Theodor Severin Kittelsen
The Christmas Eve story for Thalia is, of course, special; a thing for which I prepare. We always start with The Night Before Christmas, then move on to the main feature.
Thalia pads her way into the study wearing her feet-pajamas tonight, the ones with a reindeer pattern running around her legs. She has fastened an elf-cap to Teddy’s pate with bobby pins, some of which have let go leaving the cap dangling off the side of his head as she drags him along behind.
We make much fuss settling ourselves into the comfy chair, what with proper elf-cap readjustment and a reproof.
“Oh, Teddy, you’re such a mess,” Thalia scolds. “OK, now we’re ready.”
“’Twas the night before Christmas . . .” I begin and conclude, predictably, with “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
“Wait, isn’t it ‘Merry Christmas?’” Thalia inspects the book and sees I am correct.
“Our monarchs,” I explain, “especially our queens, have always
thought ‘happy’ sounds more sober than ‘merry.’”
“OK, so what’s tonight’s story?” I love the twinkle in her eye.
“The Cat on the Dovrefjell,” I announce, seeing Johannes’ ears flicker.
“What’s a Doverjelly?” Thalia frowns.
“The name of a mountain in Norway, I believe.”
Augustus mentioned this tale to me last Christmas, actually Boxing Day, and I’ve kept it in mind.
A traveler with his large, white bear comes knocking on the door of a cottage on the Dovrefjell at Christmas Eve asking for a little shelter. The man of the house warns him they are about to leave because the trolls, who come every Christmas Eve, demand a feast of them, which they provide, but he and his family dare not stay.
As I read to Thalia, I notice Johannes has taken a cautious interest in the tale, and sits atop the comfy chair’s back.
The traveler begs to stay, proposing the bear can sleep under the stove and he himself will sleep in the storeroom. The family sets out the feast and leaves the traveler and bear to their fate with the trolls.
Soon the trolls appear. Big trolls, little trolls. Trolls with tails and trolls without tails. While they settle down to eat, a young troll spots the white bear sleeping beneath the stove. He spears a sausage on a fork and thrusts it into the bear’s nose, shrieking, “Kitty, you want a sausage?” Angered, the bear drives the trolls out of the house.
A year later, on Christmas Eve day, the cottager is called to from afar by a troll, who inquires if they still have that big white cat. He replies they do; it is at home sleeping under the stove and has had seven kittens that are bigger and fiercer than she. The troll exclaims they will never visit him again there on the Dovrefjell.
Thalia giggles and Johannes grins. I get a kiss on the cheek from Thalia. She lowers herself to the floor hanging onto my belt with one hand, clutching Teddy with the other, and trundles back out of the study.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2017 The Cat on the Dovrefjell – Part Two
The smoke from my pipe, filled with Augustus’s latest blend, Magi’s Gold, blocks my view of him attending to a customer outside the testing room. He told me the blend is made from all golden tobaccos. I am not quite sure what he means by that, but it is delightfully light in flavor.
Between me and my host’s chair is the open canister of shortbread, which I annually bake and deliver to Augustus on Boxing Day.
“Let me see,” says Augustus, appearing through the tobacco fog, and taking another piece of shortbread before he settles into his chair. “Last year you told Thalia the story Gabriel Rider on Christmas Eve. How did you top that this year?”
“With another Christmas haunting story. The Cat on the Dovrefjell.”
“Didn’t I . . .”
“Yes, you did, and I thank you.”
“I’m delighted. Such a clever story.” Augustus stuffs his pipe with Magi’s Gold. “There are a surprising number of Christmas haunting stories, the most literary being Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”
“Where did that tradition come from?” I query.
“Oh, very ancient.” Augustus lights his pipe. “I think it was the Babylonians who decided that there should be 360 degrees in a circle. The ancients also thought of the year as a circle and, therefore, there ought to be 360 days in a year. Well, they knew jolly well there were 365 days, so they corrected by ‘throwing away’ those last five days in frivolity. This became the basis for the Roman Saturnalia festival, a bit more like April Fool’s than Christmas, but it occurred near winter solstice and did involve some gift-giving.”
“Well, that sounds like a bit of fun,” I say, “but how do we get from there to the Christmas hauntings?”
“I’ll conjecture here,” replies Augustus, “that when the notion of the extra five got to the northern lands, it took on a darker interpretation and the days of the year that should not have been there became a time of the thinning of the veil between the worlds.
“The Celts were certain that other worlds existed outside of their own, where dwelt the fairies, and where even time moved at a different pace.”
“Ah, and where trolls come from on Christmas Eve to visit on the Dovrefjell.” I exclaim!
“As well as Dickens’ Christmas spirits,” nods Augustus.
“By the way,” I changing the subject, “how was your Christmas?”
“Ask how is my Christmas; it just started. The wife and I have decided to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas by giving each other small gifts every day.”
“How charming,” I say tamping my pipe again, “but don’t tell Thalia about this; she’ll attach to it immediately. Was this inspired by the song?”
“Not at all; that song was inspired by the actual twelve days of Christmas, now hardly referred to except by that song.”
“And the twelve days are?” I relight my pipe.
“From Christmas Day until Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, when the Magi visited the Christ Child. Those days are also, collectively, known as Twelvetide or Christmastide, but as I said, now pretty much ignored.”
“Wait a moment. Are you telling me that we, as a culture, are passing up the opportunity to have twelve consecutive days of celebration?”
“Quite. Disturbing, isn’t it?
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2017 The Cat on the Dovrefjell – Part Three
George Walker, Costumes of Yorkshire
Augustus reaches for another shortbread before continuing. “Not all the twelve days were meant for wanton celebration, and different traditions assigned various events and saints to each day. For example, the Eastern Orthodox has the Magi visit on Christmas Day, and the Catholics have them on Epiphany.”
“The usual denominational disagreements, I’m sure.” I’ll bet he has made a small study of this subject.
“Yes, but on one date or another of the twelve we will find Saint Stephen’s Day, Day of the Holy Innocents, Saint Sylvester’s (New Year’s Eve), Feast of the Circumcision, Feast of the Holy Family, Baptism of Jesus, Feast of Saint John, Feast of Saint Basil . . .”
“Is today’s Boxing Day one of them?” I intentionally cut him off.
“Not according to the church. Today is Saint Stephen’s Day, as well as Wren Day, by the way.”
“Oh, the Wren Hunt, another long-ago, forgotten tradition.”
“Not at all; I was a Wrenboy.”
“Really? You hunted a wren, then trooped from house to house begging for treats?”
“Well, it was a bit more than that. The older boys hunted the wren, then all we lads, dressed as strangely as we could, and playing on musical instruments without any talent for it, visited each neighbor. We declared the wren, hanging from a branch, to be the king, and, yes, begged for treats.”
Augustus puts the lid on the shortbread canister to control himself. “One Wren Day our mother dressed up my brother and me so incredibly that when we bumped into each other in the kitchen we both screamed. She loved that; never let either of us forget about it.”
“I doubt that sort of thing was church-sanctioned,” I chuckle.
“Well, Twelfth Night wasn’t sanctioned, but certainly part of the twelve days; Epiphany Eve. It took the place of our New Year’s Eve. Whoever got the token baked in a cake was crowned King of Disorder. Much drinking ensued along with games involving egg-tossing and plucking raisins from burning brandy.”
“Heavens!” I say. “Is this Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?”
“Exactly. That play ran for a number of Christmas seasons in London in his day.
“However, my favorite days, although associated with the twelve, actually came a little after. First is the Feast of the Ass on January 14th, commemorating the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. A young girl and a baby are put on the back of a highly decorated ass, and led through the streets to the church. During the sermon the ass stands by the altar, and the congregation, for their responses, bray like donkeys. This practice hung on for a few centuries, but by the time of the Renaissance no one could keep a straight face.”
I can only shake my head, and he continues.
“Second is Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany. It’s not unlike the Wren Day. Ploughmen, one dressed as an old woman and another dressed in furs and a tail, along with their comrades, went from house to house, dragging a plough with them. At each home they put on a performance, something of a Punch and Judy show, along with a bizarre dance. The home’s occupants were expected to provide libation. Failing that, the mummers would dig the point of the plough into the ground and leave behind a furrow from door to road.”
“Remarkable,” I say, tapping out my pipe. “By the way, what happened to the wren, afterward?”
“Buried with a coin outside the cemetery wall. I imagine, after centuries, there is a wealth beneath the earth, if hobbyist with their metal detectors haven’t found it all.”