Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Legends and Tales

So I love Christmas fiction, but I also love those elusive Christmas legends. I have a soft spot for holiday stories that originate from medieval and European stories that infuse magic with symbolism or the religious. There are some truly spectacular tales out there, and I love reading them, hearing them, and working with them in my own fiction.

A lot of them trace back to Christian beliefs, but no matter what area your faith lies in, I find these to just be really well put together little tales. They’re quick narratives that touch the heart and capture the imagination. I have a favorite in particular: One involves a little French boy who happens to be a hunchback who is skilled at working with wood. He decides to carve a new cradle for his village’s creche, but work piles up and late on Christmas night he’s still slaving away when a boy his age comes into his workshop to help. He falls asleep and wakes up to see not only a beautiful cradle, but finds that he’s been cured of his affliction. When he takes the cradle to the creche his notices that the baby looks quite a bit like a younger version of the boy who helped him.

Whatever your traditions are, I thought I'd share some of my other favorite Christmas legends, and I'd love to hear some of yours!

 The Legend of the Christmas Spider – this one is a German story, and I’ve heard different variations so I’m providing the link. The basic theme is that spiders want to see the Christmas tree (the object of much fuss in the human household) for themselves, but being nearsighted they have to look up close and leave their webs everywhere. Through magic (or a miracle depending on the story) their webs are turned to silver and gold threads, thus giving the world the first inspiration for tinsel.

The Legend of the Poinsetta – A young Mexican girl has no gift to leave at the nativity on Christmas Eve, but gets reassured that even the most humble gift is welcome. With no other options, she gathers a handful of weeds, but when she leaves them at the nativity they’re transformed to beautiful flowers with fiery blooms. I got so much extra credit in Adv. Spanish class for being able to read the Tommy DePaola …mainly because my mother had gotten me the Spanish/English translation of the book the year before for Christmas.

Silent Night – a simple story that may or may not be true. A young priest writes a poem and wants music to go with it, so enlists the help of the church organist. According to someit, on Christmas Eve the organ was broken so it was played on guitar and a legend began. Others theorize that Franz Gruber preferred a simple melody he could play on guitar. Whatever you believe, it’s a story that many people know and love.

Santa’s Helpers…and I don’t mean the elves. Depending on the region, back in the day Santa usually had a servant/assistant/co-person who punished the naughty kids while he gave gifts to the good. This could be everything from taking back the toys, giving coal or switches (that parents would use as a reminder of what would happen if children misbehaved), or in the case of Krampus (admittedly fast becoming a personal favorite of mine), he would put you in his magic sack and drag you to hell. And GUYS DID YOU KNOW ICELAND HAS YULE TROLLS?! AND A YULE CAT!? Apparently the thirteen trolls will either play pranks on you or give you presents. But the Yule cat will eat you if you don't get new clothes by Christmas Eve. So you'd better get shopping!

Talking animals on Christmas Eve – This has to be my absolute personal favorite of the bunch. I first saw this referenced in an Irish faerie/ghost story when I was ten, and since then I love when an author can reference it in fiction. It’s been used by authors from Beatrix Potter (Tailor of Gloucester) to Anne M. Martin (On Christmas Eve), and used deftly and gracefully. The original legend goes something like because animals acknowledged or allowed Jesus into their home on Christmas Eve, at midnight every year until dawn they’re able to talk and communicate like everyone else (although in Potter’s story you have to be able to interpret their animal-speak to be able to get the full gist). I will admit that although I am an adult I may have cornered my cat after midnight every year on Christmas Eve…just in case. 

I love things like this because they stand the test of time and because they give me ideas as an author and all-around creative person. Whether I choose to use any of them or not, I like that there’s such a rich history and story-telling tradition in the winter holidays – and that’s not even counting the history of traditions like wassailing and kissing under the mistletoe or legends behind symbols like holly and ivy. There’s so much to work with, and it’s all beautiful and rich with possibility.

And speaking of symbols like holly and ivy...even though this story seems like a cozy little romantic story with a bit of magic, I can tell you that it very much stemmed from the symbolism behind the plants, as well...

After losing her job and her boyfriend, Holly returns to her parents’ farm. Embarrassed and hopeless, she doesn’t expect to bump into a forgotten childhood friend that wasn’t supposed to exist. Ivy is not only a dryad, but she lives in the pine trees Holly’s family grows to sell at Christmas. As the old friends reconnect, Ivy not only shares her strong oninions, but gives Holly a charm that will change both their lives. As days melt into weeks and the seasons change, Holly’s life magically turns around. Christmas not only brings surprises, but a choice for the human woman. What’s more important: stability, success, and love, or keepinga promise to an old friend?

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