Tunes for a Monday Morning
As the old year ends...

A Winter's Tale

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts, all of whom have passed on now...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhaine have passed. In past centuries, throughout the countryside, families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand. In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world. Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate. I wish you and yours all the magic of home and hearth, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond. Tilly and I will be back to Myth & Moor's regular Monday-to-Friday schedule on Monday, January 5th...with new stories for a brand new year.

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

Tilly and her new rawhide chewThe paintings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.

Comments

Winter Tellings

The frost, of course
and its fine script on the windows.

The fall of snow dusting hunched shoulders
of tall green centurions, with their orders.

The holly and ivy of course,
with berries red as a child's crayons.

The imprints of tracks, of course,
impress of feet, what stories there.

The scrawl of chimney smoke, of course,
across the blank slate of sky.

A vee of geese, of course,
erratic letters telling of change.

Ice in the streams, of course,
chalk on stones, on beaver dams,

And me trying to read the lacy hand
of that window message,
a tale that needs a translator
or at least a transliteration.

Of course.

©Jane Yolen 2014 all rights reserved

Ah--lovely to envision you and Howard and Tilly ensconced in cozy domesticity ant then to enjoy the wondrous compilation of holiday traditions the world round through the ages. Such a gift! "Of course" the addition of a poesy from Jane adds to the pleasure. Thank you all.

Joyous celebrations to all! Thank you, Terri for sharing stories here - personal and otherwise - they have filled me with a sense of connection, so thank you. Go well till we return here to your hearth on January 2nd!

I've polished this rather rambling prose poem and amended it several times over several years, and I can't remember if I've posted it before. If I have, please ignore!


NATIVITY.

This birth will be laundered of its pain and dirt. Paintings and songs will tell and show only calm cleanliness, and a smiling child, its head enclosed in a globe of light. The animals won’t be indifferent, but all attentive devotion…oh yes, and they too will be laundered; their coats gleaming and bright; their eyes alight with love.

And though the child will grow to say that he only came for his own people, wide stretches of the world will claim him as their own. Could we say that his message too is laundered of its rather partisan and parochial nature? Or would that be blasphemy?

Where then is the Divinity? This child was born in pain and blood like all the rest. He knew poverty and hardship, and he died a terrible death. What is even remotely divine about that?

The Divinity lies in the story of the God who will die and rise again. Down the centuries it has echoed, bounding from religion to religion; rebounding from belief to belief. It is Immortal, Unending, Incorruptible. The Divine Truth lies beyond all of our petty attempts to understand. Our religions are faint echoes of a song whose complexity and beauty is far beyond our abilities to comprehend. Like two facing mirrors reflecting and reflecting an image that slowly diminishes to the dark. A visual diminuendo. These are our religions.

But still, the Truth exists, has existed and will exist always, and no matter what new religions come along it will glister on and on for ever.

So enjoy your religion, no matter what it may be, and know it is the best we can make from a material whose quality and power and essence is forever beyond our understanding. And knowing this, show tolerance for the religion of others. They too are merely doing their best to understand that which can never be known.

Atheists believe they have the only answer. But there again they would, wouldn’t they. Many of their number worship the pure truth of science, not daring to know that all of its towering magnificence can be summed up best by this simple metaphor: science is an ill-focused snap shot of the Divine face, taken with a shaking camera.

So was God ever born to a peasant family in a squalid stable? Well, of course It was, and will be again and again down the long centuries of belief... and denial of belief. And will the birth be laundered of its pain and blood?

Well, yes, of course. We are, after all, only human.

Oh this is all so wonderful- sharing thoughts on holiday baking traditions, interesting bits on customs and traditions, favorite illustrators from the past depicting yuletime history......I'm just beside myself ......not to mention just too cute Tilly who appears to be enjoying this special family time too!
Best wishes to all, this holiday season. We will make merry our own peace and good will toward men in our homes and communities.So be it.
Seasons greetings with special thanks to Terri for all the gifts she so generously gives us all through the year.

Happy Holidays to you and yours, Terri!

This is beautiful from start to finish, Jane. Merry Christmas to you!

May your holidays be warm and lovely! Tilly is adorable as always.

Marvellous post :). Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Have a lovely holiday yourself, with Tilly and the rest of the family and your kiffles. Holiday traditions are wonderfully important. Stay warm and enjoy the season!

Lovely post, I must look for those winter piskie stories. Hope you have a fine and healthy new year.--Jane

May your days be crystalline and bright, and your nights filled with story delights. Thank you for all the doors, and gates, you open throughout the year with keys made from dancing words and far-reaching illustrations and photographs.

Blessings for your holidays! May you hear magical songs in the wind and see visions of faery beauty in the hearthfire flames.

What a wonderful post! I enjoyed reading it, and reading about kiffles, and your discussions with your maternal ancestors, and yes, I remember POSSESSION and the winter stories of November. Plus Stuart's prose poem about the Divine. I also enjoyed reading the article about Christmas ghost stories. One of my favorite children's books is THE CHILDREN OF GREEN KNOWE, which features three ghosts that come to a lonely little boy at Christmas. I found that book as a child in the early 60's - 4th grade, 5th grade? and loved it with a passionate love. Because it was magic and a magic that is in Noel Perrin's words "ancient and sad and beautiful." I was at the age where I was becoming aware of the passage of time, and appreciative of the ancient and sad and beautiful. It is an English book, written by L.M. Boston, and Green Knowe is an actual place. I shall visit it at some point, I know.
Happy Holidays to you and yours, and to sweet Tilly!

A wonderful year's end post. I can't tell you how much I look forward to each and every one, all year long.

So much wonder and beauty here, Terri. Thank you.
Wishing you and yours all good things during these festive days and for the New Year.

Really enjoyed this post ,thanks Terri and have a great time all off you.

Oh how I loved our old wood stove when I lived in the bush, food tastes better cooked with wood! Go well Terri thank you for all you share and see you next year!

I learn so much from Myth & Moor! I'm grateful for this and for all you gentle spirits.

Stuart and Jane: How interesting to see you both use the phrase "of course" in your poems. There are many aspects of this season's festivities, in any form, that feel both inevitable and cyclical. Something, too, that helps to shape the course we are on, the one we choose for the new year. I enjoyed both of your pieces very much. Thank you.

Terri, many blessings to you and yours!

Thank you very much for the stories and illustrations :)
Have a nice holidays with your family and friends,
Noemí.

I love this, Jane. It reminds me of the way I scratch words (sometimes visible, sometimes invisible) into everything I paint. Through your words, I see that Mother Nature is busily doing the same thing....

Lovely, Stuart.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, everyone. I hope your holidays have been wonderful indeed.

A perfect poem, Jane. Thank you.

Late to the tellings again, as is so my want, but thought to share one small morsel of tradition. My family recently of France on one side, and long of the South on the other, eats Black-eyed Peas and Sauerkraut for luck on New Year's Day. Both are Southern Traditions, the peas likely hailing from the Africans that brought the dish into our culture, when themselves were forcefully brought in. I do love that. The idea, of cultures and influence, and luck being carried over, even among those cause such bad luck on so many. I will eat them, with joy, and a bit cornbread, slathered in butter.

That sounds delicious!

I treated myself to rereading The Wood Wife and then reading Charles de Lint's The Wild Wood in this liminal time between the winter solstice and the traditional new year. Such pleasures! The kiffles look much like a traditional Polish cookie my mother made for Christmas, with loads of cream cheese in the dough, and a buttery cinnamon and walnut filling. How I wish I'd asked her to write down the recipe! Hoping you had a wondrous Christmas, Terri!

The comments to this entry are closed.