DECEMBER 2000

And so we move inexorably to the present (it's mid-2003 as I write this).

Although there would be a holiday column the following year, I elected to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas into one piece - and, as you may know, I would disappear for a time the following Spring.

Therefore, this one remains the latest proper Book Again Christmas Column!

I returned to the tradition of examining some Yule Tide roots, this time going after some of the season's darker origins. I had fun.

And yes - Mike and I did indeed sing together at that party - first Christmas we'd done so since the late '80's . . .

 

A Traditional Folkloric Christmas Column

 

Christmas 1986 - ah, what a wonderful time!

For me, 1986 was an epiphanal year. My old job and old band had both vanished at the beginning of the year, and I found myself in the unique position of being able to reinvent my life - to begin anew, as it were. Having always defined myself as a musician, it was a strange and extraordinary thing to look around, as if for the first time, to take stock of where I was and where I wanted to go.

Early that year I returned to school, in what would prove to be a lengthy albeit successful quest to obtain a College diploma. That spring, I worked with my brothers to help our Mom turn a crazy idea of hers into reality - the opening of a used Book Store. That summer, I acquired my first computer. That fall . . .

Well, that fall Mom decided that it would be a good idea to start a Book Again newsletter. I agreed to help her with it under the condition that I be allowed to include a folklore column each issue.

I have been writing these columns, on and off, ever since.

Finally, that December, I, with my wife Deanne, put on what remains one of my favorite Christmas celebrations ever - it began as a polite Christmas tea, but as the hours passed, the day waned and the brews flowed it began to get wilder and wilder - good wild, of course, not bad.

For the chief component of our bacchanal was singing. Yes, singing every carol we could remember. I'd printed out lyrics to as many songs as I could find, and by the time my brother Michael arrived we'd been singing for hours. Now, of course, as Michael and I seem to harmonize fairly well, we went back and sang them all over again!

Not content with that, we ended up driving to my Grandmother's to serenade her and Aunt Pat. (Once you get us started - well, you've been warned!)

And of course, at the end of that long and boisterous evening I laid my weary head down upon my pillow, and noticed something hard beneath it. It was, of course, the Hitchcock book Michael had found for me, and I realize that, at least on the Internet version of this newsletter, I've already told you a lot of this.

But that December of 1986 was special for another reason - it was the first Christmas edition of this newsletter and folklore column! The column itself was fairly traditional - a look at the origins of many of our Holiday customs. I thought at the time that I'd pretty well summed it all up. I have learned far more about the dark origins of the Yule celebration since . . .

(I believe I also included a little story about a mouse which, as I recall, is probably best forgotten!)

Well, time passes. Deanne and I of course went our separate ways years ago (she now lives happily with a new husband and new kids not far from here), and actually Mike and I sang together at only one subsequent Christmas Tea. These days, the family gets larger and more scattered every year, and many traditions have had to be revamped and even discarded. Still, the memories remain fresh, and as long as this column exists I fear you unlucky souls reading this drivel will come to know more than you probably ever wanted to about our celebrations from years past!

At any rate, as I've spent the last few Christmas columns delving into personal memories and fond remembrances of my own Christmas Past, it seems as good a time as any to take a break from that for once - to return for a bit to our roots, the roots of this column as well as the roots of Christmas Folklore, to take a look at some of the very odd things that supposedly occur at this festive time. Some are charming, some are a bit grim, some are downright bizarre, and one or two are positively chilling!

Christmas Eve is especially magic, of course. It is at that moment that all the animals of the world gain the gift of speech, and converse peaceably with one another. It is also, however, the moment where, if you dare, you can take yourself quietly to a graveyard, and if you are very still, at midnight you will see the ghosts of those who will die the following year. There is an old tale of an English priest who did just that, only to discover, to his horror, that his own ghost was among the shades!

On a lighter note, there is the Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas, who would descend upon happy rooftops with presents galore on December 6 (his Feast Day). In time Saint Nick became the modern Santa Claus, of course, and now does his rounds on Christmas Eve.

He was, however, only one of many. Each region, each country had their own bearer of gifts, and it is almost certainly due to the brief Dutch conquest of New York (then New Amsterdam) that Santa Claus won out over his many rivals.

Among these rivals were such celebrities as the Christkindl who visited German children on Christmas Eve. The "kindle" was variously thought of at times as an angel from heaven, and at times as the incarnation of the Christ Child. The modern ritual of swapping gifts in secret with one another in workplaces and school comes from this tradition, and as "Saint Nicholas" became "Santa Claus", so did "Christkindl" become "Kris Kringle".

The Italian children had Befana, an old woman who rode a broomstick on January 6, giving presents to the good and the usual lump of coal to the less-than-good. The Russians had Kolyada, an elf maiden who rode her gift-laden sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Finally, in the traditional homeland of Saint Nicholas (Scandinavia), the presents were brought by legions of elves that actually hid in people's houses the rest of the year, presumably in attics and stables. On Christmas Eve they would emerge, and hide presents all over the house.

Now, these were the nicer ones. You must remember, however, that this festive Holiday Season does occur, after all, when days are at their shortest, when temperatures drop to their deadliest chill, when the nights are longer, colder and darker than at any other point of the year. And, truth be told, these (relatively) modern traditions of friendly folk flying through the night bearing gifts have their roots in a tradition far older, and grimmer.

For this Yuletide Season was, originally, the time of year when the dread Wild Hunt appeared in the night sky, a ghostly horde of spectral riders that hurtled through the air, seeking new victims to augment their spectral numbers. This ride was a clarion call to lost souls to come forth out of their graves and walk the earth once more, and in many areas vampires, goblins and other unspeakable horrors would rise as well. Truly, the earliest seasonal bonfires and rituals seem to have been much more for protection than celebration!

The legend of the Wild Hunt began to take on local color as it spread. Many initially believed that the leader of this unholy pack was none other than the Norse god Odin, but as time passed some believed it was actually King Arthur, or perhaps Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic ruler of the underworld. In parts of England the Hunt was accompanied by the fearsome Gabriel Hounds, corpse dogs with eyes ablaze. No matter which version one was familiar with, however, one certainty was held by all - to see this passing of ghoulish hunters meant almost certain death.

In many areas of Germany, however, the head of the Hunt was an ancient and revered Goddess named Berchta. Now, in many ways she could be as fearsome as her Norse and English counterparts. She had a great dislike for untidy houses, and homes not measuring up to her standards were cursed in various horrible ways we perhaps need not dwell on here.

However, she had another side. She seemed to enjoy sweets, and if suitable offerings were left for her, she might well leave small presents behind. It is thus quite possible that Berchta marked the beginning of a change in the Wild Hunt legends, as the germ of a notion that perhaps the hordes could be placated, and even induced to bring gifts instead of death began to take root in subsequent retellings of the tale.

Until finally the great great great grandson of the horrible ghostly riders would be none other than our own beloved Santa Claus, who only leaves presents and wouldn't curse a fly.

So it is that the legend of magical beings riding across the world on Christmas Eve evolved from ghostly demons whose very sight meant death to a happier breed, bestowing presents instead of plagues.

Having said that, I must point out that there are a lot of magical folk we've yet to examine, not necessarily completely good or evil, but certainly different.

The Rusalky, for instance, didn't really mean to harm anyone. They were Russian water nymphs who were allowed out into the world of mortals only at Christmas, and all they ever wanted to do was sing. Unfortunately, any mortal who heard their songs would go instantly insane.

The Greek goblins of Christmas, the Callicantzari, were a bit meaner. They were wont to invade homes, steal food, and wreak general havoc for the two weeks before Christmas, ultimately returning to their goblin caves for another year.

Their Norse contemporaries, the Christmas Lads, were worse. They would do pretty much the same thing, but at their departure they would carry all the children with them.

And, during this same two week period in Romania, werewolves returned among the living.

What could one do to protect oneself?

Well, outside of the usual garlic, etc., these strange denizens of Christmas represented the darkness, and the night, and death. In response, things that bespoke of light (candles, great fires), the daytime (feasting and revelry continuing long into the night), and life itself (holly, ivy, and evergreens) seemed to work as powerful counters to the evil that lay without.

Of course, all this was long ago, mostly before a certain Birth occurred that has come to define the season.

I just thought it might be fun to look back at our primitive ancestors for a moment, to turn away from this modern world and smile as we consider how silly people used to be in those days, bringing evergreens into their homes and decorating them with light, throwing parties and exchanging gifts to ward of the gloom of the outside, and telling tales about magical beings who fly through the sky on Christmas Eve . . .

Ho ho ho . . .

Anyway, the weather outside is frightful, the days grow ever shorter, and before this column grows ever longer I think it best to sign off while I can.

Oh, wait - I mentioned Deanne, and the Christmas Teas of old, didn't I? Well, truth be told, she's doing it again this year, a coming together of old friends, good food, and more rum and Christmas ale than one could shake a turkey at! And, after all, what would a party of that nature be without music?

Therefore, all too soon, a night or so before Christmas, my brother Mike and I will find ourselves there, for the first time in over a decade, to joyously sing out all those well remembered carols we sang so many years before . . .

As for you, my dear, dear readers, I know precious few of you personally, whereas you know way too much about me, which perhaps balances it out somehow. I do get reports from Mom, however, and you have no idea how delightful it is to find that someone actually enjoyed this column, or went in search of a particular book as a result. This column is, as it has been for over fourteen years now, a labor of love, existing entirely due to my own idiotic desire to share with others the things I hold dear, the things that fascinate me, and at times, of course, the things that terrify me . . .

At this festive time I rejoice that you are all out there, and I wish you much joy upon this most Magical Season.

And so I say to each and every one of you, have the merriest of Holidays, eat too much, drink too much, laugh too much, sing too much, and give too much!

Now the cold and the night descend. Grim Winter reaches out from Nordic ancestry to clutch us firmly in his icy grip, and within we bastion our strongholds with good food and drink, evergreens and mistletoe, lights and candles aplenty, and await with baited breath that magical moment when a special Peace will hopefully descend upon us all, that moment when all the animals of the world regain for a brief and precious moment the gift of speech . . .

And, come midnight on Christmas Eve, I of course will be carefully watching my cat, tape recorder in hand . . .

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