Of Rites and Passage
Of imprisonment and other pickles:
To the right of the old wall clock is the pantry door, one of three behind which I have been incarcerated during my lifetime.
Technically it’s just a ‘cupboard under the stairs’, but its stone walls and north-facing window make it a space ideal for food storage. In my youth, eggs, butter, cheese and meat would chill on the cold slate sill, whilst red-top milk bottles waded in water-filled enamel jugs. Jars of sinister pickles and friendlier jams lined the shelves and tins of home-made cakes stacked in one corner of the floor, behind the huge old pottery crochon of salt.
Only the cheddar – my grandfather’s choice of supper every night of the eighteen years I knew him – seemed to suffer. Delivered on a Saturday and kept unwrapped, as the week wore on it emerged increasingly as ‘life, but not as we know it’, sweating and growing more leathery by the hour. You didn’t need to eat it to have bad dreams.
Even mice preferred the candles – especially the ones stored in the huge old cardboard box of Christmas decorations aestivating under the turn of the treads. As the first cold hand of autumn shooed the raiders indoors, their tell-tail presence would lead my mother to declare it ‘time for the decorations to come out’. And from then until December, we buried ourselves each evening in glorious heaps of shine and glue whilst mousetraps snapped their cruel tongues.
The other thing that came out of the pantry for Christmas was the De Kuyper Cherry Brandy. The household only held three varieties of alcohol; sherry for trifles, brandy for medicinal purposes and the Cherry Brandy which was only ever consumed on Christmas Eve. Bewilderingly at the time, I was always included in the sickly, once-a-year round, although I now realise that my parents obviously weren’t above using a liquid cosh on their largely nocturnal daughter so that Santa could stand, deliver and get some sleep.
Anyway, the pantry is the only space in the house which can be locked from the outside, as well my brother knew. I loved him – worshiped him – and much of it was mutual, but with a ten year age gap between us, there were naturally times when little sister became too much. The pantry was the ideal solution.
Interment was never that bad; I rather liked the me-sized space, both within the familiar walls of home and yet also outside them. I could more-or-less time my release for I soon discovered that silence was far more likely to secure liberty than protest was and the cake tins offered consolation whilst awaiting parole.
It ended though after he forgot I was in there one afternoon. By the time I was found, I’d made ‘cake’ with the eggs, salt and a jar of chutney, un-capped each of the milk bottles for the Blue Peter aluminium foil collection and was hand-dipping tinsel. It never happened again.
My second taste of imprisonment was very recent. Last to leave my workplace one evening, I deposited my coat on the stair-post and went to check that the front door was locked before slipping out of the back one for a cigarette. ‘Click’ went the inner porch door behind me. ‘Clunk’ went my brain, as I assured myself that yes, someone had already mortised the outer door and yes, I was now firmly locked between the two – in November – in a vest.
I measured my predicament. Nothing dreadful was going to happen but imminent release was by no means certain. Tom was due to pick me up at some point in the next couple of hours but he always drives round to the back of the building and is often sound asleep by the time I emerge.
I had no cakes, no milk-bottles to uncap – and my brother is now permanently on the other side. In fact all I had to amuse myself with were my cigarettes, a lighter, and a large, gloating ‘no smoking’ sign. Few rights of passage here then; I was going to have to attract someone’s attention.
Hammering on the inside of the outer door proved painful, frustrating and futile, there being a 30ft gap between the porch and the pavement which adjoins a busy road. Next I tried waving the ‘no smoking’ sign – and then my illuminated lighter – out of the letterbox, but the flick of steel on flint just made me salivate more for the forbidden fix and rescue came there none. So I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to shout. But shouting is not in my nature and shouting ‘help’ seems somewhat alarmist, even when you mean it.
On three of my all fours then, with my final fourth propping the letterbox open, I pressed my lips to the gap and enunciated, with feeling… ‘excuse me…’ quite loudly. However with the tutor of a keen breeze caressing my sleevelessness, I soon learned to shout, even if passers-by had by now dropped to a dribble and several were clearly choosing not to hear the speaking door.
Think tactics Jude… go for a pair… they’ll each feel embarrassed if they ignore you and reassured that there’s safety in their numbers…
Yes! Got you! Keep coming… I’m not leading you up the garden path, honestly…Well, ok, I am, but not in that way…
‘Look I know this sounds silly…’ I began, with barely functioning lips ‘but I’ve locked myself in… and… um… also… out…’
They were a trusting pair of knights, fair play, for not only did they ring the police, they also posted a mobile through the letterbox so that I could personally explain my predicament and whereabouts to the woman on the switchboard.
‘And is that a residential address?’ she enquired, managing to keep her amusement fairly hidden… ‘Um no, it’s…a… um… drop-in centre for people with mental health problems…’ I whispered quickly. She exploded, whilst I pondered whether ‘cracking up and leaving’ was considered as serious as ‘breaking and entering’.
Of deities of doors
Looking back, I could, of course, have invoked the help of Janus, the twin-headed and ancient Roman god of doorways, thresholds, beginnings and endings, for whom the current month is aptly named. He could, after all, have arranged for me to have been saved by a janitor (a noble profession also named after him)… for the female version of a janitor is a janitress… and our cleaner is called Janet… but, damn it, Janet was later than usual that night…
Perhaps I should have turned to Cardea instead…
Some (including Ovid and Wikipedia) will tell you that Cardea was originally Carna, a nymph who caught one of Janus’s four eyes and became his mistress. He allegedly thanked her for sharing her carnal knowledge (and yes, ‘carnal’ is derived from ‘Carna’) by turning her from nymph Carna into goddess Cardea and giving her power over door hinges…
‘Oh Janus, my love… What is this gift you bring me? Flowers? No… Jewels? No… Oh! A can of WD40 from the all night garage…You really shouldn’t have… No, really, you shouldn’t…’
‘Her power is to open what is shut, to shut what is open’, wrote Ovid, more poetically.
Others, however, believe that old Publius Ovidius simply wanting to add some bodice-ripping spice to his ‘Fasti’ and that Carna – whilst credited with power over the flesh and the body’s major organs – is not to be confused with Cardea and her power over Janus’ bits and pieces…
Whoever is correct, Ovid records that Cardea’s festival was marked in early June with offerings of pig flesh and beans and the hanging of small masks or heads (known as ‘oscilla’ – ‘little faces’) in doorways and on trees where they would swing in the wind – or ‘oscillate’. Others say she carried sway over the four winds… or should that be five, in the wake of the bean feast?
As well as being credited with the power to prevent evil spirits passing through doorways, Cardea’s sphere of efficacy extended beyond the threshold, to the revolution of the seasons on ‘the hinge of the year’ and Ovid particularly associates her with the hawthorn, through which she was said to offer protection to sleeping children, against attack by witches disguised as winged creatures of the night.
Beware, though, before entrusting your offspring to her; Robert Graves, in his long prose hymn to the muse, links Cardea to the White Goddess herself and portrays her later incarnation of benevolent household goddess as being a far cry from the original wild woman, more likely to turn into an owl and snatch infants away than to watch over them…
I must remember, too, that within their homes the Romans also paid homage to the ‘Penates’ – spirits associated particularly with the pantry… But sadly it’s not where the word ‘penitentiary’ comes from…
Of passages and pussycats
From ‘limen’, though – Latin for ‘threshold’ we get both ‘subliminal’ – i.e. below a threshold, and the less known ‘liminal’ – and its description of being on a threshold – or in an intermediate state, phase, or condition. Interestingly – and illustrative of the symbolism associated with doorways worldwide – it was also to Janus that Romans turned for protection during the vital ‘liminal’ or transitory phases of life, such as childbirth, marriage and the journey from childhood to adulthood. Do adolescents perhaps instinctively huddle in doorways, sensing his protection there…? Or perhaps old four eyes has become a hoodie himself, trying not to stand out in the crowd…
Anyway, it’s little wonder that a small legend of beliefs and traditions are recorded in association with the portals to and from our ‘safe’ spaces. Inside is home, warmth, light and safety… outside lies the unfamiliar – cold, darkness and perhaps harm… We stand on the magical – and potentially dangerous – threshold, familiar with that which is behind us but looking out into the as yet unknown…
Unless, of course, you are the ultimate inhabitant of liminal space, Schrödinger’s cat, for whom both danger and safety co-existed in the confined space of a sealed box.
If you actually know something about quantum mechanics, please skip the next few paragraphs; I will be quarkly embarrassed to know that you read them.
For the rest of us, happy to run up to things we don’t understand, grin at them and run away again, I must first explain that ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ was a thought experiment; no actual cat was harmed in the formation of this thought… well virtually no cat, anyway.
In the experiment, Schrödinger thinks about enclosing a cat in a steel box. If you’d like to try it at home (and children, please ask a grown up first), you will need:
- a tiny quantity of a radioactive material, so small that in the space of a relatively short period of time an atom of it might decay… or, equally well, might not.
- a Geiger counter
- a phial of acid which, when broken by a hammer triggered by the Geiger counter will release cyanide gas
- a hammer (see above)
- a cat
- a wire coat hanger, a washing up liquid bottle and the inner tube from a toilet roll
Now, whilst kitty sits and contemplates the universe, do the same…
It is almost universally accepted (well in this universe anyway… I’d have to ask my other selves about parallel ones…) that atomic and sub-atomic particles can be in more than one state at a time; a concept known as ‘superposition’. The Copenhagen school of thought suggests that it is observation that actually ends this state of ‘superposition’; a bit like a manic game of ‘statues’ where all the players are moving everywhere at once, but freeze in a single space and stance the moment the music stops and somebody looks…
By placing the fate of the cat in the hands of the decay (or otherwise) of an atomic particle, Schrödinger sought to illustrate some of the problems involved when you try to apply the Danish school of thought to larger systems which can be easily observed… like a cat. Will its bacon really only be saved – or not – when we actually open the box to look…? Is it really sensible… or is it rasher… to believe that the cat might be in a state of super‘pus’ition – both alive and dead – until the lid is lifted? Of course in liminal space, no-one can hear you purr…
OK children, now open the box. Use the wire coathanger to fend off the very angry kitty cat now emerging and the washing up liquid and the paper that was around the toilet roll inner tube to clean up its mess…
Of portents and portals:
Which all leads rather nicely to the fact that as well as being linked to times of transition in life – with myriad superstitions governing how and when babies, brides and grooms should enter and leave their homes – the liminality of doorways also marks sure time in the passages of death.
Before a death occurred – in Wales and, I understand, other parts of Britain, – the opening of all locks, doors and windows in the house was once thought to help ease the spirit’s departure, both from the body and from the house. Mirrors were covered lest the spirit become trapped within and grieving family members were cautioned against standing at the feet of a dying loved one, in case they should impede their departure. Others related these practices to allowing ‘death’ to enter to collect the soul.
It brings to mind one of the stories most able to make me shiver as a child… One of those tales that you beg to hear and then wish you hadn’t at bedtime.
For when her love of storytelling threw good parenting to the wind, Mum could sometimes be persuaded to relate how my great grandmother and one of her daughters had sat up one night, watching over one of the grandchildren who was grievously ill with scarlet fever… So ill, indeed, that they had opened the doors, ready…
By around three in the morning, the baby’s mother had fallen asleep in her chair, but my great grandmother was still awake. Suddenly, movement caught the corner of her eye and she saw, she said, a stooped figure – a ‘little man’ – enter the room. He walked directly to the bedside and extended his hand as if to touch the baby’s fevered brow… but then hesitated, stopping short of making contact. He then turned to my great grandmother, shook his head and left, without a word.
She immediately woke her daughter and told her to shut and bolt the doors, for she need no longer fear for her son. The baby, of course, rallied from that moment…
Anyway, back at less fortunate bedsides, the belief prevailed that during the liminal time between death and burial, the spirit of the deceased might stay in the environs of their home and, for this reason, doors and windows were often left open throughout the ‘between’ time. It was even considered unlucky to close the door of the deceased’s home during their funeral, but houses along its route would keep their doors and curtains firmly closed, lest the spirit be tempted inside.
And even today the echoes of these traditions whisper to us, it still being customary in parts of rural Wales for someone – often a family friend – to stay in the house during a funeral, even if today the prime purpose cited in discourse is to ‘put the kettle on, ready’. It is also still considered proper for windows to be curtained ‘in respect’ when funerals are passing, snuggling darker murmurs in their folds.
Spirits in my part of Wales however were at one time offered an alternative exit. Writing in 1911, Jonathan Ceredig Edwards records the practice of the ‘Hir Wen Gwd’ – or the ‘long white shroud’ in his ‘Folklore of Mid and West Wales’.
He relates how, in the mid eighteenth Century, it was common practice in Pembrokeshire for corpses to be removed from their coffins during the ‘Gwylnôs’ or Wake and then be drawn slowly up to the very top of the chimney with the aid of a rope and a party of ‘pullers’ up on the roof.
Having reached the top, the body would then be lowered again and replaced in the coffin.
The question that springs to my mind is ‘why?’ and it obviously puzzled Edwards too… ‘I enquired everywhere from very old persons as to origins and object of such strange and mysterious ceremony…’ he wrote. ‘In reply some of them informed me that it was only a game indulged in… to pass the time…’ (Charades, anyone? No… I can never guess them… I know, let’s get the corpse out and clean the chimney with it…) ‘…Others said there was a superstition that another death would soon follow… unless the ceremony was duly performed…’ Intuitively, this seems rather more likely.
The custom came to an end, Edwards says, after the efficacy of this insurance was called very sharply into question. It was customary, he writes, for someone to take the deceased’s place in the coffin whilst the ‘long white shroud’ turned soot black. On this particular occasion, the Santa-hunters returned to the coffin with corpse no.1 only to find that the temporary occupant had become corpse no.2… So much, then, for that theory…
Of bleak midwinter vegetables:
Other threshold traditions relate to liminal times of year rather than liminal times of life… and particularly to the dark stretch of days through which we have just passed. In fact the whole period from late October through to early January is littered with traditions involving doorway encounters…
In spite of it now being almost traditional to grump at Hallowe’en, middle class British accents vying with each other to condemn the ‘American’ tradition of Trick or Treating, it seems likely that the coming of winter has been marked with flame, ribald behaviour and the enactment of exchanges at thresholds within these shores since the Celts first whispered ‘Samhain‘…
The Hallowe’en (or Nôs Calan Gaea’ – ‘Eve of Winter’) of my 1960’s Welsh childhood was certainly already a time for children to dress up and carry turnip lanterns from house to house. That the advent of the pumpkin has now obviated the need to spend hours chiselling out a hollow in a root vegetable would seem unworthy of lament.
We door-to-doored without accompanying threats and with no expectation of being given anything, the well-practiced oohs and aahs of the adults and a liberal seasoning of delicious trepidation being rewards enough in themselves… We may have been poor, but we had turnips. In other parts of our islands it’s recorded that children did receive small treats of food or even money in recognition of their calling at neighbouring households at this time of year.
The 31st October saw the Manx celebrating Hop-tu-Naa (from the same root as ‘Hogmanay’) with lantern-lit door-to-door singing whilst the Irish and Scottish marked the ‘end of summer’ with Oíche Shamhna and Oidhche Shamhna respectively. Well, what’s a ‘dh’ between Q Celts, other than a lousy hand in Scrabble?
In parts of Somerset, the fourth Thursday in October was designated ‘Punky Night’, when children would carry carved mangelwurzel lanterns around village houses – ostensibly commemorating a mass round-up of drunken husbands by their wives, but obviously linked to something much older. And further north, the 4th November has long been celebrated as ‘Mischief Night’ – a darkness of mayhem when the antics of youngsters put relatively gentle Trick or Treating into perspective.
Add the door-to-door ‘penny for the guy’ perambulations grafted onto the old fires of Samhain, throw the Mediaeval custom of ‘Souling’- the practice of going from house to house on November 1st, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead – into the melting cauldron and strong themes emerge surrounding the celebration of the New Year of yesteryear. Fire, flame, representations of heads or skulls, the breaking down of established social order, the lowering of barriers between this world and the otherworld and door-stepping all seem to have survived in folk memory even if the names we now attribute to the celebrations have changed.
Similar themes also dominate the other festivals of midwinter; a couple of months later when the ‘new’ New Year approaches we’re knocking on doors again – wassailing, carolling, first footing and – or in Wales – Mari Lwyd-ing, collecting Calenig and hunting wrens…
Of Mair and Mari:
We do first foot in Wales of course, but in north Pembrokeshire of yesteryear, not everyone insisted that it be done by a man. First preference was for having your threshold crossed by a man who has one of four ‘lucky’ names – Dafydd, Sion, Ifan or Siencyn, but if a man bearing one of these names could not be found, a woman with a lucky name – Sian, Sioned, Mair or Marged – would be preferred over other men.
Further north, however, in Llanddewi Brefi (yes, honestly) it is recorded that ‘the first boy who comes to the door on New Year’s morning is warmly welcomed into the house and even taken upstairs and into the bedrooms so that those who are in their beds might have the satisfaction…’
Some of our New Year traditions however are more peculiarly Welsh, the Mari Lwyd – or ‘grey mare’ being a creature of great antiquity which some link with the Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon.
The truly sinister Mari – usually built around the bare bones of a horse’s skull but also fashioned from wood and sometimes given an articulated, snapping jaw, is decorated with bells and ribbons. I made my Mari out of a branch which whispered things equine to me when I was walking the wood but she stays firmly stabled at home (or at least she tells me she does…)
Traditionally though, the Mari was carried from door to door by groups of adult males; children, don’t have of night mares…
At the door (kept, at first, firmly shut), verses of song were exchanged across the threshold, traditionally leading to the ‘pwnco’ – a battle of wits and insult – between those outside and within. Once victory was established, entrance was gained and refreshments served.
Drunkenness and a degree of ‘antisocial behaviour’ were intrinsic to the practice and the tradition, once widespread across much of south Wales, is believed to have almost died out due to sermonising associated with the non-conformist revival; ASBOs issued from the pulpit preaching temperance in all but communion. It survived, however in small pockets of resistance and looks likely to enjoy a secure future, thanks to new value now being attached to our language and heritage.
I am, however, never quite convinced of the future or even value of rituals practiced only thanks to ‘revival’; when something ancient and ingrained – and perhaps latterly only surviving thanks to habit or ‘tradition’ – becomes superseded by hobby horse, or is preserved only thanks to being pickled by folk society. Where does enactment end and the sealed, soul-less knot of re-enactment begin?
Or perhaps it is inevitable that as populations shift and mix and we either cease to feel the common dreads of flood, famine and phantoms – or at least cease to turn to the gods to sort them out – that rituals will only survive thanks to artificial means of preservation. Their roots stem, after all, from the collective OCD of communities desperate to impose rules, order and control on a hostile and unpredictable world (and otherworld). Why bother avoiding the cracks once the last bear has been shot?
Anyway, I digress, as is becoming increasingly traditional on these pages… Let us return to Wales in January, whilst I await the arrival of a horse’s head in my bed…
Of Calenig and wrens:
Children, meanwhile, contented themselves with collecting ‘Calenig’ – a gift of coppers – in return for traditional New Year’s songs. They carried no skulls, but I do find something slightly disturbing about the decorated apples they clasped in their sweet hands. Studded with cloves or almond slivers, with three wooden legs and a sprig of evergreen to crown them, they definitely project something of the Blair Witch about them and ‘one I made earlier’ truly scared my robin when I took it out to the garden to photograph. Others favoured oranges crowned with stems of oats… a link, perhaps, with wishes of fertility for the fields.
Traditionally, the collecting of Calenig could only be undertaken before mid-day on New Year’s Day, although it is recorded that children from the poorest families were allowed a second bite of the apple the next morning; our earliest means-tested benefit?
The third tradition associated with the New Year in Wales – the hunting of the wren – was also well known in Ireland and on the Isle of Man. Interestingly all three cultures have names for the wren – dryw, dreoilín and dreain – which are linked, etymologically, with druids, oak trees and – perhaps most surprisingly – doors. It is also recorded that druids relied upon wrens to aid them in their divinations, listening to their chatterings and song.
Some have surmised then that the hunting of the wren – Troglodytes troglodytes (or ‘cave dweller’ – from its habit of frequenting crevices and clefts in rocks) – dates back to pre-Christian traditions or at least to the very early days of Christianity, when St Stephen’s hiding place was allegedly given away by a wren. More recent excuses for the annual persecution of these miniscule creatures are also recorded, but its confinement to communities tied by Celtic knotwork make the arguments for its great age particularly persuasive.
Liminal associations with the wren hunt include its timing – associated not only with St Stephen’s Day on 26th December but also with New Year celebrations – its limits – the wren must be captured twixt dawn and dusk – and the nature of the practice itself; once captured and (usually) killed, the wren would be encased in a ribbon-bedecked box or laid on a bier, and then paraded from door to door…
The ‘wren boys’ would sing, the householders would reward them with food or money and, in some traditions, might be given a feather as a token of good luck for the coming year. It was, thankfully, considered very bad luck to kill a wren at any other time.
The poignancy of this tradition is underlined for me by wrens’ habit of communal roosting in very cold weather, with records existing of almost a hundred being found sleeping together in a group hug, typically two or three deep, all with their tails turned to the elements. Ornithologist would tell me to stop anthropomorphising, but how can you kill a bird which so obviously feels the cold in the middle of winter?
It also reminds me of bedtimes of my own childhood. No we didn’t snuggle three deep- it was simply a traditional time in our household not for being read to, but for being told stories.
My mother’s tales were always of the familiar… of farms or households I already knew, and always had joyous conclusions (she was, after all, sacked as a Sunday School teacher for inventing happy endings for every bible story you’d care to mention. Yes, and the Old Testament ones…)
Dad’s stories, however, were WILD. Nurtured on Strewelpeter and the same German folk tales recorded by the Grimm brothers, his stories had ‘ooh’s in equal proportion to mum’s ‘aah’s.
One of my favourites told of a competition held amongst the birds to decide who should be their King:
Of feathers and beds:
Long long ago, further back in time than the oldest trees can count on their twig-tips, all birds lived together as equals.
They still had their differences of course; the robin was still reddest, the bittern still boomed and the nightingale’s notes were still the sweetest. But they shared their perches, divided food between them and sang only for pleasure.
Then, one day, during a break in the nightingales’ choir practice, some of the sopranos overheard two explorers talking.
‘Isn’t the animal kingdom astounding?’ said the first explorer to his companion.
‘It is truly an endless source of wonder to me…’ replied the second explorer ‘for oh, what mysteries it holds… its riches are truly boundless, it would seem’
‘Gosh…’ carolled the nightingales excitedly… this ‘kingdom’ place sounds wonderful. If the animals can have one then surely the birds can too…’
‘Er excuse me ladies…’ said the conductor ‘We are about to sing All Through The Night, if you would care to join us…’
But although the listeners sang, and sang very well indeed, they couldn’t forget about the kingdom. And after the rehearsal was over, they told their friends and neighbours and they all thought having a kingdom was a very grand idea too.
So they turned to the owl, already revered for his wisdom. And they didn’t even have to wake him, for in those days, all birds slept at night.
‘Owl,’ they said, ‘We want a kingdom to call our own… where, please, can we find one?’
‘Ah, said the owl… the potential for a kingdom is amongst us already. But to have a kingdom, we must, of course, first have a king…’
‘Oh, cried the birds… but how will we decide who is to be king? How can we choose amongst us? Tell us, oh owl…’
‘Well,’ said the owl… ‘Some of us are wise, but is that the nature of a bird? No…
‘Some of us sing sweetly,’ continued the owl, ‘but is that the nature of a bird? No…
‘Some of us have bright and beautiful plumage, but is that the nature of a bird? No…
‘The nature of a bird… that which sets us apart from all the other creatures which roam the earth… is our command of the air… our ability to fly… Let us choose our King, then, by holding a competition to see who can fly the highest…’
The hen scratched her head, the blackbird warbled a lament and the peacock preened… but the majority of the birds chorused approval… ‘Let us meet here at dawn tomorrow, they cried. Hurrah! Soon we will have a King!’
So the very next morning, as the sun climbed wearily out of bed, instead of singing encouragement birds of every kind took to the air. People waking and walking at that very small hour wondered what strange portent the heavens held, for dark clouds seemed to rise up instead of hanging with their usual ominous intent.
Up and up the birds climbed, their wingtips gripping every outcrop of air. But the higher they flew, the thinner the air became and the harder it was to hold on.
The smallest birds – the finches and the robins and the warblers – were the first to fall back to earth, their tiny frames soon drained.
The skylark, accustomed to vertical flight, held the lead for a while… but made the mistake of singing as it rose. ‘Very pretty,’ smiled the silent hawk as it climbed past the now exhausted lark… ‘but a waste of energy nonetheless… Shall we meet later for lunch perhaps…?’
The carrier pigeon was confident… ‘Am I not known for my ability to fly mile upon mile, crossing continents and seas…?’ it mused to itself. But so delighted was it at the prospect of being crowned King that it applauded as it rose, clapping its wings at the height of their rise…
‘Only subjects applaud… monarchs merely wave…’ hissed the goose, as it watched the tired pigeon glide back to earth.
The birds that were left rose higher and higher… and although many hours had now passed and the sun was almost overhead, the air grew colder and colder. More and more exhausted bodies dropped back to earth, until finally only one bird remained.
‘Hah,’ crowed the eagle to itself… ‘I knew that my superior strength, my amazing endurance and my expert command of the thermals would triumph… I suppose I should go and attend my coronation…’
But as the eagle turned to swoop to earth, a tiny little bird flew out from under its wing… A wren.
Still sleepy when dawn broke, its bill chattering with the morning’s chill, the eagle’s great feather bed had looked so very inviting to the wren… Just before the race began, it slipped under the eiderdown just for five minutes more… But by the time the eagle’s self-satisfied soliloquy awoke it, it had slept for hours, was refreshed… and warm… and a very long way off the ground…
‘Oooh’ warbled the wren ‘I’m so high!’ And it was… in fact it was higher than any bird had ever been before. So, trying not to look down, it began its descent.
As it grew closer to the earth, the voices of the other birds reached up to meet it. It heard them cry the words ‘wren!’ and ‘king!’… ‘Oh dear! thought the wren… I must explain what really happened…’
But as the ground grew closer and the voices of the other birds grew louder, the wren heard the word ‘cheat!’ and the anger in their voices… ‘A wren…? Our king? But that’s ridiculous…’ they chorused… ‘Let us catch it and banish it…’
The poor little wren didn’t know what to do. When dawn had broken, all had been harmony. Now, between the indignant cries, it could also hear other birds which had once been friends squabbling and quarrelling amongst themselves. ‘You laughed at me for my clumsy takeoff!’ said the pigeon to the goose. ‘You threatened to eat me,’ said the lark to the hawk. ‘It was your idea in the first place,’ cried the other birds to the nightingales…
So, whilst the birds fought amongst themselves, the little wren slid quietly to earth and slipped… almost unnoticed… into a mouse hole. But the eagle-eyed eagle, his feathers still ruffled, saw where the wren had hidden…
‘Owl,’ said the eagle… ‘This is all your fault. You must stay awake tonight and watch for the wren. And when it comes out, you must call to us.’
And so the birds went to bed. But instead of huddling up for warmth, they all found their own trees and perches. And when they woke the next morning, they sang not from happiness, but to tell their neighbours to keep their distance.
‘So, owl, is the wren still in the hole?’ barked the eagle. The owl blinked.
‘I’m afraid,’ said the owl, shame facedly, ‘that I fell asleep… My eyes were so very tired. At first one rested. Then I opened that one, and rested the other. But at some time both of them must have closed…
And so, even to this day, the tiny wren keeps close to the earth and scuttles about under bushes in case the other birds notice it, the owl stays awake, watching and lamenting… and the nightingales sing a beautiful… but very sad song… of yesteryear.
That last paragraph is, actually, much less familiar to me, for where the owl starts closing his eyes in the story, my wily father would urge me to ‘see if you can be an owl… that’s it, close one of your eyes… now the other… Ooh that’s clever! Can you show me how you do it again?’
The last of his words were of course invariably wrapped in the liminal quilt of near-sleep and the wren hopping around my head snuggled down cosily in its burrow.
And so, head under wing, beak under blanket, almost all that remains for me to do is to wish you all a Happy New Year, and not even a belated one…
For in this small corner of my county and my country, we have one more odd New Year’s tradition…
It dates back to 1752, when, after a couple of hundred years of prevarication, Britain finally adopted the Gregorian rather than the Julian Calendar. Coming into line with the rest of the Western World however required the sacrificing of many days ‘slippage’ – so that people went to bed on the 2nd September and woke up to find it was the 14th.
That rioting followed is unsurprising… quite apart from the financial complications for the world of commerce, people genuinely felt they were being cheated out of some of their life… and can you imagine how much food would have had to be thrown out because it had gone past its sell-by date?
Others objected to their holy days being ‘moved’ and the Glastonbury Thorn is recorded as having bloomed at ‘old’ Christmas, not ‘new’ Christmas in defiance.
Bit by bit though, resistance was forgotten – apart from, that is, in North Pembrokeshire and on Foula, one of the tiniest of the Shetland Islands. For here – and there – it is this weekend that we are actually celebrating the start of the year.
In so doing, however, I am trapped in liminality myself – one foot in a culture which demanded that decorations be taken down last weekend, the other wishing me to throw open my home again this.
The compromise is a meal for friends and a few decorations subtly different to those associated with Christmas; white candles, white fresias and white roses coupled with evergreens from the garden.
But how to decorate the front door? How to honour Janus, Cardea and other guardians of ingress, egress and passage without it looking as if I’m awaiting the arrival of the ghost of Christmas Past? For whilst adoring evergreen wreaths and adorning my every door with them for as long as I can possibly get away with it, I also feel some restraints of conformity.
You wouldn’t have guessed it though, had you seen me yesterday afternoon, down on all fours (again) decorating my doorstep. For I’d read, you see, of the ‘old custom in Pembrokeshire’ – described as ‘gradually falling into disuse’ in 1910 – of chalking patterns on the doorstep. The patterns are recorded as running round the edge of the step, and as often being quite elaborate, the one thing ‘absolutely necessary’ being that they join the two doorposts, so as to variously either keep the devil out or baffle witches trying to enter.
Robins, however, seem unaffected and the new one that’s now adopted the front of the house was determined to help…or determined at least to find the worms which were, no doubt, hidden somewhere. And so, whilst kneeling on cold pavement, chattering to a bird and trying to draw knotwork round my old slate doorstep, I tried telling myself I was doing so so as not to make the neighbours think I was odd…
I like to think Janus smiled… once or twice.
The Mari Lwyd ceremony – just cick the symbol that looks like a camera if you don’t speak the language of heaven…
More about Manx wren hunting – and more
More about the Julian Calendar
The original tale from the Grimm’s collection