Tradition is a tricky beast. Call something “traditional” and it instantly acquires the authority of an age old practice. The general impression one gets is that anything “traditional” has been going on long enough that it’s origins are lost in the mists of time. However, I once heard that for something to be considered tradition it only has to pass through three generations, whilst the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines tradition as “a custom handed down” saying nothing about how many hands are required to qualify.
I mention this because Christmas, probably the highest concentration of traditional activity in the modern year, has only held it’s current form for a very short period of time. Your traditional roast turkey, for instance, is only just scraping through on the most generous interpretation of the COD’s definition. Unless you are American, your grandparents are far more likely to have considered a goose as the traditional bird. You would only need to go back another generation or two to find people being shocked at the idea of standing a tree up in the corner then covering it in pretty stuff; and Ivy was never brought in to the home as it was generally considered to be infested with fairies, and you wouldn’t want them loose in the house!
So what sort of tales are “traditionally” associated with Yuletide? For those of us brought up with Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and Roger Moore sprinkling cheese all over our afternoon present giving, it may come as a surprise that the tale types most common to this time of year are dark tales of desperation and struggles through unbearable loss. The Victorians, who gave us much of what we think of as a traditional Christmas, typically whiled away the festive evenings telling ghost stories. Dicken’s Christmas Carol neatly combines these concepts to forge a classic that straddles the transition from what was to what is. Going further back in time, Scandinavians used to tell stories of Odin who, as one of the precursors to St Nicholas, led the wild hunt in a mad career across the Yuletide skies on his eight legged horse, not only giving out gifts to those who were good but punishments to those who were bad, an element we seem to have totally lost today (Just like bankers getting bonuses whatever happens).
Whilst we are in historical Scandinavia, let us pause for a moment in Norway at a place called Dogre. It is on a fell near the mountains and the tradition was to provide hospitality to all-comers during the mid winter feasting. One year, on the eve of the feast, a traveller arrived at a house asking for lodgings for him and his bear. The owner explained that he was welcome to stay but he and his family were just leaving as, being so close to the mountains the house was annually overrun by coarse, ill-mannered trolls. The stranger said he was too tired to go any further and would take his chance with the trolls, then installed himself and his bear by the fire.
The trolls duly arrived in all their grotesque ugliness and made themselves at home, toasting sausages in the flames. One of them approached the bear saying “Kitty want a sausage?” and shoved the hot charred item on to the unsuspecting beasts nose. Naturally the bear lost its temper at the provocation and chased the trolls from the house.
The next year, as the family were preparing to forsake their home once again a troll poked it’s head round the door and said “Have you still got that cat?” thinking quickly the Owner responded “Yes and she’s had seven kittens who are all growing with remarkable speed!”
They were never troubled with trolls again.
Merry Christmas to you all!