Monday, December 5, 2011

Stories of Christmas Past

At midnight, the Christmas Tree becomes
larger than life; a climactic moment
in Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite 
When the first snow fell Mage Corey appeared, wearied from his journey yet infused with the energy of contentment that accompanies a true homecoming.  Upon his arrival, preparation for Winter Solstice began in earnest.
~ EOLYN, Chapter 23

I like Christmas.

In part, because the season and traditions are such a nice integration of my Pagan, German and Catholic roots.  Symbols that have transcended time, culture and religion abound – the Christmas tree, the Advent’s wreath, holly and mistletoe.  Song and celebration. The coldest night, the shortest day; death and renewal of the cycle of life. 

One could say the event we currently call ‘Christmas’ has outlasted many of the beliefs that have upheld its celebration; its origins date back long before the conversion of Europe to Christianity.  Even today, people often celebrate Christmas regardless of its contemporary religious significance.  For some reason, it simply makes sense this time of year to deck the halls and stoke the fire, to sit in cozy spaces with family and friends while sipping hot spiced wine or cider, munching on the traditional sweets and delicacies of the season, and retelling the beloved legends and myths that bind us as a family, people and culture.

Carl Offterdinger's interpretation
of Maria Stahlbaum.  A dark-haired
witch in the making?
Last year on my blog for Eolyn, I dedicated a December post to one of these timeless tales:  E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King. Every year when Christmas approaches my thoughts return to this story, one of the favorites of my childhood. 

When I was a young girl, it seemed Hoffman’s Maria Stahlbaum and I had much in common. Maria lived in Frankfurt, a city which I knew well, and which had been the childhood home of my own mother. Maria thrived on dancing and parties and adventure.  She got along well with her brother (except for the occasional dispute regarding ownership rights over the new action figure).  She loved her mysterious and eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer, whom I could not help but associate with my own paternal grandfather (though in truth the characters of these two men were quite different; and unfortunately, my grandfather was not a toymaker).

Like many scenes, this moment between
Maria and her ugly prince is lost in
Tchaikovsky's famous ballet.
Over the years, the adventures of Maria (also called ‘Klara’ in the Tchaikovsky ballet interpretation, which is to Hoffman’s tale as Disney is to Grimm) have inspired me in countless unexpected ways.  With time, Hoffman’s complex little story blended with Tchaikovsky’s much simpler ballet, melding in the mysterious pathways of my own mind to become more than a children’s Christmas story: It became a tale of a young girl’s coming of age, of the discovery of the power of her own magic. 

The Chistmas Tree has transcended frontiers of
culture and religion to remain an enduring symbol
of life and warmth in a season of cold and death.
I bet few people see The Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King in quite the same way I do, but that doesn’t really matter.  What’s cool about all this is the way in which the stories we love as children can become an integral part of who we are as adults. 

That’s what I would like to celebrate this week: the Stories of Christmas Past; those wonderful tales that have stayed with us from earliest memories of childhood.  Tell me about them all, how they inspired you then, how they inspire you now. 

In the spirit of the season, I’m especially interested in the holiday legends, but if you want to share other stories as well, please do.  Let's rediscover the Children's Magic inside us all.

Wishing you a joyous holiday season, and many great stories besides.

~Karin Rita Gastreich


Terri-Lynne said...

I have to say, I'm having a really hard time narrowing this down! So I think I'm going to use the bit about Befana and her role in Christmas for my own blog post this month, and here I will tell you about the Feast of Seven Fishes.

Most people have heard about this Southern Italian tradition. It IS a southern Italian tradition even if it is now more widespread. Much of Italy didn't celebrate as such. But I digress.

Seven fishes--some say in honor of the seven sacraments. I am pretty positive that the tradition was, as most holiday traditions, appropriated from an earlier, pagan past, but again, I digress...

In our family, Christmas Eve was the big event. I mean BIG. ALL the cousins, aunts, uncles, every living relative within three states gathered at one grandmother or another's house for the Feast.

The fishes served at my Nonnie's house were: fried smelts, fried calamari, anchovies, octopus, shrimp, cod, and eels.

When at Grandma Grace's house, it was: fried smelts, fried calamari, shrimp, clams, mussles, anchovies, and eels (sometimes octopus would make an appearance.)

As a kid, I HATED seafood. I hated the smell. I hated the thought of eating the bones (anchovies and smelts.) The eels freaked me the hell out. Thankfully, with Italians, the main meal is never IT. First came the antipast' of meats and olives and cheeses and bread, then the pasta (usually lasagna or manicott') and by the time the fishes came, I was snoozing under the table--until dessert. Canol', grain pie, cream puffs, more than I can list here. We of Napoli and its environs loooove our sweets.

We'd all head to church for midnight Mass. One year, I got to carry the baby Jesus to his manger. Home to bed to await Santa. We always heard reindeer on the roof, and sleighbells across the street. But pappanucci (a name he acquired when MY children were babies) used to talk about Befana and her donkey. The only Christmas donkey I knew of was Dominick! (Jiggedy-jig, hee-haw, hee-haw!) It wasn't until years and years later, when I became extremely interested in my Strega roots, that I found out who she was. And THAT I will keep for MY blog post!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow, Terri -- You've responded with so much more than I expected!

I was kind of thinking, maybe people would mention 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas', or 'The Little Drummer Boy'. (Still kind of hoping to see those, actually; they're 2 more of my favorites.) But you've given me a whole family tradition, and a mystery to boot!

I think I would have disliked seafood, too, if I'd been served calamari and eel every Christmas. ;) Thank goodness for pasta! And dessert!

Can't wait to hear about the Feast of Seven Fishes. (And I've already got a fish myth in mind to respond with when the time comes...)

Terri-Lynne said...

Actually, Befana has little to nothing to do with the Feast of Seven Fishes. She's far older.

Anonymous said...

Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. When I had my sons, it became about maintaining traditions loved by my husband and I while creating new traditions for our boys.

So we opened presents on Christmas Eve and Santa came Christmas morning to leave one big present for each of us under the tree and to fill stockings.

Of course we had to go to the mall and have pictures taken with Santa early in December. My younger son bought into all of this, but my older one was suspicious. The year he was four, he looked at Santa and said, "There's a man in there. I saw his neck." He meant he'd seen the beard slip! My heart fell, thinking the magic of Christmas would surely be spoiled forever. Then he said thoughtfully, "Maybe it's Peter Pan in there."

Okay, I'll take it, I thought. At least it's magic of some sort!

And the magic of fantasy is why I chose to share that one with you, Karin! Merry Christmas!

Terri-Lynne said...

Peter Pan? That is PRECIOUS! And what a connection to make between the eternal child and the eternal old man.

Wow...this kid's going to turn out to be a writer. I just know it!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Linda, the story about your son is so cute!

You know, I have to admit, Peter Pan was one of those children's stories that never quite stuck with me. But it's certainly stuck with a lot of other kids over the years, and I totally respect that.

Then again, I also believe in faeries. ;)

Gustavo said...

Beautiful post - and I will raise a glass to Christmases past!

Anyhow, very merry Christmas to the Heroines!

Terri-Lynne said...

Glad tidings of the season, Gustavo!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Feliz Navidad, Gustavo, para ti y toda tu familia!