The noise from his great hall roused Count Otto from his slumber. He was on his bed rather than in it, lying where he fell, exhausted from the day’s exertions. He had gone out riding with friends but, as is pretty much standard with nobility in folktales, he had become separated from his retinue and wandered lost in the woods until he had a strange experience. Stopping to refresh himself at a spring where the waters burst from a rocky cliff and fell in to a clear pool, he felt soft, delicate hands touch his in the water and the ruby ring he was wearing slipped from his finger. It was Christmas Eve so he made plans to come back on Boxing day with servants to drain the pool and retrieve his jewellery.
The spring, known as The Fairy Well, was a long way from his castle and by the time he got home he was beyond eating. Pulled from blessed oblivion by the sound of a merry throng at… he cast around for some clue of what the time might be and, almost as if on cue, the bells for midnight rang in the tower far above. He was saved from rage at being denied sleep by the hope that his thoughtlessly loud guests might have food. On opening the doors however all thoughts of, well everything, left his mind. It was neither his friends nor his servants carousing. Filling his hall was a host of Faeries, or was it Elves? Possibly Nixies, he shook his head, whatever, they were dressed in fabulous clothes of many bright colours, dancing to the sweetest of music. In the middle of the hall stood a fir tree which held amongst it’s branches all kinds of bejewelled bracelets, silver necklaces, golden handled daggers and diamond encrusted trinkets, sparkling in the light of the candles that stood between them.
As he took all this in, the dance ended, the couples bowed to each other and parted allowing an even more entrancing beauty to walk towards the baffled count, as he stood blinking at the splendour before him. Dressed in satin and velvet of rose and cream, a circlet of silver and sapphires holding her lustrous hair back from a face of exquisite, and lightly amused, attractiveness.
“I am Ernestine, queen of the fair folk” said the vision of loveliness in a voice of silk and well aged whisky, “I have come to return your visit… and something else”. Smiling, she reached in to her cleavage and drew out something that glistened in the light, her eyes staying firmly on his, she held out the ring that had vanished in the water.
Otto and Ernestine danced through the night. He was a handsome fellow, rich and well mannered, a big hit with the ladies of the noble courts, yet he had resisted subtle and blatant advances alike, until now. When the last waltz ended and the fairies, whom he had barely noticed for hours, began to pack up and drift off in to the mists of dawn, he threw himself down on one knee and begged her to marry him. She looked through him with half closed eyes for a moment, laid a hand on his hair and said “On the condition that you never speak the word ‘Death’ in my company.”
Their happiness together began on Boxing Day and lasted many years. One Christmas Eve though, as the Count and his guests prepared to go for their traditional ride in the forest, Ernestine tarried in her chamber. Otto paced the courtyard, the horses nibbled the lawn and the servants handed out a third round of spiced sherry. When the Fairy Queen eventually came down Otto blurted out “At last!”, then trying to make a joke, “You would make a good messenger to send for Death!” She stared at him horrified, the scream on her lips cut short as she disappeared before the startled onlooker’s eyes.
Frantic searches of the castle, Fairy Well and forest brought no joy, neither did their more conscientious repeats over the following weeks. Heartbroken and mirthless, Otto lived on, his threadbare hope driving him to erect a tree filled with light and treasure by the window of his hall every Christmas. As time passed the locals began to copy their Lord. The custom spread through Straβbourg… and eventually the world.