19 DECEMBER 2019

THE CHRISTMAS COALS

CHRISTMAS SPECIAL · PART II

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It was the time of deepest winter, the eve of the longest night. The beginning of Yuletide, when the veil between worlds is waxing to its height. And so it is, the custom men since old days knew; to furnish now the sacred branch, and feed the Yule fire anew.

         There was once a village in this Isle, that lay half-way down the valley side. It was bounded on one side by the river, on the other by a road, on the other by the magic wood, and on one by the rising hillside...

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The Christmas Coals is based upon a story collected in Taffy Thomas' Midwinter Folk Tales  for the History Press. There the story is called A Warming Glow, and relates the tale of how a King and Queen fall out, the fire in their castle's hearth dies, and a young page is sent to restore the fire with a burning coal from the village. The coals, all exchanged for the King's gold, all burn out before he can return to the castle, until the page is treated with kindness and charity by a young woman who asks for no payment; the coal from her fire does not die, but restores the hearth to life, and the enmity between the King and Queen thaws.

I was inspired to re-work the story by several different sources and ideas.  I wanted to increase the emotional impact of the tale by identifying the  source of the discord between the husband and wife, settling upon the loss of a child. I wanted to incorporate the folklore of the Yule Log and the Yule fire into the story, a custom which has been preserved in some parts of the United Kingdom where a broad beam of wood wrapped with twigs or 'withies' is slowly fed into the fire, providing a focal point  for the festive celebrations.  Letting the fire go out is said to be bad luck, and the implication is that the fire is magical and protects against malign spirits and influences at the critical juncture of new year.  Customs surrounding yule logs in Europe often include the idea that gifts magically 'appear' around the log, in the same way gifts are now left under Christmas trees, and this occurs by the magic of the log itself.

Christmas and New Year feasts were often important rituals of sharing food and goods in common amongst a community in harsh times.  This makes the prospect of a lapse in these ceremonies having more than simply symbolic significance: without the fire and the feast, the villagers are deprived of vital communal resources. In the story, the villagers demand money in lieu  of this sharing in kind. Surviving yule fire traditions take place in inns and pubs, sometimes the centre of smaller communities, and so I moved the action of the tale to such a locale, and replaced the King and Queen with the more relatable community figureheads of the innkeeps.

Regular listeners will spot the allusions to the Swedish custom of year walking and the use of a porridge wand.  Ann's encounter with the witch and the ritual she performs in order to see the Will-o-wisps is based on folkloric practices wherein those in possession of 'the Second Sight', a supernatural ability to see spirits and fairies, can initiate others into it by having them step on their foot and look over their shoulder.  A 'hag-stone' is also employed, a pebble with a natural key-hole in it, through which one is supposed to be able to see the spirit world. In some folktales like The Black Bull of Norroway, a witch or wise woman instructs the protagonist to look out of the back door of the house and 'see what you can see' - what comes next is usually a harbinger of the strange and the supernatural. 

Ann's encounter with Will o' the Wisps is also my own invention.  Here I drew inspiration from a variety of different places. The original legends about Jack of the Lantern and Will of the Wisp paint him as an 'evil' character, but in some stories he appears as more of a trickster or rogue; it is possible to feel sorry for Jack/Will, condemned to wander the earth for eternity with only a coal from hell to light his way, and I wanted to tell a tale in which empathy for and from Will  was possible. Of course, a Christmas story about Jack/Will—the master of Halloween—also recalls the classic Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas!

 

When Ann seeks to relight the Yuletide fires with Will's coal, this recalls other mythological tales about humans seeking magical fire from the gods.  Māori mythology tells how the hero Māui asked for fire from the goddess Mahuika, who plucks it from her fingernails three times over before she realizes he is tricking her for his own purposes. Here, the request for fire motif nicely mirrors the coals which burn out too quickly in the original Warming Glow tale, and Will of the Wisps becomes the trickster.

At the end of this tale, I relate the symbolic story of a sparrow that passes under the roof of a well-lit hall in the stormy depths of winter.  This is a retelling of a tale recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Eccleciastical History of the English People:

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​           “The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.

            The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.

           So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

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My telling subverts the intent of the original.  The words are supposed to be those of a pagan priest called Coifi, advocating that King Edwin of Northumbria converts to the Christian religion preached to them by the missionary Bishop Paulinus.  My own version suggests that, since we cannot know what comes before or after our life, our duty is to cherish and nurture what we've got in the time that we do have.

EPISODE CREDITS

Story interpreted and performed by Rick Scott.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Lore & Legend Series Theme composed and performed by Robert Bentall.

Podcast hosting by Anchor. Video and audiogram creation using Headliner.

Relic Jungle background pattern from DIN Patterns (www.dinpattern.com | facebook.com/EvanEckardYT)

AUDIO CREDITS

Incidental and background music tracks by Derek and Brandon Feichter on Bandcamp. Used with credit as per the disclaimer on their Youtube Channel.

 

Additional incidental music, background ambience and sound effects by multiple authors sourced from Freesound.org.

See below for the full list of audio files and attribution credits:

Rick Scott
STORYTELLER

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