Saturday, December 31, 2022
Saturday, December 24, 2022
Christmas Carols, Trees and Hauntings
Christmas: a Time of Carols, Trees and Hauntings
Christmas trees figure prominently in modern celebrations of the season. However the custom of illuminating a fir tree and bringing it into the house is probably based on a pre-Christian tradition that extends deep into the distant past. Before Europe was widely Christianized, pagan celebrations marked the winter solstice in December. Many of the traditions from these long-forgotten celebrations were subsequently absorbed by the Christmas holiday which displaced them. Legends and fairy tales contain remnants of these long-forgotten pagan customs but they have been blended with the gospel narrative and are barely recognizable today. There are common markers of these older traditions in fairy tales, saga and even Christmas carols, which include a reverence for fir trees and also branches, in particular blossoms or fruit springing forth from dead wood often during the deep midwinter or at time near the winter solstice; the offering of gifts; miracles or legends associated with animals in forest or field; processions and lighted candles; strange lights and spooks; hauntings of all sorts and augering the future; but most importantly accounts of incredible transformations when linked to one of the saints but especially the Virgin Mary. (to read more, hit the Christmas Saints link at right). At this time of year the fir tree, hazel branch and lily became associated with Saint Mary and all three appear in many tales of the season (see Grimm’s Saga, the Hazel Branch). It is assumed that the Virgin was replacing an older pagan deity who was similar to her in temperament and importance and that the plants themselves were believed to have certain powers. German Christmas carols may also reflect this blending of Christian and pre-Christian sentiment and I think the carol Oh Tannenbaum is a good example. Provided below is a more literal translation of the popular song that was written around 1820, which has a slightly different emphasis than the more common version:
Oh Christmas Tree (Oh Fir Tree) (Text ca. 1820)
1. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
How true are your leaves!
You not only bloom in summer,
But also in winter when it’s snowing.
O fir tree, Oh fir tree,
How true are your leaves.
2. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
How you please me! (Or: How I love you!)
How often at Christmas time,
Oh tree, have you delighted me!
O fir tree, Oh fir tree,
How you please me.
3. Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree
Your leaves shall teach me:
Hope and constancy
Give me comfort and strength always.
Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree,
Your leaves shall teach me.
Saint Barbara is also one of the saints mentioned at Christmas time. Her feast day is December 4th and in the following German song, the miracle of winter transformation is celebrated in the form of dead twigs (for another “dead twig legend” see Grimm’s Saga No. 349: Image of Mercy in the Larch Branch at Waldrast provided under the link Three Legends of the Virgin Mary).
German Christmas Carol: I broke off three barren branches. (Ich brach drei duerre Reiselein)
1. I broke off three barren branches
from the dead hazel bush,
I placed them in an earthen jar,
warm was the water, too.
2. On Saint Barbara’s Feast Day,
I broke the twigs away.
Christmas, it came,
and with it the miracle.
3. Soon two little branches burst into bloom,
and they blossomed on Christmas Eve.
I broke off the third twig,
and my heart also blossomed anew.
4. I broke off three barren branches,
from the hard hazel bush.
God let them turn green, it thrives,
just like our own lives.
The Singing Fir Tree, a Swiss Fairy Tale
In Switzerland, a story is told about a man named Hans Kreutz, who lived with his wife on Thun Lake in Ralligen. In the year 1555, a thick black fog descended on the village and it would not dissipate. The alarmed villagers retreated to their homes, closed doors and sealed the windows tightly. But a light blue vapor crept under the window sill and the wife breathed in this vapor and in the evening she lay in bed motionless. Hans looked into her eyes and saw no reflection there and in the morning she was dead.
Many villagers died that year and the survivors buried their loved ones in the church yard at the outskirts of town, where the mountain and forest swept down abruptly into the valley. While the bells in the church tower were ringing, Hans buried his wife and returned home. For days he did not leave his house. He neither ate nor slept but could not forget the vacant stare of his beloved wife and the sound of the church bells as he lowered her into the grave.
One evening when Hans sat by the fire, he heard the church bells ring out the Ave and they rang and rang and he lost track of the time. He raised his head, for he thought he heard wonderful and sweet singing up high in the Hohlbach Forest near the tree line. But when the church bells stopped ringing, he heard it no more. The next day he sat with longing and waited for the evening church bells to ring out the Ave. At first he heard only the faintest sound of distant singing, but then the melody grew stronger until there could be no mistake. A woman’s voice sang a mysterious and beautiful song, the words of which he could not quite decipher.
But Hans spread word among the townspeople. At night the entire village listened while the church bells rang and soon everyone heard the wonderful singing daily. The singing was soothing and the villagers listened at the edge of the village until the snow began to fall and then they returned to their homes. All but Hans, who wanted to know where the singing came from. The next night when the church bells were ringing, the villagers assembled in the church yard. Hans lit a torch and climbed the mountainside, following the mysterious melody. He did this every evening until one night he finally found a giant fir tree, and its voice was sweet and clear. He shyly gazed upon the tree and in amazement listened to its gentle song.
But Hans could find no rest. The singing fir tree occupied his waking and sleeping hours and he wanted to be in the presence of its song always. In secret he climbed up the mountain during the day and spent long hours near the tree. Some time passed and Hans was called away to visit his family in the next valley.
While he was away, a wood carver from among the villagers, who had seen the beautiful fir tree, decided he needed it to make a wood carving. Because the tree was so magnificent, tall and straight, with perfectly formed branches and trunk, he had it felled and brought down to the valley. From the wood, he selected an enormous block of the trunk that had no scars or branches. From this piece of wood he began to carve an image of the Virgin Mary. He worked day and night on this carving and saw nothing more beautiful than the image of the Virgin growing out of the wood. And after some time, the villagers came to his workshop and marveled at the beauty of the image, its heavenly countenance and mild authority.
When Hans returned to the village after some months, he climbed the mountain and went directly to where the singing fir tree had stood. In its place was only a stump and Hans was gripped by such melancholy, that a loud moan issued from his lips. It was like the howling of a wounded wolf or the shriek of an eagle flying overhead. The loud cries filled the valley, echoing off the cliffs and rocks. When the villagers heard the loud cries from above, they gathered below near the church. And soon in the distance they heard the beautiful, long-missed song. They turned and saw the woodcarver, carrying his statue and saw that it was singing. He placed the statue in the church, where it stands today. And some say, they have heard it singing when a loved one dies. The place where the tree once stood is now called Marienstein. There is a smaller rock nearby, where Hans once gazed upon the fir tree. It is said that in his grief, Hans turned to stone and the place is now called the Kreutzantisch.
The Singing Fir Tree Copyright FairyTaleChannel.com
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Tuesday, December 13, 2022
Christmas Visions, Saints and Lovers in Fairy Tales
Christmas Visions, Saints and Lovers in Fairy Tales
(St. Andrew fisher-of-men.)
According to popular belief, St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th ) is the first prognostication or fate day of the year. The evening before (St. Andrew's Eve) was especially propitious for having visions of one’s future true love. Other so-called fate days occurred soon thereafter and included Saint Thomas’ Eve (12/21), Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Popular tradition identifies St. Andrew as the patron saint of fishermen and lovers. How Saint Andrew became revered as the protector of lovers is a bit murky. It was perhaps his propensity to receive or induce his own revelations that inspired young maids to claim him as their own. And as Jesus’ appointed fisher-of-men, Andrew might have had a romantic appeal as the protector of those who would rather cast their nets for human prey.
There are purportedly many ways to celebrate St. Andrew’s Eve. The simplest way is to gaze into a fire or mirror and say a special Andrew prayer; then wait for the face of one’s true love to appear. Other methods involved throwing shoes or shirts and interpreting how they fall, praying to the saint fervently and then falling asleep to receive a vision of love or melting wax or lead, dropping it into water and interpreting the odd shapes. One tradition likens lovers to barking dogs. (Perhaps in the belief that where there is bark there is most likely a swain. ) Grimm’s Saga No. 115 explains this folk tradition best but also makes clear that like all things concerning love, augering the future is not for the faint of heart.
Grimm’s Saga No. 115. Andreas Eve (or St. Andrew's Eve)
It is a common belief that on Andreas Eve, Thomas Eve, Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve a maid can invite her future lover to come to her and reveal himself to her. The girl must set a table for two but without any forks. Whatever the lover leaves behind after departing must be carefully preserved. He will then return to the person who keeps this lost item and will love that person mightily. But he must never see this lost object again, because then he will be tortured and suffer from such overwhelming pain that he will become aware that magic has been employed and a great misfortune will befall the lovers.
A beautiful lass in Austria wanted to see her true love at midnight and performed the usual customs whereby a shoemaker appeared with a dagger, threw it at her and then vanished quickly. She picked up the thrown dagger and locked it in her little chest. Soon the shoemaker came and courted her. Many years after their marriage she once went to her chest on a Sunday after vespers. She was looking for something she needed for the next days’s work. When she opened the chest, her husband came and wanted to look inside. She stopped him but he pushed her away with force. Looking into the chest he saw his lost dagger. He seized the blade and wanted to know how she came to have it because he had lost it some time ago. In fear and confusion she could not think of a reply, instead, she acknowledged it was the same dagger he had left with her in the night she wanted to see her lover. The man became furious and spoke a terrible curse: “Harlot, you are the lass who frightened me so inhumanely that night!” and he plunged the dagger into her heart.
This legend is told in many different places by many different people. Oral tradition: the story is told about a hunter, who relinquished his knife; soon after childbirth his wife asked him to fetch her little sewing box and wasn’t thinking that he would find the magic utensil inside. But he found it and killed her with it.
(*Protoclete: the "first called", Andrew was Jesus' first disciple)
The three patron saints of lovers:
Germany = Saint Andrew (Feast Day Nov. 29/30), Eastern Orthodox Church = St. Hyacinthus (Feast Day July 3), Western Church = St. Valentine (Feast Day February 14)
More Christmas fairy tales can be found by clicking on the links:
Translation Copyright FairyTaleChannel.com
Saturday, November 5, 2022
Monday, June 6, 2022
Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin
Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin
John and Paul’s Day was celebrated throughout Europe on June 26 but was originally a pagan festival commemorating the summer solstice. On this day it was custom for huge throngs of people to gather and dance around a bonfire, play music, sing, and augur the future. According to Petrarch, it was the custom of women in Cologne to bathe in the Rhine River on the evening before St. John’s Day. The surging waters supposedly washed away all evil and misfortune from the bathers. The custom was apparently practiced throughout Germany in its largest rivers and was considered to be distinctly pagan. Processions and parades, dancing and singing, bathing in the river and jumping through or dancing around bonfires were all part of the revelry. Frowning on the unbridled passion of townspeople engaged in such activities, the early Christian Church appropriated the day. It linked the custom of river bathing to John the Baptist and symbolical purification through water. These summer celebrations coincided with the sun reaching its highest point in the sky and usually lasted several days. The dates given in the Pied Piper of Hamelin are the exact days this celebration would have been held and the saga accurately incorporates elements of this folk tradition.
In the Pied Piper of Hamelin we find the elements of playing music and processing down to a river (and immersing oneself in the water) to eradicate pestilence. The figure charged with the expulsion of rats and mice is distinctly pagan. He uses magic and music to take control of the rats first and children second. He is a wandering rogue of a most peculiar sort. His clothing and visage are described in some detail. His coat of many colors is reminiscent of that other famous wanderer in Germanic mythology, Woton (as called by Southern Germanic tribes) or Odin (as called by Northern Germanic tribes). Woton traditionally wears a blue cloak with golden flecks and broad hat. The Germanic God Woton underwent many transformations at the hands of Christian priests, who attempted to Christianize the deity. Wotan alternately became the Archangel Michael, the Holy St. Martin, the Wild Huntsman and finally the devil. In his role as Wild Huntsman, Wotan was said to lead a fearsome procession that raced through the air and lasted 12 days. Other pagan figures lead similar parades or processions including Frau Holla and True Eckhart, and Tannhäuser and Frau Venus. These duos always have the same destination: the inside of a mountain. In many folk tales and saga, entering a mountain as part of a procession is actually a metaphor
for dying (see Gratzug). In fact there were many mountains throughout Europe that were considered sacred to Woton (Othensberg, Odensberg, Godesberg, Gudenesberg and Wodenesberg to name a few).
There are sagas and legends from the Middle Ages which reflect the dismay and even anger of the deposed deities toward the rising power and prestige of Christian intruders. Tannhäuser and Frau Venus are perhaps the most well-known examples. But is it possible to interpret the tantalizing character of the Pied Piper and the disappearance of 130 children within the context of an enraged (and perhaps, dislodged) deity?
This extraordinary tale reads like an historical narrative with eye-witness accounts to bolster its veracity. I am inclined to view the story as a cautionary tale to a population wavering between the older pagan belief and the newer Christian belief systems. Participating in pagan revelry, with its gods, music, dancing and wildness, can have dire consequences. The old deities are no longer mourning their loss of status, but ready to take revenge. At the end of the tale, a ban on music is imposed and presumably the pagan revelry and festivities that accompanied it. But the surface message of the tale is also quite clear. The mendacity of town leaders contradicts the Gospel message that “a laborer is worthy of his hire.”
The mountain where the children disappeared has been renamed Calvary, or the Place of the Skull (Köppen = obsolete German word for head or skull). As Europe became Christianized, it was common to rename pagan sites to give them Christian significance. Calvary or site of the Crucifixion would be a fitting name for a place of great tragedy. After reading this tale it is easy to imagine that the story is based on a folk memory of a tragic event involving the loss of children.
Ancient Bone and Ivory Flutes
The Pied Piper is playing one of the oldest known musical instruments: the flute or pipe. Archaeologists have found numerous flutes fashioned from bone or ivory throughout Germany and Switzerland. At the Cloister in Müstair, Switzerland, archaeologists found two bone flutes which they have dated to the Carolingian period and two from the 11th/12th and 14th centuries. They are made from the tibia bone of a sheep or goat and have three finger holes. These Müstair flutes are capable of producing a five-tone or eight-tone scale respectively.
A flute that is believed to be between 30,000 – 37,000 years old was found in pieces in the Geissenkloesterle Cave in Southern Germany. It was made in the Upper Paleolithic Era, a time when Europe was occupied by the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans. This flute was carved from solid ivory and was capable of playing relatively sophisticated tunes. Based on experiments, it seems the flute followed the pentatonic scale.
The sound of these flutes was shaped by human breath. After singing, playing the flute was the most immediate form of communication. Because of its special sound and shape, the flute was also used in religious and cultic ceremonies. The music of the flute or pipe was said to have magical and healing properties. The shepherd played the pipe to calm his flock and keep them together. And in the saga, the Pied Piper uses the magical tones of the flute to exercise control over both animals and humans. The ancient Greeks mistrusted flute music as being overly powerful and seductive and according to Indian tradition, when Lord Krishna played his flute, listeners forgot their individuality and were drawn irresistibly to the music.