Obviously you can tell all sorts of yarns during the longest nights huddled around the fire, after all there’s plenty of time! As ever though there are certain types of narrative which are set around the turning of the year, you might think that it would be the time for adventure yarns, and maybe they were told in their turn, but it seems, in the days of candles and fires, the darkness brought on a touch of introspection. The old tales of midwinter seem to fall in to two distinct types which can most readily be summed up as the “Why” stories and the “Be good” stories.
The first group include explanations for the leaving and returning of heat or sunshine; why some trees keep their leaves; and why we bring trees in to our houses and decorate them.
As you know, I like old stories and the older the better. It is easy to see the myths which tell of the cause of the cold and darkness have roots going back as far as the hunter gatherers of the mesolithic or further. Even as the first foundations of language were being built by the diminutive Homo Erectus, some one must have asked “why is it so cold?” and possibly “will it ever be warm again?” and some other reached in to their mind and replied ”A long time ago…”.
The Canadian natives tell “The Long Winter” which answers both questions whilst neatly weaving in an amusing explanation for the absence of bears during the winter. In Japan there is a myth of the sun goddess Amaterasu who, after an argument with her brother, the god of storms, shuts herself in a cave leaving the world in darkness while the gods try to figure out how to get her and her light back to the world.
The tale of a small bird who cannot fly south with a broken wing and asks the trees for shelter eventually resulting in some becoming evergreen, will ring the bells of memory for many of you, as will Count Otto’s lost fairy bride in the Strasborg tale of the first christmas tree, since both of these were current in my youth.
The second group hardly needs an explanation, you will undoubtedly be subjected to at least one version of Dickens’ famous tight wad’s redemption during the festive season (though not by me!), and there are plenty more tales of rewards for the just and punishments for the wicked. The Russians know a thing or two about winter and from them comes a classic of the “be good” genre in “Frost”. Martha’s cruel stepmother decides to get rid of her by having Martha’s weak and frightened father take her deep in to the snowbound forest to be married to Frost, which is to say she intends him to leave her there to die of cold. As it grows dark poor Martha hears Frost crackling in the trees, each time a little closer…
As I mentioned, all kinds of tales can get an outing at midwinter but you can be sure some of these will appear during the MidWinter Tales evening at the London Inn, Morchard Bishop on the evening of Saturday 22nd December.