We put up our Christmas tree this weekend. Time was when our children could not wait to get out the box of decorations. One year all the baubles and gewgaws were at five year olds’ height and had to be ‘adjusted’ overnight by a slightly taller fairy. Only slightly taller mind. That Christmas fairy has now been overshot by the offspring who tower above her as she wields the tinsel.
Of course now that the kids are in their 20s it is left to us to decorate the tree. We always have a real tree for the beauty and scent, plastic is not my go-to resource when it comes to festivity although I admit that tinsel is not exactly born of Mother Earth.
For many years now I have wanted to buy several trees and make a forest in our front room. I envisage us resting amongst the branches like a family of lowland gorillas, with a mince pie in one hand and a book in the other. No one else at Slavin Castle has ever shared any enthusiasm for this idea.
I liked candles until the internet informed me of the toxic terrors billowing out of the softly flickering light. I also love fairy lights. I need a twinkle or two to pretty up the dark at this time of year and frighten off the monsters.
Back in the 70s (boom) we used to go to Bury Market to purchase new or replacement baubles. My mum had a romantic heart and was struck by such small treasures as porcelain angels and, most memorably for me, a box of sugar houses.
They were in a cardboard box divided up to make a little square haven for each miniature cottage which nestled in rustly tissue paper. They were made from that flimsy blown and silvered glass. Picture postcard in style, these were not post modern fairytale buildings. Each tiny dwelling had the requisite chimney and glittered snow sparkling on a pitched roof. The windows were symmetrically placed beside the welcoming door. They looked like genoise fancies drenched in glitter.
People talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. This sort of person tends to be a militant Christian who holds that the ‘true’ Christmas is all about Jesus being the light of the world and shepherds gathered round a manger, in their way, they’d be right. Christ-mas is about that. If we’re seeking truth however, then we have to remember that this was a festival hijacked from ancient times and beliefs. Pagans were and are, more elementally inclined. Before wise men and Herod there was Yule and Saturnalia.
Yule and the winter solstice are all about lighting the darkness. To hunters and gatherers the outside world of the sun and the seasons was paramount. The sun lit the world. That’s not simply a belief system, that’s a scientific fact. We revolve around the sun. The Celts believed the sun rested for twelve days in Winter and lit Yule logs to keep away the dark and banish bad spirits. In certain quarters it is now thought that the winter solstice at Stonehenge was more significant than that at midsummer. The winter solstice marks the the turning towards the new sun and after the shortest day the light inches back.
‘True’ meaning depends on your perspective. Some may look into the manger. Others might look out through Odin’s eye, for a connection to the natural world, to mistletoe still hanging in the tree, to the pink light of a frosty dawn, to the whipping wind and the wild rain, to the hedgerows red and orange with berries, to the grey sky cloaked with cloud, and on, further, to the stars.
If you’d like the gift of a free book to read by your Christmas tree, just tell me where to send it?
In the fairytale the seven league boots will take you, in one step, a distance of seven leagues. Actually let’s rephrase that, the sort of step you must make should probably be a bound or a leap since this is mythic territory that we are traversing. I am, as I have often mentioned, a child of the 70s and therefore I am mostly metric. This means I weigh and measure in pounds and miles but at school I was taught the metric system. All this is by way of explaining that I have not the foggiest idea how far seven leagues is. I just know I like the sound of it.
I’m assuming that a pair of Jimmy Choos are not going to get you that sort of distance. In fact I doubt such footwear would get me from the sofa to the mirror in the shoe shop. I’ve never been a fan of high heels. You would think that, as a shorter style person, that I might fancy a stacked heel or a platform to give myself a better chance of reaching the Dorset Cereals Honey Granola on the top shelf at Tesco. Far from it. I am most happy in a pair of chunky soled boots.
So if Sigmund Freud were to have a strokey chin moment here and consider the evidence I think it is quite likely that the Seven League Boots have a lot to do with this preference. I have long been a fan of the Doc Marten and have a few pairs. They all look raggedy and wartorn and one pair were in fact chewed by a rat (that’s another blog, more bloodthirsty and involving drains) But I also own a pair of supremely comfy Blundstones. I am not, as you can tell, a glass slipper sort of girl. I like boots you can outrun stuff in; bears, wolves, dragons. It’s quite wild here in Wiltshire.
I always felt that the glass slippers looked very beautiful but, although they might wink with starlight, they looked uncomfortable. Surely glass is a bit skiddy underfoot and possibly rather sweaty? It is no surprise to me that Cinderella threw a shoe as she attempted the four minute mile out of the Ball, the real magic is how she made it that far without aggravating a bunion or abrading a corn.
I have actually seen the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. They are on display in the Smithsonian in Washington DC and on a trip, long ago, my husband and I were quite surprised to see them. It was something of an Oz moment too as, frankly, they weren’t all that sparkly due to lack of special effects.
Which brings us to the Red Shoes. (I think I managed that without anyone noticing) These dark beauties have a different appeal. Whilst there was never any chance of my becoming a ballet dancer due to my overabundance of left feet, I did hanker after certain bits of the gear. The black tulle dress would be my costume of choice to go down to the Post Office if truth be told. The shoes have always attracted, it is the ribbon but it is also the power of the feet within them, the agility and grace. The broken toes.
Here the fairytale darkness seeps in. The Red Shoes are glamorous but costly and you are warned off wearing them. But they are daring and different and impractical. Perhaps you can just try them on in the safety of the magic shoeshop? Is that a red and white spotty sofa you’re sitting on to peel off your trainers? Or is it a toadstool? Ooh, look how scarlet the silk is and how the moonlight plays off the ribbons as they flitter and flutter as if they’re alive. It’s rather uncomfortable the way they snake and strangle round your ankles. But, they are the perfect footwear for a foray into Fairyland surely? Powerful enough to get you home, if you just remember to keep that handful of rowan berries in your pocket.
Or, better yet, throw off the shoes and walk barefoot out of the Sidhe, earth to skin, sole to soul. Or, as Kate Bush advises, take off your shoes, throw them in the lake and be two steps on the water.
I have been putting the finishing touches to a new book, ‘The Ice King’ this week. It’s an origins story and part of a new series that will be coming out soon titled ‘The Witch Ways’. A black dog has an important role in this book and it is a totem and magical animal that I am always attracted to. The chain of thought that this writing has rattled concerns some cogitations about my feelings towards dogs.
A black dog features in folklore and fairytale and they range from a fire eyed hound to a shaggy helpmeet. They are always monstrously large, chihouahas don’t feature in much British folklore, and some of the dogs are carriers of human spirits or the embodiment of a ghost. Still others are watch dogs, hunting dogs and the especially wonderfully monikered ‘Church Grims’ a title for which Greyfriars Bobby might actually qualify.
One of the joys of writing is that you can come upon these beasts and creatures and adopt them for your own ends.
I know there are lots of dog lovers out there, I’m not, strangely, one of them. I’m rather afraid of dogs having been menaced by both a corgi and a cocker spaniel as a child. Stop laughing at the back, when you are four a cocker spaniel is really quite menacing. To be honest I’m not that much taller than a spaniel now. Anyway, despite all this pedigree trauma I always felt that if I had a dog I would not have a yappy one (corgi, cocker, NO) instead I would invest in something on a more mythic scale. I would have an Irish Wolfhound (Irish, got to be if I am to cling to my mythically Celtic roots). Wolfhound. It’s got ‘Wolf’ in its name, what’s your average Hopelessly Pagan Romantic going to do? I cherished this dreamhound for years. I would call him ‘Finn’.
Etched forever on my memory is my first meeting with Henry, the Irish Wolfhound. He was owned by the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. They lived in a cottage style house in a local village, quite bucolic. I was picking my daughter up on this particular afternoon and I’d been instructed to come up the farm track and knock on the back door. I arrived to find a huge five bar gate and after some minor gymnastics I managed to lift the latch and walk in. (I wasn’t wearing a red riding hood but I hope you’re getting the fairytale vibe off this encounter.)
A knock at the door produced no response so I knocked again. As I did so I heard footsteps behind me and I turned. I was face to face with the largest, hairiest dog I have ever encountered. I am five foot one, Henry was five foot three. He could look me right in the eyes if he stooped a little, which he did as he was rather curious. His eyes were, truth be told, soft and friendly. His nose, big and black and wet, sniffled at my face like a canine hoover and he stepped closer. I had nowhere to go, my back grazed against the render of the cottage wall. Henry reared up, taller still and rested first one paw and then another on my shoulders. I entered that state of paralysed euphoria they say you fall into when being mauled by a lion. He was, at that moment, a truly mythical beast and, as I looked up into his panting jaws through a haze of grey fur, I thought that he might possibly have been sent from some nearby Sidhe to fetch me. I was going to be away with the faeries in a trice.
Henry did not eat me that afternoon. He was a friendly dog and was simply resting his paws after a somewhat strenuous walk. Needless to say this encounter quoshed my notion that I might one day have a wolfhound; I have to say they look much smaller in the medieval portraits. Henry, I was told, required his own sofa, never mind a basket.
When his heart failed him a few years later I was very sorry to hear it, tears were shed into the bread dough that day. I like to imagine this kindly gentleman beast, escorting guests each evening to and from the Sidhe, guiding them into the Otherworld before finding a peat fire somewhere and settling himself on the hearth, resting his paws once again after the longest walk.