Al­manac

Beatrice Hol­loway

Evergreen - - Contents - BEATRICE HOL­LOWAY

The win­ter sol­stice is cel­e­brated in many guises and we are able to em­brace the tra­di­tions of other faiths and cul­tures along with the favourite cus­toms and legends of Christ­mas. In­deed, many fam­i­lies have their own, handed down through the gen­er­a­tions, re­mak­ing them and in­tro­duc­ing new ones.

A num­ber of beasts and small crea­tures are as­so­ci­ated with longheld Christ­mas folk­lore and it is sur­pris­ing how many peo­ple do not know of them. For ex­am­ple, many be­lieve that the robin, so prom­i­nent on Christ­mas cards, dates back to Vic­to­rian times when post­men were nick­named “robins” be­cause they wore red uni­forms. How­ever, robins’ as­so­ci­a­tions with Christ­mas go back much fur­ther.

A fa­ble tells of the robin’s pres­ence in the Bethlehem sta­ble. A fire had been lit and was blaz­ing fiercely but Mary had been dis­tracted. The robin, fear­ing the baby’s face might be burned, sta­tioned him­self be­tween the fire and the child and puffed up its feathers to pro­tect the in­fant. But, the robin was too close to the fire and its chest was scorched and red­dened. This red­ness stayed with all fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of robins. In yet an­other fa­ble, the robin kept a low fire alight by fetch­ing twigs. Again, it is said, he scorched his chest when the flames leapt up.

Mary thanked and praised the robin for all it had done. She looked ten­derly at its red breast, burned by the flame, and said, “From now on, let your red breast be a re­minder of your thought­ful deed.”

An­other story tells of the owl who was wo­ken up to be told that Je­sus had been born and that all the birds and crea­tures were go­ing to the sta­ble to wel­come him. “I’ll come later,” the owl said and went back to sleep. When he woke he was alone, there was no one to tell him where to go. “Who will take me to the sta­ble?” he kept ask­ing. And now we still hear him ask­ing, “Who? Who? Who?”

The stork is the sub­ject of an­other bird fa­ble. Baby Je­sus was sur­rounded by many birds and beasts that had come to greet him in­clud­ing a stork. It saw the baby ly­ing in the straw with no pil­low, so it plucked feathers from its plumage to make a soft pil­low. From that day on storks have been a sym­bol of births and fea­ture on cards and presents for new ar­rivals. It is said if some­one spots a stork fly­ing, or on the roof of a house, it is a lucky omen as storks are the pa­trons of ba­bies. And, as chil­dren, re­mem­ber how we were told that the stork had brought our new brother or sis­ter.

There are two sea­sonal sto­ries about cats — tab­bies in par­tic­u­lar. The first tells of how the baby was cold and un­com­fort­able in his makeshift bed. A tom tabby cat heard the child’s dis­tress­ing cries, jumped into the manger and curled it­self around the in­fant to keep him warm. Mary was so grate­ful to the cat and she gently stroked its fore­head. Look care­fully and you will see the mark of Mary on the head of tabby cats. It is said the let­ter M would for­ever be a to­ken of Mary’s love.

The sec­ond fa­ble tells how Mary and a tabby both gave birth in the sta­ble. Mary bent over

the cat shar­ing her birth pangs. She placed her hand on the cat’s head in sym­pa­thy say­ing that they were both new moth­ers. To this day the mark M is prom­i­nent on the cats’ heads.

It is un­clear how th­ese legends be­gan as there seems to be no men­tion of cats any­where in the Bi­ble.

Christ­mas trees are nearly al­ways fes­tooned with tin­sel and it is in­ter­est­ing to know that, in folk­lore, spi­ders are re­spon­si­ble for this tra­di­tion. Again, there are a num­ber of ex­pla­na­tions.

The first tells us that on Christ­mas Eve, a house­wife was de­ter­mined to clean her home from top to bot­tom, ban­ish­ing spi­ders to the at­tic. When the fam­ily were asleep, the spi­ders de­cided to see what the fuss was about. They were cu­ri­ous about the Christ­mas tree and scram­bled all over it. Their ac­tiv­i­ties caused their silk to be wo­ven in and out of the branches. Next morn­ing the fam­ily were en­chanted to see such fine threads dec­o­rat­ing the tree.

A sim­i­lar story tells of a poor fam­ily un­able to dec­o­rate their tree. The spi­ders took pity on them and cov­ered the tree overnight with their webs. In the morn­ing, the sun shone on the fine silk threads mak­ing them sparkle to the de­light of the chil­dren.

A third story sug­gests that when Herod’s sol­diers were look­ing for the fam­ily, they hid in a cave. They were tired and afraid of be­ing found.

A spi­der overheard their wor­ries and set about weav­ing its silken thread over the mouth of the cave. When the sol­diers came across the cave, they de­cided that no one could be in­side as the dense web across the en­trance would have been bro­ken. The humble spi­der had saved the fam­ily. Tin­sel, it is said, on Christ­mas trees repli­cates spi­ders’ silken threads. In­ci­den­tally, the gar­den spi­der is iden­ti­fied by the cross on its back.

Have you ever won­dered why moths are at­tracted to light? A Christ­mas leg­end gives an ex­pla­na­tion. All the crea­tures and birds were hur­ry­ing to go and see the new baby. The moth was busy clean­ing her home and no­ticed how ex­cited they all seemed and asked where were they go­ing? They told her and said, “Come with us.”

“I’m too busy right now,” she replied. “But as soon as I have fin­ished I shall come. How do I find the baby?”

“You will see a star giv­ing out a bright light shin­ing over the sta­ble where he is rest­ing.”

When the moth started out on her jour­ney there was no one to ask the way — she was too late. So now you will see her fly­ing round and round in any bright light in the dark try­ing to find the baby.

Such en­chant­ing tales, long may they be told.

PAUL RIDSDALE

Tabby cats are also said to have played a part in the Christ­mas story.

JON JAYES

A fes­tive favourite, the robin has tra­di­tional links with Christ­mas.

PAUL THOMP­SON

Leg­end says the sound of an owl hoot­ing has con­nec­tions with the birth of Baby Je­sus.

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