Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Christmas Eve Legends

The celebration of Christmas touches us each in different ways. For me, as for many, it is a religious holiday, but it’s also a time for merriment, family, celebration and joy. There is a special magic that occurs at Christmas which transcends description, an enchantment of being that is spiritual, mythical and mystical. The power of believe!

The Eve of Christmas is noted for many old world superstitions and beliefs, among them the idea that the veil between worlds grows thin, allowing the departed to return to the homes of their loved ones.

bigstock-Medieval-Tavern-3878785 lightenedIn Scandinavia, people prepared feasts for the spirits, setting a table laden with holiday fare. They had their own festive celebration first, then before retiring for the night, made certain all the bowls and platters were refilled and heaping with food, jugs were brimming with Yule ale, and a fire burned brightly in the hearth. Many times chairs were wiped clean with a white cloth. The following morning the cleaning process was repeated and, if a bit of earth was discovered, it was proof-positive a visitor from the grave had been there.

Another myth related to Christmas Eve involved animals. At the stroke of midnight many believed animals could speak in human voices.  The downside? Anyone who overheard an animal talk usually met with an untimely end or some other dreadful circumstance. Probably why no one has ever reported hearing Fluffy and Fido shoot the breeze. How I would love to have a one-on-one with a cat!

In Europe it is said cattle kneeled to worship the new-born King, and that bees came together in great numbers to hum a Christmas hymn. Wouldn’t that be something to hear?

The creepiest legend I found involved a blacksmith. One Christmas Eve when a bell tolled, beckoning all the people of his village to midnight mass, he ignored the summons and continued to work. Not long after, a stranger arrived. Tall, but stooped over, he asked the blacksmith to add a nail to his scythe. When the blacksmith finished the task, the stranger told him to summon a priest for the work would surely be his last. The next morning the smitty perished, never realizing he had repaired the scythe of the Grim Reaper.

Surprisingly, there are many legends and superstitions related to this holiday, those above only a sampling of what I found. Given I’m a Myth-monger, I found all of them riveting. One item, however, that is certainly not a myth is the pleasure I receive from sharing these. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Whether you discover talking animals tonight, friendly phantoms come to call, or just the good cheer of family and friends, may your Christmas Eve be blessed and merry!

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: The Snow Maiden

It’s December, and in a good portion of the U.S., that generally means cold temperatures, icy roads and the chance of snow. Usually.

This year is different. Could be because the Mayan calendar predicts the world is going to end in under two weeks or because the polar ice caps are melting at record rates. Whatever the cause, the weather has been curiously mild. I live in the northeast where we’ve had temperatures climb into the 60s during the day. Lovely, but not fitting with our normal attire of heavy coats, boots and gloves (just for the record, I love heeled boots with long skirts so I’m suffering a mini fashion crisis here). We’ve seen one snowfall, pretty while it lasted, but not enough to amount to anything.

As much as I love warm weather (and wouldn’t mind living somewhere tropical year round), I’ve always held a fascination for stories set in cold climates. A few of my all-time favorite novels have earned that distinction because the author employed a winter backdrop. Snow settings can be beautiful and magical, but also claustrophobic. THE RINGED CASTLE by Dorothy Dunnett (book 5 of the Lymond Chronicles) is an amazing read set in 16th Century Russia that conjures all three of those feelings.

presentRussian folklore is also where I found the legend of The Snow Maiden, a short poignant fairy tale.  There are several variations but all agree on the basics – – a woodcutter and his wife, lonely and childless, decide to amuse themselves one day by fashioning a snegurochka, a maiden from snow. Taken with their creation, they fervently wish her to be a daughter they can love and cherish. Their desire is so strong it weaves an enchantment that brings the snow maiden to life. She appears in a robe and cap of pale ivory that is embellished by pearls and trimmed in white fur. Overjoyed, they take her into their home as their own child.

All is well until the first sign of spring when the snow maiden tells them she must head north to lands where winter still reigns. Upset at the thought of losing her, the woodcutter barricades the door as his wife wraps the girl in her arms to prevent her from fleeing. As she holds her, the snow maiden slowly melts into nothingness. Overcome by grief, the couple mourns throughout the year. The next winter their daughter returns and their sadness becomes joy. The snow maiden promises to stay the season and return each year after that.

In another version of the tale, the snow maiden falls in love with a young man fromIn the Forest the village. One day they wander into a birch wood where the last vestiges of winter are fading and green shoots struggle to push up from the ground. The snow maiden turns her face to the sun and with its touch dwindles into an icy mist that is whisked away by the wind. And so winter must always yield to light and life as winter yields to spring.

I love these old fairy tales. What about you? Are there any special ones that come to mind? Any favorites from childhood that still resonate with you the way snow and winter resonate with magic? Tell me about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Yule Log Superstitions & Customs

It’s now officially December and only a few weeks from Christmas.

Given the festivities of the month ahead, I thought I’d use this Mythical Monday to look at superstitions related to the Yule log.  Who doesn’t love to see the warm amber glow of firelight flooding from a hearth and hear the crackle of wood?

No fireplace? No worries. For the last several years, most cable-TV providers have made it possible to dial up a virtual Yule log for your HD flatscreen. Pretty snazzy, but how did it all start?

VIKING SHIP 2The burning of the Yule log was a Nordic custom, but was adopted by Britain shortly after the Vikings invaded in 1066. It wasn’t long before the practice spread to several other European cultures as well.

Often related to the Winter Solstice Festival, the Yule log was originally a Yule tree, burned in honor of Odin, father of the Norse gods. Think about it – – why would a strapping Viking bother with a measly log when he could battleax an oak or ash into submission and set it ablaze? Norsemen never did anything small scale. And, as someone who has taken an ax to an ash tree, let me tell you that is some nasty hard wood! We had a stump in our rear yard that not even a Bobcat could make a dent in.

Fortunately, the tradition of burning an entire tree was eventually replaced by a large log of hardwood. When celebrating Christmas became popular in the fourth century A.D., the custom of burning a Yule log was moved from the solstice to Christmas Day, with the log’s fire representing the light of the Savior. A portion of the log would be left unburned, then used to start a new fire the following year as a symbol of continuity and the eternal fire of heaven.

Given how deeply rooted the Yule log is in old cultures, I knew there had to be elements of superstition interwoven with the tradition. Some tidbits I found:

Toss sprigs of holly into the flames of the Yule log to bring good fortune in the coming year.

Burn the Yule log each day during the Twelve Days of Christmas to ensure good luck.

Never purchase a Yule log. It should be cut from your own land.

A house is protected from fire, hail and lightning as long as a few pieces of the log are kept inside.

If the firelight casts your shadow minus your head, it’s a sign death is near. (Creepy. Talk about putting a damper on the celebration.).

Never let a barefooted woman or squint-eyed man touch the Yule log. This is certain to result in bad luck. (Better cross Aunt Matilda and Uncle Jasper from the guest list.).

Christmas FireplaceAll kidding aside, there is something magical about a Yule log. The very thought conjures a special warmth, and its light is a beacon ideal for drawing family and friends near.

I wonder what those Viking invaders would think if they saw our digitized version today, broadcast with sound effects and music through 60” flatscreen TVs. I think it says a lot that we’re still charmed by the magic of ancient tradition and the thought of family, friends and good cheer.

Whether you’re using a fireplace, TV, or computer screen, may your Yule log burn brightly and long, and bring good luck in the coming year!

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Robert Johnson and the Crossroads

There are plenty of mythical beasts and legends to rifle through each Monday, always making it hard to choose just one.

This week I’m going to venture off the beaten trail to resurrect the tale of legendary blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. Step back into the dusty days of the Mississippi delta when folklore and music intertwined. When a hardscrabble existence and a hunger for fame, led a young man to bargain his soul for the trappings of success.

According to legend, Robert Johnson was already a moderately successful blues guitarist when he walked down to the crossroads on a moonless night. At the stroke of midnight he recited an incantation to summon the devil (or Legba, depending on the version of the tale). In exchange for his soul, the devil tuned Johnson’s guitar.  From then on Johnson played with amazing skill no other musician could match. When Son House, a friend and mentor to Johnson, was overheard saying “He sold his soul to play like that,” it only served to stoke the fire of superstition.

There was no question Johnson had peculiarities. He lived the life of a nomad, roaming from town to town peddling his music. He had an uncanny ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, and was once taught by a man rumored to have learned music in a church graveyard. He often turned his back to the crowd while playing, but could easily engage a group of listeners. Outgoing in public, he was reserved in private, well-mannered and soft spoken.

Having lost his sixteen-year-old bride and unborn child years before, he became a bit of a womanizer which may have led to his downfall. Legend has it Robert met his end when he drank from an open bottle of whiskey in a juke joint where he’d been playing. Some say a jealous husband poisoned the whiskey with strychnine, others that it was an ex-girlfriend. He suffered convulsions and died three days later. Still others whisper he was shot or stabbed. Whatever the cause, the man who sang “Hellhounds on My Trail” had nowhere left to flee.

Robert Johnson died at the age of twenty-seven on August 16, 1938 not far from a country crossroads in Greenwood, Mississippi.

Among his songs, six mention the devil or something supernatural. “Crossroad Blues” which has been recorded by a number of other musicians is also rumored to carry a curse. Several of those who have recorded, or played it frequently, experienced tragic circumstances–Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynryd Skynrd, Led Zepplin and Kurt Corbain. I think it speaks volumes that all of these musicians and many others, kept Johnson’s song alive long after his demise.

In 1980 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Perhaps most telling of all, on September 17, 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a Robert Johnson 29-cent commemorative postage stamp.

For Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, his legend along with all of its inherent mystery, lives on!

Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Ghost Lights

Beware the marsh when night unfolds,
and darkness sends the sun in flight.
‘Tis no place for mortal creature,
but faerie, nymph, and ghostly light.

They have many different names depending on culture and location, but ghost lights have long been intertwined with magical things that go bump-in-the-night. Often referred to as ‘foolish fire’ for the propensity to lead night time travelers astray, these lights have various names including will-o-wisps, elf light, fox fire, and spook lights among others.

Commonly attributed to the Fae or elemental spirits, they rarely bring good fortune to those who see them. When viewed in a graveyard, they are called ghost candles. Dancing over marshy grounds and bogs, locals have dubbed them Jack o’ lanterns or friar’s lanterns. In some cases they’ve been said to mark treasure (assuming one is brave enough to go slogging through bog-muck in the middle of the night. *shudder* ).

The practical explanation is that ‘ignis fatuus’ is produced from swamp gases when organic matter decays. Not very lyrical, is it? I much prefer the views of country folk who lived on the edges of bogs and forests and whispered of glowing lights that bobbed and weaved through the darkness. You can almost hear the hushed warnings as villagers huddled in their cottages and locked doors to ward off the spellbinding bewitchment. The night came alive with a symphony of light, whispering of enchanted paths, restless ghosts, and unexplored byways.

I’ve always been fascinated by night time lights, particularly during warm weather months. There are so many attractive ways to add soft lights to our outdoor living spaces these days, I wonder if that isn’t a throwback to the enchantment our ancestors felt when they saw a dancing elf light or hinky-punk (the names are endless). So while I strategically dress my yard with ornamental lighting in hopes of conjuring a soothing, inviting environment, I can’t help wondering what a stray will-o-wisp might feel should it blunder into my little oasis.

Would you follow a disembodied light into a dark forest or swamp? Personally, as much as I love myth, I’ll content myself with writing about it. 🙂

Mythical Monday: Beware the Ebb Tide

If you’re like most people, the thought of an ebb tide brings a feeling of tranquility. Who doesn’t love to walk along a barren stretch of beach with the glittering hem of the ocean gently receding from shore? The eastern seaboard has been my second home through countless springs, summers, autumns and even winters. I know areas of it as intimately as my own backyard. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked on sunbaked beaches or sand cooled by twilight after the sun was swallowed by the vulture-beaked rim of the Atlantic.

I’ve picked up shells, stones, and pieces of driftwood, scattered souvenirs left by the lap and kiss of the receding tide. Although I find those strolls on the beach rejuvenating, the myths of yesteryear would have me believe differently.

In days of yore, people thought an ebb tide capable of draining someone’s spirit. Anyone who dwelled by the sea knew the receding tide would steal the spirit from the body. New ventures were best embraced when the tide was high. By the same token should someone fall ill, their soul was likely to depart with the ebb tide. Plantings of any kind were done when the waters were high so that their essence was not whittled away and carried off by the vanishing waters.

For today’s Mythical Monday, I offer a snippet from a short I wrote many ebb tides ago called Kin-Slayer:

I remember the ocean, glittering with a thousand faceted eyes as sunlight kindled diamonds on its surface, the scent of salt heavy in the air, twined with the black smoke of cooking fires and the reek of fish left to dry beneath the sun. My home was nestled in a simple village. Small and secluded, Ceadon squatted on a bluff overlooking the water, a ragged sphere of thatch-roofed hovels. She was a giddy perch, erected high on a pinnacle of wind-blasted rock. As children, E’ana and I often sat on the edge, watching the tide roll from shore as it carried our father and the other fishermen from sight.  In the evening we would meet them on the beach, anxious to view the day’s catch…seaweed draped pots brimming with lobster and crab; nets so heavy they hugged the sand as the men unloaded a bounty of bluefish and tuna.

It was a simple life, fitting and welcome in those idyllic days of childhood.  But childhood, like all things, fades with the passing of time.

Old wives’ tales and superstitions aside, there is something magical about an ebb tide. The next time you happen upon the soft lap of water on sand, take a moment to appreciate the inherent mystery in the song of the ocean. The symphony is as magnetic and ancient as the corridors of time.