Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Christmas Fairy of Strasburg

I've been looking for some different Christmas folktales to share, and found this one recently. I like it for the combination of folklore--fairies and the origin of the Christmas tree. There are lots of legends about why we have the trees, but this one was new to me. 

The Christmas Fairy of Strasburg

A German Folktale by By J. Stirling Coyne
(adapted by Frances Jenkins Olcott and a little bit by me)
Image from German Christmas Traditions: visit them for recipes, games, customs and more)

Once long ago, there lived near Strasburg, on the river Rhine, a young and handsome count whose name was Otto. As the years flew by he remained unwed, and never so much as cast a glance at the fair maidens of the country round. For this reason people began to call him "Stone-Heart."

One Christmas Eve Count Otto ordered that a great hunt should take place in the forest surrounding his castle. He and his guests and servants rode forth, and the chase became more and more exciting. It led through thickets and forest, until at length Count Otto found himself separated from his companions.

He rode on alone until he came to a spring of clear water, known to the people around as the "Fairy Well." Here Count Otto dismounted. He bent over the spring and began to wash his hands in the sparkling water but to his wonder he found that though the weather was cold and frosty, the water was quite warm. A glow of joy passed through his veins, and as he plunged his hands deeper he thought that his right hand was grabbed by another hand that was soft and small. It gently slipped from his finger the gold ring he always wore. And, lo! when he drew out his hand, the gold ring was gone.

Full of wonder at this mysterious event, the count returned to his castle, resolving in his mind that the very next day he would have the Fairy Well emptied by his servants.

He retired to his room and tried to sleep but the strangeness of his adventure kept him awake. Suddenly he heard the hoarse baying of the watch-hounds in the courtyard, and then the creaking of the drawbridge, as though it were being lowered. Then came to his ear the patter of many small feet on the stone staircase, and next he heard indistinctly the sound of light footsteps in the chamber adjoining his own.

Count Otto sprang from his couch. As he did there sounded a strain of delicious music and the door of his chamber was flung open. Hurrying into the next room, he found himself in the midst of numberless Fairy beings, clad in bright and sparkling robes. They paid no attention to him but began to dance, and laugh and sing to the sound of mysterious music.

In the center of the apartment stood a splendid Christmas Tree, the first ever seen in that country. Instead of toys and candles there hung on its lighted boughs diamond stars, pearl necklaces, bracelets of gold ornamented with colored jewels, aigrettes of rubies and sapphires, silken belts embroidered with Oriental pearls and daggers mounted in gold and studded with the rarest gems. The whole tree swayed, sparkled, and glittered in the radiance of its many lights.

Count Otto stood speechless. Suddenly the Fairies stopped dancing and fell back to make room for a lady of dazzling beauty who came slowly toward him.

She wore on her raven-black tresses a golden diadem set with jewels. Her hair flowed down upon a robe of rosy satin and creamy velvet. She stretched out two small, white hands to the count and addressed him in sweet, alluring tones:

"Dear Count Otto," said she, "I come to return your Christmas visit. I am Ernestine, the Queen of the Fairies. I bring you something you lost in the Fairy Well."

As she spoke she drew from her bosom a golden casket, set with diamonds, and placed it in his hands. He opened it eagerly and found within his lost gold ring.

Carried away by the wonder of it all, and overcome by an irresistible impulse, the count pressed the Fairy Ernestine to his heart, while she, holding him by the hand, drew him into the magic mazes of the dance. The mysterious music floated through the room, and the rest of that Fairy company circled and whirled around the Fairy Queen and Count Otto; then gradually dissolved into a mist of many colors, leaving the count and his beautiful guest alone.

Then the young man, forgetting all his former coldness toward the maidens of the country round about, fell on his knees before the Fairy and besought her to become his bride. At last she consented on the condition that he should never speak the word "death" in her presence.

The next day the wedding of Count Otto and Ernestine, Queen of the Fairies, was celebrated with great pomp and magnificence, and the two lived happily for many years.

Now it happened one day that the count and his Fairy wife were to hunt in the forest around the castle. The horses were saddled and bridled, and standing at the door, the company waited, and the count paced the hall in great impatience; but still the Fairy Ernestine tarried long in her chamber. At length she appeared at the door of the hall, and the count addressed her in anger.

"You have kept us waiting so long," he cried, "that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!"

Scarcely had he spoken the forbidden and fatal word, when the Fairy, uttering a wild cry, vanished from his sight. Count Otto, overwhelmed with grief and remorse, searched the castle and the Fairy Well; no trace could he find of his beautiful, lost wife but the imprint of her delicate hand set in the stone arch above the castle gate.

Years passed by, and the Fairy Ernestine did not return. The count continued to grieve.

Every Christmas Eve he set up a lighted tree in the room where he had first met the Fairy, hoping in vain that she would return to him.

Time passed and the count died. The castle fell into ruins. But to this day may be seen above the massive gate, deeply sunken in the stone arch, the impress of a small and delicate hand.

And such, say the good folk of Strasburg, was the origin of the Christmas Tree.
Images 2 and 3 above are the work of Arthur Rackham. I was fortunate enough to buy a collection of his work at the used book sale, and I am enthralled by his fairy art. So I used th work of an Englishman to illustrate this German tale that was written by an Irishman. A truly multicultural Christmas offering. Amazon has some copies of Rackham's books listed, and I highly recommend having a look at them. His work is stunning.


Mama-Bug said...

What a beautiful tale! I enjoyed it so much. It brought a bright spot of Christmas cheer to my heart.

Granny Sue said...

Thank you, Mama-Bug! It is lovely, isn't it? and not a story we usually hear.

bayouwoman said...

Hi Granny Sue, I have so missed reading your blog and seeing what you've been doing. I am way too busy these days but hope to do some catching up while the weather is cold. Interesting story . . thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas, Sue. Peace and good will to you and yours.
Bayou Woman

Granny Sue said...

Hey BW! I'm in the same shape, trying to catch up with everyone as I can. Thanks for stopping by. I'll be over to see what's happening on the bayou soon!

Nanjemoy Nana said...

I loved this story! I know my grand daughter Catherine will too. She loves fairy stories .

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