DECEMBER 1986

Having delved into the early origins of Halloween in October, I did the same to Thanksgiving for the second ever folklore column. I recall being frustrated at the time, as I hadn't quite been able to fit everything in I'd wanted to.


Years later I finally returned to retell the tale properly, reprinting and expanding the tale for our November '98 online newsletter, which is where you'll find it archived.

Now 1986 was coming to an end, and it was time for our third ever newsletter, and my very first Christmas Column. The Holiday Season being the special time it is, we doubled the length of the newsletter (the first two issues had been only 2 pages - one sheet printed front and back) to 4 pages, so that now instead of half a page I had over two pages to fill!

I was thus able to delve fully into the roots of Christmas to my satisfaction, and still have room for an extra holiday treat - to wit, a Christmas Tale for children.

Hmmm, if I could go back and write the thing over again I probably wouldn't write the thing at all, but then I can be a cynical old coot from time to time. At any rate, though I leave myself open to ridicule, I feel compelled for the sake of completeness to include the story here. Please be kind, and remember - IT WAS WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN!

Ahem.

Anyway, a fun little edition - we liked the expanded 4 page version of the newsletter so much that we kept that format until mid '93, a happy state of affairs that would generally leave me with an entire page devoted to folklore for the columns to follow.

 

Christmas

 

Ahhh, Christmas! That most wonderful of holidays, both for sheer merriment and the folklorist alike!

Have you ever stopped for a moment, in between kisses under the mistletoe, hanging ornaments on an evergreen, placing a wreath on the front door, drinking from a Wassail bowl, singing carols, or just plain feasting, and wondered just where all these accepted traditions surrounding this season actually came from?

Christmas, with its incredible wealth of Custom and Tradition, serves as a clear reminder that modern "civilized" people are a whole lot closer to their ancient ritualistic ancestors than one might imagine.

Modern Christmas is, of course, centered around the birth of Christ, but as that event is well documented in literature a bit loftier than this, we shall confine ourselves to a look at how this Religious Feast Day became the rich and vibrant celebratory extravaganza it is today.

The early Christian Church was a bit disorganized during its first 300 or so years, mostly due to the fact that to be a Christian during that time greatly increased one's chances of feeding lions, the hard way. However, the dawning of the 4th Century found a Christian on the throne of Imperial Rome, and in less than 100 years Christianity moved from Rebel Cause to the Official Established Church of a fading Roman Empire.

The actual date of the Nativity had long been the subject of debate during Christianity's Underground period, but with the new Establishment Pope Julius I was able to settle the controversy by proclaiming December 25 as the official date, in the year 350 AD.

This was a rather fortunate choice, as that point in time, coming as it did immediately after the Winter Solstice, when the days began to lengthen rather than shorten, was already historically a major Feast Day, as barbarians everywhere honored the return of the Sun to its place of dominance.

The Romans themselves had celebrated the season as "Saturnalia", when slaves and masters exchanged roles, courts were closed, chaos and feasting prevailed, and no one could be convicted of a crime. (This time of year was sometimes called "Jule-tide" in honor of Julius Caesar, and later barbarised into "Yule-tide"!)

The Romans also developed the custom of exchanging gifts . . .

In Barbaric Europe, the season was universally celebrated. The Germanic tribes of Central Europe considered the Winter Solstice to be the time that witches and demons came forth, and left presents for these demons to dissuade them from destroying the Earth. (Cookies for Santa, anyone?)

The Norse tribes further north celebrated with a traditional feast of a Boar's head, in honor of Frey, the God of Herds, whose symbol was a boar. (Frey was also honored in the naming of a day of the week: Frey's Day, or Friday - the day before Saturn's Day.) The Norse also originated the lighting of bonfires and Yule Logs, and upon conquering Britain passed many of these traditions on.

Our friends the Druids (who you may remember from our Halloween column, and who were prominent among the Celts of Western Europe and the British Isles at this time) were heavily into nature, believing trees and plants to have souls, and made much symbolic use of Evergreens, going so far as to decorate trees with their enemies, a custom that has thankfully undergone a bit of change before coming our way!

The significance of Christmas Trees, holly, and mistletoe finds its roots back among these pagan kinfolk of Merlin. (Merlin is of course the wizard who produced a magic sword in an anvil on Christmas Day that only the future King Arthur was able to free.)

At any rate, the early Church, in its wisdom, realized that any attempt to convert this continent of heathens was doomed to failure if one was to destroy their heritage, rich as it was in ceremony and tradition. Instead, they incorporated as many of these hallowed rites into the new Christian Holiday of "Christmas". This seemed to go over well enough with the aforementioned heathens, who were quite willing to accept this new faith provided they could still gorge themselves for days and drink themselves silly. Christmas became the most popular day of the year for the crowning of Kings (Clovis, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror, to name but three), and great celebrations in the form of hunting and jousting were de riguer at Christmas time during the Middle Ages.

The real Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived around the time that Julius I made December 25th the official date of Christmas. The Church would award a specific day to a Saint upon bestowing the honor, and Nicholas received posthumously the date of December 6th as his day to be honored.

In those early and somewhat more pious times, the feast days of saints were the barometer used to mark the beginning and ending of seasons, and it became a common practice to begin the Christmas preparations on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, because of the close proximity of the date. (The fact that Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children probably didn't hurt, either.)

As Nicholas' name became more and more attached to the Yule festivities, the Germanic descendants of the Central European tribes began to turn him into one of those fabulous creatures that their old legends had spoken of as running loose during the season, only now instead of giving him gifts, he himself would give gifts to those deserving (and coal or switches to those not so deserving).

Saint Nicholas eventually (by the end of the 18th Century) had come to personify Father Christmas, a stern sort of fellow who handed out Just Desserts. It was an attempt by English children in America trying to pronounce the Dutch children's "Sinterklaus" (that's Dutch Children for Saint Nick) that gave us the name "Santa Claus".

Santa at the time was still a tall, thin, stern sort of chap - until 1822. That year an Episcopal professor named Clement Moore wrote a little poem to amuse his children. The result was "A Visit From Saint Nicholas", or "The Night Before Christmas".

Forty years later, in the midst of the Civil War, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast decided to draw Saint Nick as the fat, jolly old gent we know and love, and the rest is . . . history?


 

 

Jeremy's Christmas

(a Tale for Children) - by Joe Nolte

Jeremy was a mouse. Jeremy was, in fact, the littlest mouse in a great big mouse family that lived underneath the Old Oak Tree at the end of the Corn Field, right on the edge of the Great Forest.

Mama Mouse hustled and bustled every day to take care of her children (there were eleven of them in all, counting Jeremy, so she was a very busy Mama Mouse, indeed).

Sometimes it seemed that Mama Mouse was so busy she didn't even know Jeremy was there. At times like this Jeremy would think about stories his brothers and sisters had told him, stories about his Papa.

Mama had not always been so cross and so busy as she seemed now, his brothers and sisters said. She used to go about with a smile on her face, a song in her heart, and a mouse-berry pie in the oven (mouse-berry pie was the favorite pie of all the Mouse children, you see).

They told Jeremy that Mama seemed to have time for them all in those days (though she must have been awfully busy just the same).

Jeremy would lie in bed at night and think how nice it would be if Mama Mouse were still that way. But that was before Papa Mouse went away.

Papa Mouse! The name sounded like something magical when you let it whisper out of you, when it was night time and only you could hear. Papa Mouse could fix anything, outrun the fastest cat, and tell the best of stories at the drop of a hat.

Christmas time was the best, though. On Christmas Eve Papa would disappear early in the morning right after breakfast, with only a twinkle in his eye to say that something might be up.

And then, as the sun was going down, over the winter winds blowing you could hear Papa Mouse trudging through the woods, singing "Here We Come A-Mouse-ling" (the favorite Christmas Carol of the Mouse children) and dragging behind him the biggest, greenest, most wonderful Christmas tree you could ever imagine!

Every year was like that, Jeremy's brothers and sisters told him, with Papa Mouse bringing Christmas home to his family on Christmas Eve.

Then came the year of the Great Storm, the Christmas just before Jeremy was born.

Two days before Christmas the worst storm anybody had ever seen came tumbling out of the sky. Wind and snow roared so loud that all the little Mouse children wondered if the storm could blow their house down.

But Papa Mouse just laughed and said it would be all right.

Then, on Christmas Eve morning, Papa and Mama spoke quietly to each other, and none of the Mouse children knew what they said.

Then Papa Mouse went out into that terrible storm, out to go and bring Christmas to his family. All the Mouse children were afraid for their Papa, but he only smiled and said, "Don't you worry, my dears, Papa Mouse will come back as sure as Christmas is Christmas!"

And with that Papa turned and was gone, out into the woods, into the storm.

And the storm got worse and worse, so that all the children were soon hiding under their little mouse beds.

And as it got darker and darker, they heard a loud crash, far away in the woods.

And Papa Mouse never came back.

Jeremy was thinking about all this, for today once again was Christmas Eve. It had been six years since the Christmas of the Great Storm, when Papa had gone out and never come back, and Jeremy thought that Mama Mouse never quite stopped thinking about Papa.

Jeremy felt sad in a funny sort of way, and though it was getting late in the day he thought he would take a little walk. He slipped out the door and scampered down the little mouse path that led into the Great Forest.

Mama Mouse would have been very mad at Jeremy had she known what he was doing. The Forest could be a dangerous place to go, and Jeremy was much too young to be wandering in it by himself. But Mama didn't seem to notice things as much this time of year, so off into the Forest Jeremy went.

The Great Forest always made Jeremy feel happy. It was a magic sort of place, lots of wild trees and noises all around you, but home comfortably close by.

Jeremy felt better walking in the Forest, and so did not notice how dark it was getting. Soon it was so dark Jeremy could hardly see the path he was on, so he knew it was time to get back.

But when he turned to head for home, nothing looked quite right. He had never seen the Forest when it was this dark, and now Jeremy began to be scared. He could no longer see if he was on the path, and now the cold winter wind began to blow.

Then, to make things even worse, he heard a strange sort of noise up ahead of him! It sounded like a wild forest animal, coming to eat Jeremy up!

He wanted to run, but was very scared and, besides, he didn't really know which way to run anyway. In the fading light he could see something coming toward him. Whatever it was, it was making a terrible scraping sort of sound as it walked!

Then, Jeremy thought he heard a different noise. It sounded almost like someone singing . . .

"Here we come a-Mouse-ling among the leaves so green . . ."

And now Jeremy could see that coming toward him was another mouse, much older than himself, and carrying something that looked very much like a Christmas tree!

Jeremy did not know what to do, so he quickly hid behind a tree as the strange mouse passed him, then scampered along behind him.

And the stranger led him all the way back to his front door, and when Mama opened the door she got a funny look Jeremy had never seen, happy and sad all at the same time, and then he heard all his brothers and sisters crying:

"Papa! Papa! Papa Mouse has come home!"

and only then did Jeremy know that it was really his long lost Papa Mouse, bringing Christmas home with him.

Jeremy ran into the house and into the arms of his Papa, and was so happy he barely heard how the tree branch had hit Papa on the head back in the Great Storm, and made him forget who he was for all those years.

Jeremy only knew that Mama was happy again, and that Papa Mouse really had come back . . .

As sure as Christmas is Christmas!

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