The Christmas tree is more than a much-loved and glittering centrepiece of festive decorations and celebrations. In the home, it is a unifying symbol the family can gather around, strengthening familial ties and a place of fun and cheer. When placed in the local community it becomes a rallying point for people to sing carols, meet, and strengthen social bonds. However, its exact origin is debated, and there are different ideas of how its importance to the festival evolved. Presented here is a retelling of how Saint Boniface introduced the fir tree into traditions and celebrations of the birth of Jesus. This tells how Saint Boniface cut down a sacred oak tree that was a prominent place of pagan worship in a place now called Hesse in Germany. Saint Boniface, also known as Winfrid or Winfred, was born c. 675 in Wessex, England and died June 5, 754, in Dokkum, Frisia, now part of the Neverlands. He was an English Benedictine monk working to establish Christianity in Germany and the Frankish empire. At that time, in that place, people worshipped pagan gods under a sacred tree growing singularly or in groves. The tree in this legend was called the Thunder Oak and is sometimes known as the Donar Oak, Jove’s Oak, the Oak of Jupiter, and other similar terms in other myths and legends.
Legend Of The Thunder Oak
The story begins in a time long before the establishment of Christianity in the Germanic lands where a massive oak grew. It was a true giant of trees so tall its topmost branches were hidden by clouds. Its ancient body was broad and twisted from which a profusion of long, gnarled, stretching limbs spread, creating a vast overarching canopy of darkness centre around the tree. To the people of these lands, the great tree was sacred and venerated as the Thunder Oak of their great god Thor and one of the most important shrines of his cult. Yet, under the darkness of its great canopy, human victims died under the bloodied knife of the priests of Thor, their blood soaking into the ground to feed the ravenous roots of the ancient oak.
Even in the dead of winter, bare of leaves and acorns, the space under its vast spreading branches, clumped with mistletoe, was a place of continuous and gloomy darkness. In this dread place, an atmosphere of quiet but overwhelming fear pervaded under the great smothering branches. Animals avoided the tree, making wide detours around it, while birds would not fly near or over it or perch in its branches. Even the buzzing flies and creeping insects kept well out of the dread darkness under its canopy.
And it came to pass, one cold, white Christmas Eve, as Christians were preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, the priests of Thor gathered under their sacred tree. They had not come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ or Christmas. Instead, they had come to pay homage to their god of war and thunder and witness the human sacrifice whose blood would nourish and strengthen the great tree and feed its darkness. They were joined by a great throng of their people to worship their own god, as was their tradition at this time of year.
Over the great tree rose a bright moon. The high priest chanted and made magical signs over the altar while the victim lay shivering in the cold, awaiting the stab of pain from the deadly knife that would end their life. As the high priest spread his arms out towards the Thunder Oak, his eyes adoring the sacred tree, his hand raised to strike, the air became still, all sound in the forest stopped, and silence fell. The bright moon rose to its zenith, sending her rays to find and illuminate the helpless man spread-eagled on the altar slab awaiting the stab of pain that would end their life. It never came. Instead, something extraordinary happened. As the pure rays of the brilliant moon lit the altar, the forest’s silence was broken. From the depths of the woods came the sound of Christian hymns sung by a throng of people growing louder as they drew nearer. They were led by Saint Boniface, who had come to bring Christianity and establish the church of Jesus Christ.
As the illuminating moon banished the darkness under the great Thunder Tree of Thor, Saint Boniface strode forward, wielding a shining axe. The High Priest, dagger in his hands, his raised arms poised to strike, froze. His followers parted to allow the saint to march directly up to the Thunder Oak unchallenged. Then, gathering his strength in his arms, he struck a blow that caused a great gash in the tree’s trunk with his axe. The shocked High Priest and his followers looked on in fear as he struck the oak repeatedly, causing an ever-widening gash in the its body.
Suddenly, a mighty wind swept over the forest roof, hitting the great oak with force. With an awful groan, the tree toppled backwards, crashing into the ground with such force it caused its great trunk to split into four equal portions. Behind the wreckage of the oak, a young fir tree stood, its green spire pointing the way to heaven. Dropping his axe and turning to his people, the saint pointed at the young verdant tree and joyfully cried,
“See there, the young scion of the forest, the tree of peace! See how it is shaped like a church steeple pointing to heaven. We build our houses from it to shelter us; its foliage remains evergreen. Let this tree be known as the tree of the Christ child. Let us bring it into our homes where it will encourage our loving deeds and acts of kindness and bring the peace of Jesus Christ into our hearts as we shun the wildness of the wood!”
In obedience to the saint, they took the sapling fir into their great communal meeting hall where all could see it. They abandoned the cult of Thor and the Thunder Oak and practised Christianity, and every year celebrated Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ with a young evergreen fir tree at the centre of their home, family, and community.
Presented below is a retelling of a Lancashire folktale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire by James Bowker, where it was called The Phantom of the Fell.
The High Fell at Night
The High Fell is an impressive sight in daylight but at night when the moon is full it takes on a glory of its own. One evening in the middle of June a local man named Giles Wheeler had been celebrating the wedding of a distant relative. During those celebrations he had felt within him a longing for the company of his own dear sweetheart the rosy-faced, warm-hearted Lisa, who was the miller’s only daughter. It was a long road home and in daylight the quickest way was through the ravine that split the Fell in two but that was something few local people did after dark. It had long been rumoured that something evil lurked in the ravine and walked the Fell at night. Even in daylight people walked a considerable distance out of their way to avoid passing near the darksome place.
Giles was not overly superstitious and being a vigorous man in the prime of life had little fear of the Fell at night or the supposed fiend that haunted it though normally by habit he would have played safe and avoided it because of its darkness and danger from the cliffs and ridges. However, this night the moon lit the hillside gloriously and he judged he had sufficient light to pass through safely. Had he not been in such a hurry he might have noticed that as well as being gloriously moonlit, it was a calm and peaceful night. The only sound was the gently whispering of the breeze through the bracken.
Giles took no notice of such trivialities as moonlight and the breeze through the bracken he had his mind full of the delights of Lisa. Maybe another night, with less pressing concerns on his mind Giles would have avoided the ravine on High Fell despite it being a substantial short cut to the old mill and the miller’s cuddly daughter.
On this night he was in a hurry and putting aside all of the terrifying stories he had heard he stepped into the darkness of the ravine leaving the moonlight behind. His desire for Lisa was strong but as he walked along in the moonlight he kept thinking back to those tales. Each shadow that loomed before him and each rustle behind him made him start and his heart jump. His skin grew cold and prickled and his fear rose. He told himself not to be foolish, that the shadows were nought but shadows and the rustling behind him was nought but the breeze in the bracken. Entering into the ravine he was surprised to find it was very misty and he pulled his coat around him feeling chilled to the bone despite it being a warm midsummer night. He felt it before he heard it. The scream penetrated his brain. He froze in fear. It cut right through him. Possessed him!
Forcing himself on the deathly wail broke the night again as he reached a curve in the ravine. The terrible wail was not intended to terrify rather to express melancholy, sadness and woe. As it washed over him he knew the maker of such a sound could not be from this world. Startled, he looked in its direction and in the moonlight saw the shape of a woman against the moon standing upon a cliff. Her face was pale with a fragile beauty, her long black hair had a strange lustre, her dark eyes a melancholy, pleading, allure that sought him out and looked deep into his soul and then she was gone.
She appeared a little way before him and he stood spellbound worshiping her beauty. All fear was replaced by a delirious desire to speak – to speak and to be spoken to – by this most beautiful woman who appeared to be in such anguish. As her lips moved his heart beat faster expecting her to speak to him.
To his shock and disappointment instead of speaking words she uttered another long, low, lamenting wail and held out her arms invitingly to him. Now, he hurried forward eager to greet her. She turned slowly gliding on a few paces before turning and beckoning – inviting him to follow. She floated further along the ravine where the moonlight was at its brightest beckoning and appealing to him with those dark eyes and he hurried after her. She turned and holding her arms out towards him, her eyes pleading, inviting, her arms welcoming. As he reached out to touch and take her, she vanished and he grasped at nothing. Bewildered and deeply disappointed he ran around anxiously trying to find her again. Frantically, he looked around, but there was no sight of her to be seen. He retraced his steps through the ravine but even in the bright moonlight could find no trace of her. Fearful of losing her he crisscrossed the ravine desperately seeking her and roamed around High Fell until dawn. Finally, instead of continuing his journey to his sweetheart Lisa he went back to his own family home.
Unwilling to tell his parents of his experience on the High Fell during the night he told them that he had not left the wedding celebrations until midnight. Having drunk too much ale he had become lost on the way home. This appeared to satisfy them though it was remarked that after such festivities it was a wonder he had found his way home at all!
Throughout the day his mother and father became aware their son was unusually quiet and reflective and nothing like his usual cheerful and energetic self. His father put it down to the ale the night before, while his mother thought perhaps the wedding was making him reflect on his own marital status and hoped for one for her son soon.
When Giles suddenly stood up and announced he was going out for a few hours, giving no hint of where he was going, his mother nodded and looked knowingly upon her son as he walked purposefully through the door into the falling twilight. In fact, it was not in the direction of the old mill that Giles turned when he left the house but the opposite direction he stepped with his eyes fixed upon High Fell. He deliberately took his time loitering here and there with the deliberate intention of entering the ravine that evening after the gloaming by the light of the moon.
He walked unwarily with no intent at concealment knowing on the path he traveled at that time of the evening he would be unlikely to meet anyone. All he cared about was meeting the beautiful woman – phantom – or spirit, that he had met the night before on the Fell. Taking a seat on a boulder outside the ravine he sat down to wait for the moon to rise hoping she would appear once again to him.
Woman or ghoul he did not care he had to see her and he waited. He waited and watched as the night began to unfold around him feeling her presence, knowing she was near as the mist appeared and thickened around him. Once again he felt it before he heard it a strange lamenting wail cutting through his mind. He knew there were words in that long moaning scream but could not make them out.
Return to the Ravine
He entered the ravine as the moon rose in full glory and walked slowly down the path between the crags. Again he felt her presence, but stronger than before, then the low, long mournful wail crept through the night he looked towards the sound and saw her standing in the moonlight high upon a crag her outstretched arms beckoning to him.
In growing desire and anticipation he moved towards her as she floated down from the crag to stand a short way down the path before him. He caught a glimpse of those mysteriously dark eyes – appealing – pleading. She beckoned to him, turned and glided further down the path toward the heart of the dark clough. He had no other choice than to follow as she drew him deeper into the jagged maw of the ravine and turned to face him her dark eyes shining in the moonlight her black hair flowing in the breeze. There she stood, white dress shimmering in the moonlight her arms outstretched beckoning, her eyes pleading – inviting. Giles stumbled on reaching out for her but as he looked into the depths of her pleading eyes, she uttered a low mournful cry and as he reached to hold her she dissolved before him.
Aghast, Giles ran up and down trying to find her but she was gone. All that was left was that low mournful sound that echoed in his mind. He spent the night searching the ravine and the Fell but all in vain. As the sun rose he made his way back to the farm of his parents feeling mournful at her loss, bewitched and musing upon how he could find her again.
Over the following days the urge to gaze upon that beautiful face and to lose himself in those pleading eyes consumed him. He took to sitting around and refused to eat. In the evenings he would leave his parents farm to ramble alone on the High Fell in the hope of once again seeing that mysteriously beautiful stranger.
June passed into July and his mother, father and Lisa could not help noticing the change in his behaviour. Worse still, the continual refusal to explain himself and his nocturnal ramblings caused them great worry and they speculated wildly upon what it was that was troubling him.
July passed into August and the miller, Lisa’s father, to her upset took a less than charitable view suggesting Giles nocturnal rambles were in fact visits to a nearby town and that he had fallen into evil ways. Despite her father’s dark opinion of Giles, the ever faithful Lisa went to her fiance’s house to meet and talk with him in the hope of winning back his devoted attention.
Giles listened to her earnest and heartfelt pleadings full of shame but would not, indeed, could not, give her assurances that he would change his ways. She argued with logic, she reasoned, she begged she pleaded and used all her womanly wiles, but Giles refused to promise to change his ways.
Lisa was left thinking that her father was right and bitterly accused him of being dishonest and unfaithful to her and left for home in tears.Halfway home she stopped and thought about running back to him, throwing herself upon him and begging him to tell her the truth. She would forgive any indiscretions but insist his behaviour must stop. Something inside her stopped her, perhaps pride, perhaps anger but she didn’t. Instead, she went back home to her father at the mill. As for Giles, he was deeply upset and desperately ashamed and sorry for his behaviour but he knew he could not stop and refused to tell further lies. Nevertheless, he realised he was steadily falling completely under the power of the mysterious woman and tried to resist.
August passed into September and then into October and all those long days and nights his mind was assailed by the vision of the woman of the Fell and he heard her long lonely moan day and night.
The Mad Man on the Fell
One night towards the end of November he made his way up to the High Fell to the ravine and began searching for the mysterious woman in white. He walked up and down and round and round in circles, becoming increasingly frantic as the night progressed without her appearance. Again and again he spoke out loud appealing to her to present herself to him, but to no avail.
Occasionally, as on this night poachers visited the High Fell in the hope of finding game. This night two of the miller’s men were out poaching and on hearing a voice quickly concealed themselves so as not to be discovered in their illicit activity. They were both intrigued and shocked at what they witnessed that night.
In their place of concealment they saw Giles appear out of the ravine frantically babbling as if he was talking or appealing to an invisible being. He ran straight towards them appearing half-crazed shouting and babbling in agitation. They could not quite make out what he was saying but as he drew nearer they realized he appeared to be appealing and begging to some invisible being to show themselves to him.
The two poachers remained hidden, first not wanting to reveal themselves in their illegal activity, but also, quite simply, they were scared at what they saw and agreed together to say nothing to anyone of what they had seen of the madman on the Fell. When Giles ran the opposite way to where they were they took their opportunity and ran as quickly as they could back home.
At dawn Giles somehow made his way down the hillside and back home. To the worry of his parents he was in a state of high fever and delirium ranting and calling out to some invisible presence only he could see. He raved about a beautiful, mysterious face and someone with dark, pleading eyes.
This confirmed to his parents their worst fears. Sorrowfully they tended to his needs as he lay raving in bed. This terrible affliction continued for several weeks and in that time, especially at night, Giles would try to leave the safety of his family home to go wandering in the dark. His parents steadfastly thwarted this ambition but still he called out to someone they could not see or hear, sometimes whispering, “She of the dark, dark eyes is calling,” while his broken-hearted parents wept by his bedside.
It was bad enough for his devoted parents to see the physical deterioration in his body along with his mental state. It was made worse for them by learning from his ravings of a beautiful woman with “dark, dark eyes” that he appeared to have been meeting up on the High Fell. Nevertheless, he was still their son and although they loved him dearly they could not help but to think he had fallen into sin and shame as they listened to his wild and impassioned ravings.
They lived on the edge of a tight knit community and it was not long before people began to talk and word reached the ears of Lisa. She carried herself through these troubled times staunchly, believing she was now seen as an object of pity.
It so happened that the two of the miller’s men who had been up on the fell poaching went to their employer telling him of what they had seen that night. They told him they believed Giles was under the spell of the feeorin of the fell.The miller rebuked them for poaching but sent them to speak to the worried parents of Giles of what they had seen. For Lisa this gave her hope that her fiance had not been unfaithful as she had feared. She was sorry for ever doubting him and she went along with them.
After the two told their story of what they had seen and that they believed him to be under the spell of the feeroin of the fell his parents readily seized upon it. To them this seemed the most sensible explanation of their son’s behaviour and rebuked themselves for not having more faith in him. Although a load was removed from their shoulders Giles still remained critically ill, but now Lisa stayed on and helped to take care of him.
Lisa and Giles
Both she and his parents now ignored his ravings and nursed him diligently and carefully. Eventually his condition improved enough for him to sit in a chair by the fire. As the December snows began to fall he sat by the hearth in a dream-like state watching the pictures in the flickering flames. Seeing his improvement Liza dared to dream of the day when he would return to his old self and happiness would smile upon them. She desperately wanted their wedding day to be fixed, despite all the love and attention she heaped upon him Giles treated her with a cold, but polite dispassion. He was not being ungrateful, in fact he fully appreciated the dedication and nursing she had lavished upon him. He always politely thanked her for each and everything but realised that Lisa sensed something was still amiss with him. Despite this, she still she lovingly continued her service to him without question.
Giles, no matter how he tried, could not return the love she bestowed upon him. He was completely possessed by the dark eyes of the mysterious woman on the Fell. Knowing that the truth would devastate Lisa he kept himself to a polite silence.
On Lisa’s part she sensed the coolness towards her but restrained from remonstrating with him fearing it might reverse the good progress in his physical health he had made. Sadly, when she was alone she wept for the change she saw in him.
For all the love she poured upon him Giles could not return what he not did not feel. His heart and mind was entirely possessed by the mysterious woman on the Fell. He knew it was wrong and he was wracked with guilt at the same time. No matter how he tried he could not get the image of her out of his mind; her dark eyes, her long flowing hair, and that sad mournful cry. It was these that dominated his thoughts and his emotions while he knew poor Lisa suffered but could not in anyway alleviate that suffering.
For him the intense longing he was feeling or the mysterious girl in the moonlight was building up. As the days moved towards Christmas and the festive season, he again began to see her dark eyes everywhere and hear her mournful lament in the wind through the trees. He tried to enter into the spirit of the season hoping it would take his mind off the mysterious woman.
Christmas Eve came and Lisa went home to her father promising to visit him in the morning. His parents went to bed early being exhausted and feeling their age and left him to sit up alone staring into the fire. From where he sat by the fire he could turn his head and look through the window to the High Fell and saw in his mind’s eye the woman in the moonlight beckoning and crying her long, sad cry.
In the distance he saw the High Fell black against the sky and he knew she was calling to him. He longed more than anything in the world to take her in his arms and look into those dark eyes though he feared what he knew he would see.
Fortunately there had always been someone nearby, either one or other of his parents or the faithful Lisa, who had prevented him from venturing out. Tonight on Christmas Eve he found himself alone and looking through the window at the falling snow and glancing towards the High Fell he swore he saw her. And then she came to him ….
The Phantom of the Fell
He heard her call and through the window he saw her. Those dark, dark eyes pleading and her outstretched arms beckoning him into her loving embrace. With no one to stop him he left the fireside and put on his coat and ventured outside into the snow. Slowly and weakly but with steely resolve he made his way through the biting wind and thick snow to the haunted ravine.
When his parents awoke Christmas morning they let their son lay in while they prepared the festivities. When Lisa arrived bearing him a special Christmas gift his mother called into his room to see where he was and his absence was discovered. She called her husband who wasted no time in seeking help from his neighbours and they followed his tracks in the snow. They reached the High Fell and found it shrouded in a thick mist which frigid pink sun shone through turning the ravine into a phantasmagoria of ghastly jagged teeth. In the weird light they followed his footprints up to the ravine and pausing looked at one another in hushed silence and then and then entered the dread place.
From the tracks Giles had made they guessed he had become frantic with steps leading back and forth and hither and thither. His father, who was leading the party, suddenly stopped holding up his hand. The tracks ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff he had almost stepped over. After a short discussion it was decided to follow the course of the path which would twist round and pass below the cliff. With growing dread they followed the path to place below the cliff where the grief of his father father and the horror of all present they found his broken body on the path his face frozen in a wild death mask.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English alliterative poem from the 14th century. It is a chivalric romance that uses the folkloric motifs of the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. The poem is from a single surviving manuscript known as Cotton Nero A.x which also hold three other narrative poems called; Pearl, Purity, and Patience. These three poems are of a Christian religious nature as is the Sir Gawain poem while many people see it as also containing pagan allusions. The author of the manuscript is unknown but generally referred to as either the Gawain Poet or the Pearl Poet. There are many different ways to interpret Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but what is provided here is a brief synopsis of the poem.
Brutus of Troy and the Founding of Britain
The poem begins by mentioning the mythical founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy in the Historical Prologue and tells how after the fall of Troy the descendants of the exiles founded new cities and countries. According to the poem, Rome was founded by Romulus, Tuscany by Tiscius, Langoberde begins the settlement of the country later called Lombardy and Brutus became the founder of Britain. This information is designed to give Camelot political significance and legitimacy and introduces King Arthur the noblest and greatest king and leader of the country. This also gives him historical significance and legitimacy while also linking the poet’s own text with such classics as Virgil’s Aeneid, providing a literary link to those ancient times.
The Appearance of the Green Knight
The story begins in Camelot on the feast of New Year’s Day with the members of Arthur’s court giving and receiving presents from one another when Arthur requests to see or hear of a thrilling experience of exploit from someone before the feast commences. Apparently, in answer to this request there rides into the hall upon a massive green horse the huge figure of a knight. He is not dressed for battle wearing and not wearing armor but his clothing and even his skin and hair are all green. In one hand he holds a most splendid battle axe while in the other he holds a branch of holly.
The Christmas Game
The Green Knight refused to enter into combat with anyone declaring there was no one present who could match him. Instead he invited any who dared to take part in a special Christmas game. Explaining the rules he tells them that someone must strike him one blow with his axe but within one year and a day they must themselves take a blow from him. Whoever decides to play can keep the axe. On hearing these terms all the knights present at first refused to play but when it appeared that no one had the courage Arthur agreed. However, The youngest knight present, Sir Gawain, offered to step in and play the game for him which Arthur and the Green Knight accepted.
The Green Knight knelt and bows his head to receive a blow which is duly given by Sir Gawain severing the head from the body in one stroke. After the blow is delivered to the shock of all present the Green Knight is not killed but picking up his severed head mounts his horse. Holding the severed head to face Queen Guinevere the lips speak reminding Gawain and all those present that the two players in the game must meet again at the Green Chapel within the agreed space of time. The Green Knight then wheels his horse around and carrying his severed head aloft rides from the hall leaving the bemused Gawain, Arthur and his knights with little else to do other than admiring the battle axe left with Gawain. They made fun of the strange event, laughing while encouraging Guinevere to make light of the matter. Life at Camelot soon returned to normal but time marched on.
Gawain’s Quest for the Green Chapel
With the approach of the allotted time and with only a few days left for the game to resume Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel to keep his promise to the Green Knight. On his way, he has many adventures which he overcomes but is severely tested by the cold and bitter weather of winter. On Christmas morning he prays he might find somewhere to hear mass and finds a beautiful castle. The lord of the castle is a knight named Bertilak de Hautdesert who has a beautiful wife and both are highly honored to have Gawain as a guest in their castle. There is also a female guest present at the castle who although being old and ugly was treated with great respect and reverence by the lord and lady.
The Castle of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert
Gawain explains to them about the game with the Green Knight telling them he is due to meet up with him on New Year’s Day and has only a few days left to find the Green Chapel. Bertilak reveals that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and suggests Gawain rests for the remaining time at his castle. Gawain, after his long hard journey, is only too pleased to accept this proposition.
Bertilak tells Gawain he is going hunting in the morning and that he should stay and rest himself in bed after his long and arduous journey. He then proposed they make a pact with each other. Whatever he gains in the hunt he will bring home and give to Gawain. Whatever Gawain gains the next day by staying in the castle he will give to his host on his return. Gawain accepts the pact and goes to bed.
Gawain’s Pact with Bertilak
With Bertilak out hunting Gawain remains in bed in the castle and Lady Bertilak goes to his bedchamber and attempts to seduce him. Gawain though greatly tempted does not wish to betray Bertilak and at the same time does not wish to offend the lady. Gently and politely he refuses her advances, but in doing so accepts a single kiss from her. Bertilak has a successful day out hunting catching a deer which when he returns he fulfills his side of the bargain and gives it to Gawain. Gawain to fulfill his part gives Bertilak a kiss but does not reveal where he got it from pointing out that was not part of their pact.
The next morning Bertilak again goes hunting leaving Gawain in his castle. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce him and although greatly tempted all he will accept is a kiss. Later that day Lady Bertilak tries again but he will courteously only accept another kiss. When Bertilak returns he gives Gawain the head of a boar he has killed and receives from Gawain two kisses and again the source of these is not revealed.
On the third morning, Bertilak once again goes off hunting leaving Gawain in the castle with Lady Bertilak. She asks him for a small gift or keepsake to remember him by but he tells her he has no such thing worthy of her. Again Lady Bertilak tries to seduce Gawain while offering him a gold ring to remember her by. Gawain courteously refuses the gift but she begs him to accept the green and gold girdle of silk she wears telling him it is magical and wearing it will keep him safe from all physical harm. Gawain is mindful that the next day he must face the Green Knight in the Green Chapel to complete their game which he does not expect to survive and accepts the gift.
This time when Bertilak returns from hunting he has caught a fox which he gives to Gawain as agreed. In return, Gawain gives him the three kisses he had received again not revealing where he got them from but withheld Lady Bertilak’s gift of her girdle saying nothing about it at all.
The Green Knight at the Green Chapel
The next morning Gawain wraps the girdle twice around his body and sets off with a guide provided by Bertilak to take him to the Green Chapel to play the final part of the strange and grim game with the Green Knight. When they draw near the guide tells Gawain that if he should decide to give up the game and ride away he would tell no one. Gawain is determined to keep his promise to the Green Knight. The guide tells him that he is too afraid to go further himself that shows Gawain the way who rides on alone. When he arrives at the Green Chapel he finds the Green Knight already there sharpening a massive battle-axe.
Gawain dismounts and kneels and bows his head to receive a blow from the Green Knight. As the Green Knight prepares to bring down the axe on his neck Gawain flinches slightly as he swings. This cause the Green Knight to stop and berate him for cowardice. This shames Gawain who then waits unflinchingly for the blow but the Green Knight swings again but holds it from the final blow telling Gawain he is testing his nerve. Gawain, now angry berates the Green Knight insisting he gets on with it. This time the Green Knight does bring the axe down on his neck but at the last instant withholds force, causing only minor wound to Gawain’s neck and with this, the game is over.
Gawain then arms himself preparing to fight but the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak de Hautdesert who had been magically transformed into the Green Knight. Bertilak then explains that the entire game was a trick caused by the old ugly woman who had been his other guest and that she was the sorceress, Morgan le Fay in an attempt to frighten Queen Guinevere to death and create a test for Arthur and his knights.
Return to Camelot
After this revelation, Gawain is ashamed and tells Bertilak about the gift of the girdle. Birtilak laughs and absolves Gawain of any guilt calling him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part as friends and Gawain returns to Camelot where he tells Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of his adventure. Arthur and the knights also absolve him of the blame for not revealing the gift of the girdle and in an act of solidarity with him, all agree to wear a green sash to remind them to keep their integrity.
The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions. For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing. As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet. To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.
Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain
Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall. According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea. This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.
Brave Tom Bawcock
According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done. Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him. He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish. When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.
These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village. They called the dish stargazy pie. In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water. Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve
Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten. But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.
The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain
There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.
The origin of Tom Bawcock
There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated. One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.
Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man. So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village. It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.
The Devil in a Pie!
There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall. According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies. Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back before they decided to place him in one!
Christmas is for many people and not just children, the highlight of the year. Even though we may spend far more money and time than is really necessary it is still a time that people plan and work hard to provide for their families and themselves. It is the most important date in the calendar for many businesses ranging from retail stores, manufacturing, provision of food and beverages and many more. Indeed it seems to get more frenzied, stressful and expensive with every passing year. This article looks at how Christmas evolved through the ages through various cultures to the present date.
The Birth of Jesus
In Old English the word for Christmas is “Cristes Maesse,” meaning the Mass of Christ. Today we celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus Christ. The Western world has used the 25th of December as a nominal date to celebrate the birth of Jesus since 345 AD, before that his birth was celebrated on 6th January. The fact is that no one knows the exact day or year that Jesus was born on.
Many biblical scholars and historians point out that the Bible tells of shepherds tending flocks of sheep on the night Jesus was born and that it unlikely that they would be out in December because of the coldness of the winter in Judea. Some scholars think that Jesus was born in the spring, between March and May. Others argue for September. It is doubtful if we will ever know for sure unless some hidden knowledge is ever found. The important thing is that his birth is remembered and celebrated and the message kept alive.
Ancient Pagan Influences
Over the centuries Christians have changed the meaning and significance of many ancient pagan customs, traditions and festivals adapting them to suit Christian beliefs. Some may argue that it was an attempt to eradicate paganism while others say that it was a way of compromise that allowed old beliefs to be replaced by new in a less confrontational way.
In Egypt and Babylon both had mid-winter festivals and fertility festivals were also celebrate at this time of the year in many parts of Europe. In Phrygia the 25th of December was the celebration of the birth of the sun god, Attis and in ancient Persia they celebrated the birth of their god, Mythra.
The legend of the Christmas Rose tells the story of how a young shepherdess named Madelon, through her love and devotion, came to give the baby Jesus a gift more precious than gold, frankincense or myrrh.
Madelon and the Christmas Rose – Public Domain
The Christmas Rose
The Christmas rose (helleborus niger) is actually a perennial herb and grows in the cold, snowy mountains and high valleys across Europe. The flowers are white and star-shaped and tipped with pink. It is also known as the Snow Rose and the Winter Rose as it blossoms in the mid-winter season when most other vegetation lies dormant and covered by snow.
The tradition tells how the shepherds, while watching their flocks, were visited by an Angel who was leading the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. The Angel told them of the birth of Jesus who would be known as the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Saviour of their people. Overjoyed, the shepherds left their flocks to visit the new born king taking him such gifts as they could afford and were befitting of their status such as, honey, fruit and snow-white doves.
Now on that cold winter night when Jesus was born, the shepherds were not the only ones out on the hillside tending their flocks. A young shepherdess, called Madelon, was also out tending her family’s flock and had witnessed the arrival of the Angel and the Magi and heard what the Angel told the shepherds.
Love And Devotion
Hearing the news, the young girl’s heart became full of love and devotion and filled with faith. At a distance she followed the Angel, the Magi and the shepherds to the stable where Jesus lay in the manger, cared for by Mary and Joseph.
The Magi Give Baby Jesus Wonderful Gifts
She watched as they entered the stable and the Magi laid their wonderful gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense before the baby Jesus. She watched as the shepherds gave their gifts of honey, fruit and snow-white doves. Realizing she had nothing to give she rushed back to the hillside to try and find flowers that she could lay before him.
Finding none on the snow covered hillside she became full of shame and despair and began crying. As she cried her tears fell down her face onto the snowy ground around her. Seeing this from on high the Angel came down and touched the ground and a bush of the most beautiful winter roses sprang forth at her feet.
A Precious Gift Of Pure Blooms
The Angel told her, “No gold, no frankincense, no myrrh, is as precious, or as fitting a gift for the Prince of Peace as these pure blooms that are born from the pure tears of love, faith and devotion.”
Christmas in the modern world is a time of revelry, eating and overindulgence of drink, the giving of presents, carol singing and much more. The Roman festival of Saturnalia is believed to have been a forerunner of the Christmas we know and celebrate today giving us many customs and traditions that we use and enjoy.
Dice players – Author: WolfgangRieger – Public Domain Image
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia
An early forerunner to Christmas was the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This festival was held in honour Saturn an agricultural deity who reigned during the Golden Age. This was a time of peace, when all was prosperous and plentiful. A time when people’s needs were met with out having to work and every one lived in a state of social equality with one another. The festival commenced on the 17th December to the 23rd of December. Saturnalia could be celebrated anywhere in the Roman Empire not just Rome.
Saturnalia was time of great feasting, making merry and revelry with copious amounts of drinking and over indulging in food. People went out in the streets singing from door to door. It was a time for the giving and receiving of presents. The revelry was supposed to reflect the conditions of the Golden Age.
During Saturnalia leaves and branches of evergreens were fashioned into wreathes and carried by priests in processions. Gambling and throwing dice, which in ancient Rome was discouraged became permitted for both masters and slaves over the duration of the festival.
Public buildings and squares were adorned with flowers and lit with candles. Candles may have represented the search for truth and knowledge and also the return of the sun after the winter solstice. In later times the 25th of December by the Julian calendar, Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, or the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”
Role reversal during Saturnalia
During Saturnalia roles were reversed between master and slave, with slave becoming the master and the master, the slave. Some reports from ancient sources say slaves and masters ate at the same table together. Other reports say the slaves ate first and others say that the masters served the slaves their food. No doubt it was the slaves who did the actual preparation and clearing up.
Slaves were also said to be allowed to show a certain amount of disrespect to their masters but in reality it was probably more of an act. This is because the role reversal was temporary, only lasting through Saturnalia so slaves still needed to be wary of upsetting their master too much.
Dressing for Saturnalia
As can be expected during important festivals people like to dress up and wear their best clothes and Romans were no different. During Saturnalia men set aside the toga, their usual garment, in favour of Greek styled clothing. They also wore a conical cap of felt called the pilleus, which was a token of a freedman. Even slaves were allowed to wear the pilleus during Saturnalia.
Giving presents during Saturnalia
December the 23rd was known as “The Sigillaria and on this day presents and gifts were given. Against the spirit of the season the value of gifts given and received was a sign of social status. These might be candles, items of pottery, wax figurines, writing tablets, combs, lamps and many other such articles. Sometimes bird or animals were given. The rich sometimes gave a slave or an exotic animal of some kind. Children were given toys.
The Lord of Misrule
The ruler of Saturnalia and the master of ceremonies was called Saturnalicius princeps and was chosen by lot. A similar figure is seen in medieval times presiding over the Feast of Fools and was known as the Lord of Misrule. He would issue absurd and whimsical commands which had to be obeyed, hence creating chaos and (mis)rule and an absurd world.
The influence of Saturnalia on Christmas today
Many historians and scholars see the festival of Saturnalia as being as one of the original sources of many of today’s Christmas practices. The giving of presents, carol singing, the lighting of candles and the use of evergreen plants for decorations all continue to this day. The practice of eating and drinking to excess and the carnival atmosphere that prevails over the season are reminiscent of the festival of Saturnalia.