As Yule and the Winter Solstice draw near on December 21st, the perfect moment arrives to immerse ourselves in the enchanting world of Yuletide legends and folklore.
From the stolen bones of Saint Nicholas that secrete a healing liquid, to Loki’s connection to mistletoe, our journey promises a blend of magic, mystery, and peculiar wonders.
Saint Nicholas: The Miracle of Myra and Beyond
"Saint Nicholas" by Jaroslav Čermák
Saint Nicholas, the inspiration behind the beloved Santa Claus, was a revered 4th-century Christian saint and Bishop of Myra, located in what is now modern-day Turkey. Celebrated for his generosity and kindness, Nicholas's legacy has evolved into the Santa Claus we cherish today.
Myra's Generosity Legend:
Saving the Sisters One of his most famous legends recounts his rescue of three impoverished sisters. Their father, unable to afford their dowries, considered selling them into slavery. Saint Nicholas intervened, covertly delivering bags of gold on three separate nights. According to some versions, these bags fortuitously landed in stockings or shoes left by the fireplace, inspiring the Christmas tradition of hanging stockings.
The Tale of the Pickled Boys:
A Gruesome Miracle Another extraordinary, albeit macabre, story involves a malevolent butcher and three young boys. The butcher, having trapped and killed the boys, preserved their bodies in barrels. Saint Nicholas, known for his protective nature, miraculously resurrected them, revealing the butcher's heinous acts. This tale underlines his role as a guardian of children and the oppressed.
Saint Nicholas' Magic Bones: The Journey to Bari:
After his death in 343 AD, Saint Nicholas was buried in Myra. Centuries later, Italian merchants from Bari exhumed and relocated his remains in 1087. This act, driven by both religious veneration and economic incentives, led to the construction of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, which still houses his relics.
These relics are shrouded in mystique, particularly due to the "manna" or "myrrh" they are said to produce. This clear liquid flows spontaneously and is typically described as having a sweet and aromatic scent.
Devotees believe that the liquid possesses the power to heal various ailments, both physical and spiritual. Pilgrims come from far and wide to seek the blessings and healing effects of the manna, and it is often applied or consumed as a form of religious sacrament.
Freyja's Winter Blessings: The Apples of Abundance
Freyja, a revered figure in Norse mythology, is the embodiment of love, war, and witchcraft. Renowned for her majestic presence, she is often depicted arriving in a chariot pulled by two gray cats.
The Christmas Visit: Blessing the Apple Trees:
In the heart of Värend, Sweden, a captivating folk tradition celebrates Freyja's connection to the Christmas season. It's believed that on Christmas Eve, Freyja, in all her splendor, visits the earth. During this mystical night, she is thought to lovingly shake each apple tree, bestowing upon them the promise of a fruitful and prosperous harvest in the year to come.
A Gesture of Gratitude:
In a display of gratitude and reverence, the locals uphold a charming custom. After harvesting the apples, they intentionally leave several fruits untouched on the trees. These apples serve as offerings to Freyja, expressing the people's appreciation for her blessings and ensuring her favor in the seasons to come.
Frigga and the Mistletoe: A Norse Legend
Frigga, the esteemed goddess of motherhood and marriage, and wife of Odin in Norse mythology, holds a deep connection with the mistletoe, a plant now synonymous with Christmas romance.
The Tale of Baldr and the Mistletoe:
This association stems from the tragic tale of her son, Baldr, the god of light. Adored by all, a prophecy foretelling Baldr's death deeply distressed Frigga. In her maternal devotion, she sought promises from every entity in nature to not harm her son, save for the unassuming mistletoe, deemed too young to make such a vow.
Enter Loki, the trickster god. Discovering this oversight, he crafted a spear (or in some stories, an arrow) from the mistletoe. During a playful game, the gods were harmlessly tossing objects at the invulnerable Baldr. Loki cunningly assisted Baldr's blind brother, Höðr, in throwing the mistletoe spear, fatally wounding Baldr.
The Birth of a Christmas Tradition:
Frigga's tears over her son's demise transformed into the mistletoe's white berries. In her grief, she imbued the mistletoe with a new, peaceful significance, decreeing it a symbol of love and vowing to kiss anyone who passed beneath it. This gesture was intended to overturn the misfortune caused by the plant, transforming a story of sorrow into one of love and reconciliation.
Thus, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is more than a festive act; it symbolizes a tribute to Frigga's enduring love for Baldr, celebrating life and love's triumph over past hardships.
Mari Lwyd: The Caroling Christmas Horse of Welsh Folklore
The Mari Lwyd, pronounced "mary loo-wyd," is a distinctive Welsh tradition, especially prominent during the Christmas and New Year period. Its roots may extend back to pre-Christian times, with "Mari Lwyd" translating to "Grey Mare" in Welsh.
The Spectral Horse's Visitation:
Central to the Mari Lwyd is a horse's skull, festively adorned with ribbons, bells, and sometimes even Christmas lights or colorful baubles. This skull, which features hinged jaws for animation, is usually attached to a white sheet, concealing the person operating it.
Accompanied by a troupe of performers, the Mari Lwyd travels from house to house or pub to pub. The group engages in traditional Welsh poetic dialogues, known as pwnco, exchanging songs, rhymes, and witty challenges with the inhabitants in return for food or drink.
The Mystery of Mari Lwyd's Origins and Symbolism:
The Mari Lwyd's exact origins and symbolism are subjects of scholarly debate, but several intriguing theories exist:
- Symbol of Good Luck: Drawing from possible pre-Christian Celtic rituals, the horse, revered by the Celts as a symbol of power and fertility, could represent the cycles of death and rebirth. This aligns with winter solstice themes of renewal and the onset of the new year.
- Psychopomp Interpretation: Some view the Mari Lwyd as a psychopomp, a spiritual guide for souls to the afterlife. This theory connects with the contemplation of mortality during the harsh winter and the solstice's thinning veil between the living and the dead.
- A Social Custom: Historians and folklorists often see the Mari Lwyd as an evolution of wassailing or house-visiting practices common in Britain. The playful pwnco and interactions between the performers and householders likely served to strengthen community bonds and provide a respite from winter's severity.
La Befana: Italy's Christmas Witch of Generosity
La Befana, a cherished figure in Italian folklore, embodies the spirit of Christmas giving. This benevolent witch delivers gifts to children across Italy on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany.
The Charismatic Chimney Traveler:
Portrayed as a kind-hearted yet disheveled old lady, La Befana is often depicted riding a broomstick and covered in soot from her travels down chimneys. In this unique twist on the Santa Claus tradition, she leaves candies, sweets, and small gifts for well-behaved children, and coal or dark candy for those less behaved.
A Tale of Missed Opportunity and Redemption:
La Befana's legend varies, but a common version involves the Three Wise Men. They invited her to join their quest to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, preoccupied with household chores. Regretting her decision, she later set off with gifts for Jesus. However, unable to find him, she instead bestows her gifts on other children, hoping to eventually encounter the Christ child.
Odin and Santa Claus: 4 Yuletide Parallels
"Åsgårdsreien" by Peter Nicolai Arbo
While Santa Claus is widely recognized as deriving from Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century Christian bishop known for his generosity, intriguing parallels exist between Santa and Odin, a major deity in Norse mythology. These connections offer a unique perspective on the evolution of Yuletide traditions.
1. The Winter-Time Connection:
Odin is closely associated with Yule, the ancient midwinter festival, much like Santa Claus is synonymous with the Christmas season. Both figures dominate their respective holiday periods, which interestingly coincide in the calendar.
2. Gift-Giving Traditions:
In Norse mythology, Odin was seen as a giver of gifts and blessings. During Yule, children would leave offerings for Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, hoping for gifts in return, much like the modern practice of children leaving stockings for Santa Claus. This shared tradition of gift exchange underscores a significant link between the two.
3. Shared Visual Imagery:
The physical depiction of Odin as an elderly man with a long, white beard closely mirrors the modern image of Santa Claus. Further, Odin's hat and cloak can be viewed as early versions of Santa's now-iconic red suit and hat.
4. Magical Sky Journeys:
Odin's mythical ride through the skies during the Wild Hunt is paralleled by Santa Claus's magical flight in his reindeer-pulled sleigh. This concept of a magical being traversing the heavens, visiting homes, has deep roots in these ancient legends.
Happy Yule: Embrace the Magic
As we wrap up our journey through these enchanting tales, we wish you a joyful and magical Yule season. May the mysteries of old continue to weave their spell. Happy Yule!