With many people putting their Christmas Trees up early this year, I thought it would be appropriate to start the Christmas season with a story about how the Christmas Tree came about. There are various folk tales about the origins of the Christmas Tree but I like the Christmas Fairy Of Strasburg the most as it contains a wonderful mix of magic and love.
‘I do not regret it. Many warned me of my fate so I cannot say I did not know the risks. They all tried to dissuade me. My advisors said I could not trust the promise of man; my maidens pulled at my dress with tears in their eyes when I resisted their pleas. But I was spell-bound and had to go to him, whatever the cost.’
Their fears were realised. She is now submerged in the Underworld, unable to enjoy a spring breeze on her face or drink the sweet autumnal dew from a leaf. It isn’t all terrible, however. It is warm, like the shaded heat on a summer’s day, and surprisingly clean. Plus, she is with others of her kind whose journeys led them to the Underworld. Even so, tonight is a special night for her because she’s permitted, for a short while, to go back. As the moment approaches, she recounts to anyone who will listen, her magical love story.
‘Many were amazed that their cold, unfeeling Count Otto had fallen head over heels. But I was not because I had seen what they couldn’t. Although it isn’t to the grove where I first saw him that I am headed, it is there that my story takes me now. Back to a time before light and before darkness.
‘I was not there when he rode into the clearing but others were and it was only seconds before I heard their urgent whispers. We rushed to the edge and peered out from behind the trees to inspect him. He was still on his horse and was looking around. His head was tilted up and I could not see his face clearly. Even so, he had a presence about him.
‘Suddenly, the sun appeared and in that moment of apricity, caught his hair so it blazed golden and made it look as if Balder himself had ridden into our sacred space. He bewitched me. I just stared at him and didn’t register the outraged gasps of the others as he jumped off his horse and walked around, letting the animal rip at our grass and make scuff marks in our ground with its hoof. I was enchanted and was pulled closer, skipping through the undergrowth, keeping myself so small even the ants didn’t notice me.
‘We were opposite each other now, the pond was the only barricade between us, but still I could not see his face. This pond, our dear Fairy Well, that only a couple of hours ago, I had gathered around with my maidens to sing songs and throw wishes out into the world. Now I wished it would shrink so I could get closer to this strange apparition.
‘He crouched down and put his hands into the water, gasping in surprise at the unexpected warmth. I slipped into the water, a force pulling me closer and closer. His hands shone palely under the water and then they disappeared. I swam closer, always keeping to the darkness.’
She swirls her hand into a different pool now and stares at her reflection, oblivious to her audience. Her face looks exactly as it did that day, all those years ago, and no wrinkle or grey hair is visible to mark the passing of time. She is waiting for the boatman and although it seems that he is taking a long time, she is patient; time has no meaning here. She continues her story while gazing at the water’s surface and, suddenly, a different face looks back: his face just as she had first seen it from the depths of her watery hideout.
‘I could see the water drops running down his cheeks, his blonde hair stuck to his forehead and as he turned his face back to the pond, I looked into his eyes and saw in them the same sad, loneliness that was imprinted in my heart.
‘His hands plunged into the water again and on impulse, I grabbed one of them. He jerked back, the movement caused his ring to slip off his finger and into my hand. Then he was gone. But I knew not for long.
‘I didn’t waste a moment and was deaf to the pleas of my maidens and contemptuous of my advisors’ warnings. I insisted and, of course, I got my way. There really was never any doubt of that for all their wrangling. It was late by the time we made our way to the castle. The night was clear and so cold the breath of the soldiers on duty wisped in front of their faces before swirling away. They didn’t sense us but the hounds did and started braying and running around in confusion. The outer walls were high and although we could scale them, one of my maidens whispered to the drawbridge and the wheels in the gate house began to creak as the drawbridge lowered.
‘Inside all was quiet except for the patter of our feet against the stone steps. Up we went and then through into the outer chamber. One of the younger girls bit her lip to stop a giggle from bubbling out. Now that we were there, reservations dissolved by the excitement of the evening. We all set to work and a couple of the maidens began to sing, their voices melodious and delicate and then others joined in and soon we were dancing and laughing, delighted with ourselves and our adventure.
‘He stepped into the room, his face awash with confusion but we finished our dance before turning our attention to him. My maidens stepped aside and I walked forward holding, in my outstretched hand, a small casket lined with diamonds. “Dear Count Otto,” I said. “I have come to return your Christmas visit. I am Ernestine, the Queen of the Fairies, and bring you something you lost in the Fairy Well.”
‘Overcome, he said nothing but drew me close to him, holding me tightly until I led him by the hand into the maze of dancers. Then the other fairies dissolved into a colourful mist that swirled out the window towards our wood leaving us together. We stood before the creation that my fairy folk had brought and decorated: a beautiful fir tree, each bough decorated with gems and precious gifts. Rubies, sapphires and emeralds hung from it while silk belts and satin ribbons looped in and out so the whole tree shimmered and sparkled in the candlelight. And so we should have lived happily. But man is a forgetful, impetuous creature.’
The boatman arrives and she steps in handing her coin of safe passage, which he looks at and nods. He is not one of her kind and comes from elsewhere, a strange looking fellow with feet like a goat and a face pockmarked and distorted. They have never spoken to each other in all the times they have done this trip. The boat slips silently out of the pond and down the river, moving with slow haste towards her destination.
Then she is back at the castle, clouds hang low in the sky and the land is enveloped in darkness. The imprint she had left on the castle gate’s stone arch on that fateful day is still there. She presses her hand into it and the clouds move so that moonlight beams down. In the window overlooking the courtyard, she can see the tree glowing brightly against the darkness. It beckons her closer, closer than she knows she should go. The window is open and she can smell the rich scent of pine. A candle on a bough wavers and the apples decorating the tree shine red and green as if they are rubies and emeralds.
She hears footsteps coming up the staircase. No longer the light tread of youth, these steps are heavy with grief and age and she knows it won’t be long until they no longer echo around this great building.
Her time is nearly up and she must prepare to go back to her other world. She looks again at the sparkling tree wondering if it knows that it too will soon lose its lustre and glow. She knows he only lights and decorates it at Christmas time. This is why she chose this time to visit; to see it and remember. She knows it’s his way of apologising. He has learnt that words should be used with care and thought, not casually discarded.
The clouds begin to drift back across the moon and the courtyard below her disappears into the darkness of night. She touches one of the ribbons that has been coiled into a bow. Its colour is the same gold as the dress she was wearing that fateful Christmas Eve, when his words were too powerful even for her to fight against.
She knows that every decoration on this tree is a symbol of their time together; physical representation of his wish that they might go back to that Christmas Eve when their time of laughter and happiness was stretching in front of them. Before he uttered the word that he had promised never to say and brought decline and silence to his world. Before he cried in a fit of impatience ‘death’ and sealed her fate, sending her to the underworld.
The Christmas tree is his attempt to go beyond words and find a gesture that will bring her back. But she is powerless to oblige and cannot return to him. The door opens within the room and the light of a candle signals his movements. She glides across the emptiness of the courtyard to the castle gate, then looks back one last time. The candle is still, hovering by the window. She blows a kiss across the distance that separates them. Then disappears.