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Tales of Twelve Days, a Christmas Retrospective by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Tales of Twelve Days:
A Christmas Retrospective

The Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1478/1482), a 70 x 104.2 cm tempera and oil on poplar panel by Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510), located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“Them who worshipped the stars were led by a star to Him that made the stars.”

I am paraphrasing (and slightly modifying) the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of Nativity, a short, liturgical hymn. Here, the three Magi are taken to be star-worshippers. This would be standard fare in the ancient world, the gods of various traditions being identified with the stars, but these three wise men—Arab, Babylonian, Nabatean, or Persian, depending on the historian, although, granting the latter, we have tended to assume they were Zoroastrian holy men—had gone seeking after the source of those gods. This is not to say they did not already have some sense of it, to the contrary, they must have believed in its existence, only that they were now poised to receive a fuller knowledge. The themes of integrating what is valid and preparatory in the pagan past, to the point that it—by way of a star—may provide guidance, as well as of seeking out the truth, come through in this narrative. It is a journey that does not lose, but rather transforms, our starting point. 

I mean to explore a few stories related to that journey of the Magi, that is, to the twelve days (or Twelvetide) between December 24th, the birth of Jesus, and January 6th, the Epiphany, when they arrived to adore him. From the three wise men, we first move onto the three fairy queens of Christmas. 

It is said that, on their way, the wise men stopped at the house of an old lady. It was a cold night, and the woman was happily perched by a fireplace from which she had no intention of being dislodged. It is no wonder, then, that when a knock was heard, it was only grudgingly that she came to the door. “We have come to tell you of our journey, for we go to meet the newborn prince of the world, and would that you accompany us,” declared the errant astronomers. She, of course, did not wish to leave the warmth of her hearth, and so bid them go on ahead, promising all the while, more to herself than to the strangers, that she would catch up with them in the morning, when the sun had begun warming the roads, and so meet this child of which they spoke. Indeed, not only this, she added, but she would also bring him many gifts—for she was known as a maker and bearer of gifts. No doubt it was for this reason that the magicians had decided to recruit her to their party. 

Before going any further, we may pause to interrogate the geographic context of this account. Some may suppose that the biting cold of winter our old lady was keen to avoid would not really be so severe in any of the regions between Persia, Babylon or deep Arabia, and Bethlehem. Whatever the weather, it is by her standards that it was judged too intense, and we should not rule out some meteorological exception or her living in a snowy mountain town whose altitude fortified the winter. We should also recall that the priests of the orient, like St. Nicholas, are said to routinely leave gifts at children’s homes the world over. They would certainly be capable of a single, magically-enabled transport to some distant, colder clime, to which the lady is native. Now another objection might rear itself—why, if they commanded such an art, would they not have used it to arrive instantaneously at their Judean destination? Because we are in the realm of story, not scripture, firstly—and because, they did not know where the latter is, wherefore a star had to guide them, whereas they evidently had some prior knowledge of the woman’s dwelling. 

Impertinent questions aside, we take up the tale with the old lady—whose name, incidentally, is La Befana, at least in Italy, and Babushka, “grandmother,” in Russia, for it is in these countries that she is celebrated. The morning after the strange visitation, she did as she had promised, dressed herself in heavy garb, filled a sack full of toys from her workshop, buying a few more from nearby craftsmen, and took to the roads. Alas, it now dawned on her, she had not thought to ask those men the way to Bethlehem. Neither did the people she bothered for directions know of this place, or else they would simply tell her it was farther along, always farther along. 

It is said, therefore, that she wanders still, hoping to find the place, and leaving gifts from her bottomless sack of toys in those houses she passes where children happen to live. This, however, is a pessimistic and frankly ludicrous conclusion. Suppose she had been wandering all this time, is it at all likely that nobody, not one soul, in all these centuries, has been aware of Bethlehem and the nativity story, so as to leave her every plea for directions unanswered? Hardly. Further, Italian and Russian children report receiving gifts from her every year, on the year—evidently, she is not lost, haphazardly distributing her bounty as she passes. Rather, she follows a specific itinerary, and keeps to it quite punctually and deliberately. 

La Befana (1821), a 32.1 × 41.3 cm engraving by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1781-1835), located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The reality, then, is that another version of the tale is true: the Befana has been granted the gift of returning to the earth every January 6th in order to do what she loves—make children happy. And although she was not with the Magi at Bethlehem, she may now see the Christ in every child, and by serving them, adore him also. They, in turn, receive gifts initially—and through them, still now—intended for the Christ.

A similar arrangement seems to have been struck with a certain Mother Holle, our second Yuletide fairy queen, also known as Frau Holle. We also find the figure of Frau Perchta, possibly a local name specific to Bavaria and Austria. Holle’s ward is in the northern-scapes of Europe, where she is said to bring gifts to children during the twelve nights of Christmas. According to those tireless preservers of German folklore, the Brothers Grimm, especially Jacob, she was an ancient pagan goddess. Pierre Dubois, French Encyclopedist of Elves, Goblins, and Faeries, reports that she was the daughter of the giant Loki, from Nordic myth, whereas Lithuanian anthropologist and archeologist Marija Gimbutas considers her a remnant of an ancient, matriarchal Neolithic cult. Her gift-giving office originated with a refusal to enter paradise upon dying during a hunt, for Frau Holle preferred to stay on the earth and continue to sport with her hounds. We cannot but assume she was a noblewoman, therefore, and these accounts render her close to Odin, god of the wild-hunt, and huntress Diana. What we have, then, is a case of Christmas taking up the pagan past.

Here again there is a double reading available to us, one pessimistic and untenable, the other not so, for there is no way to construe, as some have tried, Frau Holle’s fate as a punishment for foregoing permanent escape from the mortal vale. Indeed, the fact that paradise was on offer—and some form of it would, in the end, constitute her ultimate fate—attests to the goddess’ righteousness in the story. After asking not to be parted from the forests and wildlife she loved, she was granted to return to the earth, but only for twelve days, her hunt marking the end and beginning of each year. And it is so long as she hunts that she also bestows gifts, presumably caught in the course of those supernatural raids. 

“Stay with me; if you will do the work of my house properly for me, I will make you very happy. You must be very careful, however, to make my bed in the right way, for I wish you always to shake it thoroughly, so that the feathers fly about; then they say, down there in the world, that it is snowing; for I am Mother Holle.“ A 1930 illustration by Otto Kubel (1868 – 1951) for Mother Holle by the Brothers Grimm.

The rest of the time, it seems to me, she dwells in the terrestrial paradise, somewhere near to the faerie world, whose denizens are not always to be trusted, but not in those provinces where mischievous and malevolent sprites are found. In this way, her yearly hunt is compatible with the folktale told about her by the Brothers Grimm, according to which a young woman, abused by her cruel stepmother, especially following the death of her father, accidentally dropped her spindle out of a window. She hastened to retrieve it, but found that it had gone down some improbable route, perhaps into a well, and following it, the orphan quickly arrived in faerie country. There she encountered a talking oven in the middle of a forest, which asked her to help remove the cakes inside it before they burned, and a talking tree that asked her to collect its apples. She did all this, before coming to a house, the very manor of Frau Holle, who asked the young woman to help clean it. Again, she obliged, whereupon the huntress gave her an abundance of riches and caused it to snow heartily, sending her home. There, the newly rich young woman quickly earned the love of her people, sharing her wealth, marrying a prince and becoming a queen. The stepmother, however, jealous of all this, sent her natural daughter, who she had hitherto greatly spoiled, down the same route, but being quite haughty and refusing to assist the talking oven, tree, or Frau Holle, that one did not receive favor like the first.

Finally, in France, specifically the region of Franche-Comté and nearby, we find the third fairy queen of the season. In life, she was the Countess of Montbéliard, Henriette de Montbéliard (1387-1444) who, in 1407, married Count Eberhard IV of Württemberg. She governed Montbéliard and Württemberg both after the death of her husband in 1419, and is remembered for her good works and protection she afforded her people. Then, at the castle of Étobon in the year 1444, it came to pass that the good countess simply disappeared. 

However, locals attest to the fact that, thereafter, she returns once a year, donning peasant garb, riding a donkey, and bearing gifts for children. She thereby tests the hospitality of people, knocking on doors, asking for lodging, and encouraging virtue throughout the lands she governed so well. In this form, she is known as Tante (“Aunty”) Arie, short for Henriette. She is said to have feet like a goose or, more correctly, a swan, just as Frau Perchta, for an explanation of which we may cite Jacob Grimm, who takes it to bespeak her higher nature, a lofty bird-like quality. Indeed, we may feel confident speculating that, during the Christmas season, Aunt Arie flies from home to home in a form resembling that of a swan, and for convenience’s sake simply does not bother to transform her feet into their usual human semblance, no doubt saving a great deal of time.

Tante Arie and her donkey bring presents to the children (1880).

We have, therefore, our three canonical magi, and our three faeries of folklore. We may end, then, with an ordinary person who experienced something extraordinary, and who brought his people the wholly immaterial gifts of insight. I am writing this on the 6th of January, which means Olav Åsteson is awake. He fell asleep on December 24th, and remained so until today. For twelve days and twelve nights, Olav slept, waking on the thirteenth. It is said that, in ancient rites, various peoples would practice a form of incubation (which the Greeks called enkoimesis), whereby a seeker would go into some dark place and remain there, isolated, until revelatory insight was obtained. The sleep of sacred enclosures can thereby lead to a kind of lucid dream, a quest into the heavenly or infernal spheres.

Thusly was the visionary Olav taken up into the desolate landscapes of the moon, from which he toured a catalogue of post-mortem fates, glimpsing abodes of horrendous purgation where those who remain under the lunatic sway of a powerful moon do dwell. “The moon shone bright, and all the paths led far away,” repeats Olav’s melancholy refrain. Yet the moon’s presence nonetheless reminds us of the sun whence the seemingly lifeless satellite receives her light, and eventually, Olav came to a bridge called Gjaller, guarded by three beasts, untamed monsters of his own soul’s making. Overcoming these, it was granted him to see lucent paradisial estates, and to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary, awakening in time for Mass, to which he quickened himself, recounting all he had seen and learnt to the people of his village. So goes the late medieval Norwegian “Dream Poem” (Draumkvedet) of Olav Åsteson twelve nights’ journey, of which the earliest written version dates to the 1840s. 

The Twelvetide is an open gate to benevolent magic, to mages and faeries, a time in which we may recognize what is exalted, as the wise men did, by exchanging gifts and thereby seeing exaltation in each other. And just as gifts force us to meet one another in our specificity, force us to reflect on what we know about a person, it is fitting that, at the level of culture, the season has fashioned for itself all sorts of particular folkloric mediators. Christmas is when we feel most protective of tradition, and yet also most willing to engage with it, for otherwise traditions are a dead letter. But we need not leave it there. Surely we have room for magi and faeries the whole year round.

Carlos Perona Calvete has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, and has worked mainly in the field of European project management and policy research.

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