a truer one.
The old man – and everyone knows that Saint Nicholas is very, very old, almost as old as Old Arthur Pa, and that is very old indeed, so old the stars have forgotten his birth – wiped his nose with a large spotted hankie, and took from his pocket with an elegant flourish a brass pocket-watch, which he shook for a solid minute, though it remained as stiff as a clam. Saint Nicholas’s eyes blinked slowly beneath a brow as smooth and white as sealskin, and he wet his lips, and pulled gently at his beard, that was softer than the eider down the women collect in the nesting season, and blew a long and low note, over the fields and the elderly stone walls, and the shining birds in their bright plumage, and the cracking of the clouds in the sorrowing sky. And the ground started to itch and ache, and then gasp like a rheumatic dowager, and the snow shook itself off the roofs with a sudden shrug, and the people came out of their houses to see it.
Some snow fell upon Old Arthur Pa’s head as he emerged from his front door.
“There are sheep in my hair!” he cried, mournfully. “My wife is a bitter woman, and the world is undone, and now there are sheep in my hair!”
And he wept uncontrollably, and Mother Paphides tried to console him with her story of the cackling pig, and Little Gerald did backflips to try and distract him, but all to no avail.
“There, there, man,” said Big Charles, in his bluff way. “Your wife isn’t bitter. Why, some days she even looks mildly pretty, and I can think of no handsomer compliment than that!”
But Old Arthur Pa only went on weeping, and wetting Mother Paphides’s kerchief with his tears.
Saint Nicholas studied the faces of the villagers, and he shivered, for, contrary to what you may hear, he is not from Lapland, but from the East, and he missed the dry winds and green hills of his home. Then he blessed the people, and spoke the solemn words, and Mad David was so overcome he ran naked three times over the frozen river, until Ma Laundry put a towel over his bony shoulders and the Russell clan carried him to his house and bolted the door and swore not to let him out till they heard the first cuckoo of spring – or possibly the second, or the third – and adjured God to look after him, and not to hold his sin against him. And the icy plates of the river came unglued, and it ran once more, first in a trickle, then in a stream, and finally as a great flood, nearly lapping the banks in its dash for the sea. And Mother Paphides cried would they not fetch the priest, but the priest had been in the ground nearly ten years and was not for coming out, even for mass, or breakfast, or sudden strange miracles such as these.
For all agreed that it was the most miraculous occurrence since Saint Decuman had had his head cut off by pagans and proceeded to wash it and put it back on his shoulders, saints being practical people in those days and not easily put off by a little beheading.
And Lame Maggie, and Little Gerald, and the Jacksonville twins, danced and sang for Saint Nicholas, and he clapped and laughed, until the tears ribboned his cheeks, and he was glad and sorrowful all at once.
And he gave each of the children a present – small soldiers with high coloured plumes on their heads and smart buttoned tunics, and dolls whose eyes moved from side to side, and horses with wheels fixed to their feet, all exquisitely detailed and made by ancient and magic hands – and then he turned to the villagers and said his goodbyes. And they watched as he walked back across the fields, to where the sky and the earth were all one blanket of white smoke, and the sun sulked in her gauzy shroud, until they could see him no more. Then they went home, and ate woodcock, and parsnips, and plum pudding, and wished each other a Happy Christmas, and a long and joyful New Year.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

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The Elements – Air (Birds)

I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:

Wrens

Steve Round snapped this Jenny Wren out and about in Cheshire.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.

Owls

Barn Owl - Facts, Pictures, Diet, Breeding, Habitat, Behaviour ...

Photo: animalsadda.com

The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.

Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.

Robin

Robin (Clive Timmons)

Photo: birdwatchireland.ie

Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).

To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.

The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.

 

 

 

 

 

Uhygge

dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…

Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…