Christmas Eve dawns. The day of much activity--cooking baking, visiting, gifting, and for many church services. Let's start this day quietly, with a family story combined with a tale from days of old from Pittsburgh area storyteller Barra the Bard.
Later this afternoon we'll have two short stories from more storytelling friends as this series nears its end. Christmas Day will feature stories from two more great storytellers, so do stop by for a fine addition to your Merry Christmas!
Bride at the Inn
Barra the Bard
This Highland Scottish tale was told to me by my granny, who learned it from her granny, Catriona MacNeill Ellison of the Isle of Barra. Bride is the Scottish equivalent of Bridget, but is pronounced “Breed.”
When I was six-and-a-half and we moved to Mountain Avenue in Hackettstown, New Jersey, we began going to the First Presbyterian church. My father didn’t really care what church it was so long as it wasn’t Catholic (a prejudice he inherited from his father but really didn’t pass on to his children), and he and Mother liked the minister—who left after a year. Mother joined the Senior Choir, and would later be a Deaconess. Daddy would be a Trustee and a member of the Session. Jeff reluctantly went to Sunday School for a short time and then rebelled. Not only did I go to Sunday School for several years, I joined the Cherub Choir. That meant going to rehearsals every Friday after school, and one Sunday a month rushing from Sunday School to the curtained space behind the balcony to put on a long blue skirt, a white billowy surplice with a scratchy stiff paper collar over a big black silky bow. We would process down the twisty stairs on each side, then down the aisle to the front pew; partway through the service, we would get up on blue wooden steps in front of the Communion Table and sing our song. I was the littlest Cherub; later I would progress through the Junior and Youth Choirs and finally reach the Senior Choir the times I dropped out of college.
That first year, the church decided to have a Christmas Pageant. We were told about this in Sunday School, and when auditions would be held.
I went, and blithely told Mrs. Whitehead that I wanted to be Bride, pronouncing it “Breed.” Mrs. Whitehead looked blank, and I said impatiently, “You know, Baby Jesus’ foster-mother. She helped him be born of his mother Mary. She was the midwife, the knee-woman. And she had golden hair,” I added as the clincher (I had long reddish-golden curls at that point). If I had known that the Irish call her St. Bridget, I would have said that too. Seeing no comprehension in her face, I said, “St. Bride is the patron saint of midwives and young mothers and children, and of flocks and herds.” That did it—no Presbyterian Church in the 1950s was going to have a Papist saint they had never heard of in their Christmas Pageant! I was sent home in disgrace.
So I sang as a Cherub, for that occasion seated in the Choir Loft behind the pulpit. I remember the dress rehearsal in the chilly church, watching the costumed big kids being shepherds and wise men and Mary (dark-haired, chosen for her ability to kneel motionless for a long time) and Joseph and a blond angel. Thanks to the fact that all the lights were off except under the balcony and at the Choir Loft, the sanctuary seemed very large and shadowy, the lighted horseshoe-shaped space near the back under the balcony very small and faraway.
I had my first sense of …numinous presence, and reconciled myself to no one there understanding about Bride as I told the story over to myself, hearing Granny’s soft Hebridean burr in my head:
Bride was a young girl from a large family, and when she got old enough, she decided to go to work to help out. Nobody needed her in her own village, so she set off walking and seeking. She came down out of the hills above a town, and came to an inn. It was small, there were weeds growing in the flower-beds, and the door needed to be painted. A man was sitting mending some harness near the cave that served as a stable, with a well-made wee cart outside.
When she asked him for work, the man laughed. His name was Moise, he said, and no one ever stayed at his inn. He had inherited it from his parents, and when his mother was on her deathbed, she had had a vision that one day it would be visited by the greatest of all kings. She had made him promise not to sell it until after that, but he actually made his living as a carter, going around the countryside delivering goods for people with his donkey and cart.
Bride loved the look of the inn; or rather, she loved the look she knew it could have, with a little help, and she liked the look of Moise, who had kind eyes. So she got him to agree to a bargain: she would stay for a while, for her food and bed, and see could she make the place do better.
That very day, she began to sweep and clean. By the end of the week, she had weeded the flower-beds and started a garden, and gotten Moise to paint the door. In two weeks, she had befriended neighbor children who liked to play in the big yard. In a month, she had gone home for a short time, returning with a young cow and some chickens; from the milk, she made butter and cheese, and with those things and vegetables and eggs, she made delicious meals. The neighbors began to come in the evenings for supper, and Moise began serving the ale she brewed. They soon served midday meals as well. But no one stayed overnight.
Things went on for a year, and the two became very fond of each other. Bride was happy at the inn, and sang as she worked, and Moise watched her contentedly between his trips with the wee cart and donkey.
But one morning, he came to her looking troubled. “I have to go away for several days,” he said. “It is a good chance to make more money than I ever have.”
“That’s wonderful! I’ll pack you a strupach, a wee basket of food to take,” said Bride.
Moise frowned. “But I don’t like leaving you here alone for so long. With that census going on, the town is full of strangers. You remember that I had to throw out that young soldier last night.”
“Ach, he was just fuddled with the drink,” she said.
“I don’t like it,” Moise repeated. “Bride, the only way I can go is if you will promise me that at sunset you will close and bar the door, and not go out of it until sunrise, nor let anyone in.”
She didn’t think there was any danger, but Moise insisted until she promised, because he knew that she would keep her word.
The next morning early she waved him off, and went to her work. No one came for the midday meal, and at sunset, she closed and barred the door. She was just sitting down to some fresh-baked bread and cool well-water—she’d been so busy that she had little appetite for more than that—when someone knocked on the door.
Bride jumped up, and stopped, remembering her promise. So instead of opening the door, she opened the small window and looked out. She saw a man in a dusty robe, and beyond him a donkey carrying a young woman.
The man asked if this was an inn, and if they had any room. He and his wife, who was soon going to have a baby, had come a long way. Every place in the town was full, and it was getting cold and dark.
“I’m sorry,” said Bride. “This is an inn, but my master is away, and he made me promise not to unbar the door tonight and let anyone in.”
The man sighed. “It took longer than we thought it would to make the trip,” he said. “My name is Joseph bar David. This is my betrothed, Mary. May we rest here for a little while, and have some water from your well?”
Bride had an idea. “I cannot let you in,” she said, “but you could stay in the stable, if you don’t mind the cow and the chickens and the doves that nest in the rafters. There’s plenty of hay, and I can give you some supper and some blankets.”
Joseph thanked her, and she climbed out of the window to show them the stable. Soon she was climbing back in to get a pitcher of water, some food and the blankets.
With a lantern burning, and blankets spread over clean mounds of hay, the little stable looked cozy and welcoming. Mary smiled at her as she lay down, and thanked her as Joseph took care of the donkey.
Bride went back to the inn to have her own supper—and was surprised when she found that the water in her cup tasted like fine wine. But Joseph came to tell her that Mary was having her baby, and what could they do? He was a carpenter, not a farmer, and knew very little about babies.
Bride knew that the town midwife was away, so she climbed out the window again to help. Right at midnight, she was the first to hold a tiny baby, even before his mother did. Later she welcomed some shepherds who had some strange tale of being sent there; she didn’t understand it, but brought them food and some ale. It was becoming a very busy night!
Right in the middle of all that, Moise drove in. He jumped out of the cart, and ran into the stable.
Bride beckoned him outside. “What about your trip? I know I promised not to go let anyone in, and I didn’t, but they had nowhere to go.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I had a vision, telling me that the King of All Kings was here. I came home right away. Thank you for being here.”
That is how Bride, whom some call St. Bridget, became the midwife and foster-mother to our Lord, and the patron of young mothers and children, and of flocks and herds. She married Moise, who became a fulltime innkeeper, and their inn became famous for its food and good beds. Their oldest son tended it after them, and they had long and happy lives.
Based in Pittsburgh, Barra the Bard has been a professional, traditional Celtic storyteller and harper in southwestern Pennsylvania for almost 30 years, specializing in Scottish and Welsh tales and tunes. Often she combines telling with playing her Celtic lever harp, Dreamsinger, named for her great-great-grandmother’s harp. Barra also does many multicultural programs, and enjoys doing historical tales, family/personal tales, ghost stories, a very few literary adaptations, and some of her own crafting. She celebrated her 25th anniversary as the official seannachie (storyteller) of the Ligonier Highland Games this past September, and has published Corries & Creels: Scottish Folktales from the Islands & Highlands. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org; her website is: www.barrabard.com.