Magical creatures of Christmas and winter folklore

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Shop filled with traditional Christmas goods. Photo: Poppy Mookerjee.

NEW YORK – There is a quaint wonder of shining winter lights, sequestered in the dark, lying amid a forsaken countryside village.

Miles and miles of tired, open spaces, silhouettes of phantom like hills in the distance and shadowy trees in confluence and all of a sudden there is the radiant beam of a Christmas tree in the heart of a still, frozen lake.

For some unfathomable reason all the major religions of the world converge around to rejoice at this time of the year. There is an air of expectancy of the supernatural soaking through the atmosphere in knotted enchantment through the centuries.

I was taking a walk around the lake with the wind, blowing to and fro cutting through the landscape. The crisp scent of a frozen ground, iced grass and cold stumps of tree filled the air with a fragrant chill under a sky streaming with stars. And without a warning, three swans floated from the skies into the lake, mirroring snowflakes in descent.

They glided past the champagne of lights, dipped their fluted necks into pools of water and glittered in the night sky.

It seemed unreal that this earth, so stricken with the cries of suffering children in detention camps, rife with gun violence and deafening taunts of war should also hold in its same very breath these sights of throbbing beauty.

Can beauty be a way to the divine? Beauty neither stops war nor feeds the hungry. Yet its refulgence has hung over the ages to fulfill the human yearning for the hope of goodness in this world, to add to the wonder that already exists and to keep alive the search for the daubs and hues for the truly marvelous.

And so, despite the wreckage of the centuries and the struggle of the years, we continue to worship and clasp our hands in front of dimly-lit images in the hope that the soft glow of the sacred may someday bathe our lives.

Traditional Christmas Market Weihnachtsmarkt on Potsdamer Platz, in Berline, Germany. Sale of various gingerbreads, candies and sweets. Photo: Dreamstime.

That very quest takes me into the soul of country. Driving past the tiny huts in rural towns, I glimpse diminutive fir trees on the window-sill, strung with lights and ribbons.

The ribbons are an ode to an East European folk-lore of a spider that built its cobweb on a Christmas tree which had taken sudden root from a pine cone on the earthen floor of a poor woman’s house in spring. However, on Christmas eve, she was in despair that decorating the tree was simply beyond her frugal means.

The night came, and her children found a spider weaving an intricate mesh over it. In the morning when they opened the windows, the first light of the Christmas swiveled the threads into spangles of silver and gold of iridescent color. In the midst of an inscrutable mystery, the tears of the poor woman and her children turned to joy.

And so followed the rituals of adding tinsel, ribbons, and other effervescent touches on the tree. When food was a scarce commodity, fruits, apples, oranges, cinnamon sticks and cookies were hung in a rapture of bounty.

Nature is the beloved shrine at Christmas in a sign of generosity, goodwill and respect for all. After all, the iconic stable with animals and birds had long established its deep-seated connect with the earth.

The theme of magical creatures, particularly the much overlooked donkey, the running motif of water changing to wine and the legends of buried treasure being revealed in the twelve days of Christmas bestows the celebration with unusual illumination.

In another legend from distant Ethiopia, rings the story of how little shepherd boys were the first to be heralded by the Star to be notified of the holy birth while they were playing a game of hockey called genna which is still in prevalence in the country in its memory.

The novelist, Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D’Urbevilles also wrote about the kneeling of the cattle in midnight homage; their breath favored to be sweet because it warmed the infant child. The sheep are also expected to turn to the east and bow at midnight and it is deemed lucky to meet a flock on Christmas day.

Even when the Soviet Communists tried to suppress religion in Russia, they failed utterly to stifle spontaneous outpouring of joy and beauty in the songs sung around the countryside during the Winter Solstice. The “Carol of the Bells,” a popular Christmas song, is drawn from the Ukrainian version of shchedrivsky which means “Bountiful” or “Generous Evening.”

It tells a charming story of a swallow visiting a forlorn household and prophesizing all the wonder that awaits for them in spring.

The Ukrainians revel in a tradition of young boys and girls going from door to door on snow covered streets with a female goat in tow singing carols. Among them, the goat reverberates with the symbols of wealth, fertility, and abundance.

Offering food to wild birds is, according to a Scandinavian Christmas folk-lore, a sure way of tucking in bundles of good luck into the New Year. A sheaf of harvest grain and seeds tied with hemp is lifted up on a pole for the birds to feast on Christmas morning.

A snippet of a poem written by A M Tomlinson is a promise of benediction to creatures everywhere:

The Christ-child came on earth

to bless the birds as well as men.”

It also sweeps along with the Norwegian belief that animals acquire a mystical power to speak in midnight on Christmas eve.

Such is the story of small birds coming to the rescue on Christmas night when the winds turn bitterly cold in the stable and the small fire in the drafty Bethlehem slowly wanes out. Worried about the safety of the Mother and Child, Joseph ventures out to seek more wood.

Meanwhile, a flock of brown birds fly into the hearth and in a bubble of exuberance, circle around the fire, flapping their tiny wings and kindling the flames. These caressing birds are none other than the robins, and in return for their kindness they are immortalized with their bright red breasts.

The robin is also said to have comforted Jesus with their songs as he lay on the cross. In another folk link it is said to have attempted to chew off the crown of thorns on his head to relieve him of the pain in ways that humankind could not.

In Christmas cards and illustrations, these little robins and cardinals have become an indelible part of iconography. Artistically, on paper the bright crimson plumage forms a merry contrast to the whites of the snow and the green sprigs of ivy and holly.

They are also shown sitting alongside the meek donkey, the outcast of a reindeer, the wily fox and other creatures, great and small, looking up to the heavens to the Star of Wonder and brush of angel wings.

Nativity scene with statues. Photo: Dreamstime.

If flowers are a prevalent leitmotif in all celebrations, they are satiated with distilled purity in religious insignia. The Christmas Rose blossoms from the tears of sorrow, shed by a poor shepherdess, who has no gifts to bear to the Christ child. A passing angel touched by her faith and devotion alter the tears into a bush bearing white roses laced in pink. A most precious gift devoid of a dime, love and sacrifice forming the incandescent substance of a miracle.

These Christmas roses are the Hellebores that are sold in the stores along with the sparkling red Poinsettias: their five pointed petals resembling a star.

The ancients believed that these luminous beings were omens and harbingers of joy and hope, the embodiment of the true spirit of Christmas season on humankind’s frosty garden and to be treated with joy and deference.

A few years ago, under the brilliant gaze of the full moon, we saw a herd of golden deer, grazing nonchalantly around the corners of a nativity scene on Winter Solstice in the middle of a looming forest.

While the car radio blared the cacophony of political news of the day, the world out there, at the edge of the woods was doused in the mists of the sublime. It was a realm too full, too rich with delicate beauty for one to be dismissed by the other as a world of myth and fairy tale.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)

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