Tag Archives: Yule

The Pile Of Tinsel


Crackling fires, candles, stars, and strings of fairy lights. Trees with piles of presents, rows of cards and tables groaning with heaps of food. Holly, ivy, snow, reindeer, mummers, socks, sheep, cake, Scrooge, kings, The Snow Queen, donkeys, Julie Andrews and somewhere amongst it all a new born baby. It must be Christmas again!

I don’t know where I will be for the festive week: I have had an offer of possible work for Christmas day on the other side of the country, as yet unconfirmed, and thus may be far away from home and possibly even people I know. I’m pretty sure there will be fine food, drink and good company though, that much is compulsory, isn’t it? 

Of course, the things that make Christmas depend very much on who you are, where you have come from culturally and what stage you are at in your life. Every family does it a little differently: Presents before breakfast or after dinner? Cook all morning or do it the day before? Games after dinner or dozing in front of the TV? Midnight Mass or Carols From Kings? Massive row over Christmas Dinner or get it out the way on Christmas Eve?

All sorts of people over the years have tried to sift out “the real meaning of Christmas” or to construct a purer version of the midwinter feast, struggling to disentangle the assorted threads of Pagan, Christian and corporate tradition, or extract the literary, folk or media elements, like you or I battling with a box of last years fairy lights, though rarely with as much success.

Coming to my keyboard once again, trying to find this year’s approach to the big, tangled pile of tinsel; to decide which colour to unravel and hang before you… I found myself, instead, entranced by the intensity of the interwoven wonders. No other festival, time of year, event or part of our lives is quite so clearly made from such differing strands, such incompatible ingredients, and yet is so tightly and inextricably intermeshed that the majority of us do not even know that our traditional celebration is a bizarre snowball that has rolled across continents getting random bits of foliage and aggregate stuck in it for centuries.

Whether it’s the star followed by some Magi, the Yule Log saved from the year before, a special candlestick or just the lights on the tree, we all respond to the symbols of the light in the darkness, warmth in coldness, comfort in hardship. New born sons, reborn suns and evergreen trees are all signs of life in the desert of winter. Then mashed in alongside all that are the stories of kindness in adversity, care for family, friends, strangers, even enemies, soldiers playing football where they fought the day before. Tale after Yuletide tale are reminders of our mutual fragility, that we survive by sharing and supporting each other, huddling together against the cruel winter wind. The endings also come again and again to the same triumphant point: The longest night is passed, light returns to the world and we are still alive! 

So whatever it is that you do for midwinter, I wish you a very good one: Peace on earth! Blessed be! Fill the mead cup! Good will to everything! Happy Traditional Thing-a-majig!

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure. 

The Travelling Talesman  www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk 

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Seasonal Tradition


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.

A cute polar bear with a present

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!

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Filed under Christmas, December, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Tradition, Winter