Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Stories of Winter

Winter makes me homesick for stories. I read all year long. I hunt folktales throughout every season but there's something about Winter that suggests homecoming and it is a returning to hearth-side with cider, with fresh baked bread, hot stew and the sound of sleet hitting the windows. Here in the South, we don't get a lot of Winter but it does get cold and dreary. We do get frost, occasional freezing rain and, yes, we do see snow. Winter has always been a coming in time of year. Even as a child, after running around in the cold, I loved coming inside, shedding layers and sitting in front of the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate stuffed with marshmallows.

To satisfy my need for stories by the fireplace (a fireplace, might I add, that resides in the house we have a contract on that is as of yet closed on...)I decided to do a little digging into the myths and folktales of Winter. There are a lot of interesting stories out there that center around winter. Tales of cannibal snow-beasts, beautiful maidens who lure wayward travelers into a lonely, snow-crusted wood, friendly gnomes and old Jack Frost. Do a Google search of "winter mythical creatures" or "winter myths and legends" and you'll be supplied for days with interesting tales that will keep you glued to the fireside, if not for warmth than for the safety of the light.

Here's a few of my favorites:

The Snow Queen - Hans Christian Andersen's famous telling of a little boy named Kai who is enchanted by the Snow Queen and taken to her palace of ice. His friend, Gerda goes on a quest to find him and eventually succeeds in melting his heart. There is some speculation that C.S. Lewis modeled his famous White Witch of Narnia after the fairy tale of the Snow Queen. The similarities are definitely there: she offers Edmund cnchanted Turkish Delight and a ride in her sleigh and convinces him to betray his brother and sisters to her in order to thwart an age-old prophecy that would bring about the downfall of her icy kingdom. While Kai's heart was pierced with a splinter from a troll mirror (read the tale), Edmund was merely an angry, confused adolescent. Either way, both boys were easily seduced by the Snow Queen and ultimately imprisoned in her castle.

The Snow Queen on her Throne by Edmund Dulac
Andersen's tale of the Snow Queen hearkens back to a much older and less "fluffy" tale of the Celtic goddess Beira also known as The Callieach. Callieach, when translated into English, literally means "veiled one". Beira/Callieach is the personification of Winter and in Scottish lore, she is the mother of all the gods and goddesses. She can appear as a beautiful woman or an old hag. She rules the world in the Winter but must recede her power during Spring and Summer. Her power begins to grow again after the Summer Solstice, when the days begin to shorten again, and reaches its full power on the Winter Solstice.

Beira/Callieach - The Winter Goddess of Scotland
Many cultures have a Winter goddess - does anyone else find it interesting that it's always a Winter GODDESS? Most of these mysterious figures can appear as either a beautiful young woman or a bent old crone. They are also ambivalent towards humans. They can be helpful or hurtful depending on the true natures of those who approach them.

From the Alps we get the creature Perchta who is very particular about how the home should be kept, especially the spinning wheel. Women took special care to make sure their flax was spun and their homes well kept or Perchta would disembowl them and stuff their stomachs full of rocks. There are also tales of Perchta riding with the Wild Hunt with a group of Perchten - a group of creatures that look a whole lot like our pal Krampus.

Now here's where it gets interesting and shows you how the ancients really understood the dual nature of, well, nature. Perchta is associated with Epiphany, January 06, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. On this night she is known as Holle which means "bright" or "shining". There are both "pretty" Perchten and "ugly" Perchten which you could meet during a typical Perchten run in Alpine regions.

Holle, the bright and shining aspect of Perchta

Lovely old Perchta with her consort Krampus
I want you to take a good look at that last picture. Notice how silly and fake both of these creatures look. The one on the left is Perchta. The one of the right is Krampus. Unfortunately, Krampus has been discovered by Americans and, thus, turned into some sort of orc like goblin from the pits of Mordor. Sure it's fun to imagine a horrible goat-man running after naughty children on Krampusnacht but the REAL Krampus celebration presents Krampus as a made up being. He's supposed to look fake! Not because parents in the Alps are too afraid to expose their children to scary things like parents are here in America but because they want them to understand that there are consequences for their naughty actions and the children are taken out to Krampus Runs and are actually chased by people dressed up as these ancient beings. The kids know it's all fun and games but they also are taught the deeper meanings behind the symbols. That's right helicopter parents: these Alpine children are raised to know the difference between good and bad and aren't sheltered from their imaginations. It's recorded by people who have visited these countries that children there are far better behaved than their American counterparts. And I'm not making this up. For an entire history of Krampus and Perchta and all their wild kin, read the AMAZING book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas by Al Ridenour. It's been one of my favorite Winter reads since I discovered it a couple of years ago.

This is one of my favorite images of Krampus <3's a little Vintage Krampus for you.
Me thinks the older boy wasn't the best son he could have been that year...and he knows it!
I bet he was better behaved the following year = )
Krampus Night is celebrated in Alpine countries on the 5 of December, the day before Saint Nicholas' Day. Conveniently, Krampus and St. Nick travel together, with the Krampus dolling out punishment to the bad kids and the good Saint rewarding the good. Dark and Light coexist and travel together. You can't have one without the other. Think of it as bringing balance to the Force.

Tonight, by the way, IS Krampus Night. I hope you were good this year :D

Speaking of Saint Nicholas, we'll end this post with Father Christmas. There are so many names for this jolly character so perhaps a little primer before we continue: St. Nicholas was an actual man from Asia Minor. Father Christmas is the traditional name for the personification of Christmas and is usually depicted as an old man of the forest bringing gifts accompanied by woodland creatures. Santa Claus comes to us from the Austrian gift giver "Christkind" which became "Kris Kringle" and then, thanks to the Dutch "Sinterklaas" Santa Claus.

Oh, and that old legend that Santa looks like he does in America thanks to Coca-Cola? That's not true. An artist by the name of Thomas Nast was commissioned to create illustrations for Harper's Weekly and in 1881, he created what was to become the famous image of the "jolly old elf".

We all know the round bellied, red suited man who travels via reindeer on Christmas Eve. He brings joy to children. He makes adults smile (or should). He symbolizes the spirit of giving and should never be villain-ized (yes, unfortunately, I know too many people who have done this. Makes me wonder about their own childhoods). But for me, I love the image of the Old World Father Christmas and that, my friends, is the image I'll leave you with.

Father Christmas by Corinne Kenner

Woodland Animal Keeper by Peggy Abrams

Father Christmas by Rueben McHugh
All of these images can be found on Pinterest
May your days be merry and bright.
Happy December!