Winter Solstice Folk Tales

Folk tales are the oldest stories we tell each other. At the Winter Solstice, when the harvest is in and the nights stretch their darkness out as far as it will go, cloaking the world in a cold, still silence, our ancestors could do little more than wait it out, and tell their stories. There would be favourites, and sometimes new stories, or new versions of old stories, and new storytellers making their contribution, bringing stories from afar.

These are the stories told by the fireside or around the table by family, friends, and friends of friends.

From Celtic Britain comes the story of the Oak King and his demise at the hands of his twin brother, the Holly King. As the North winds tear the leaves from the oak, the holly remains arrayed in his spiky green mantle. At last, in the dead of Winter, the oak revives and slays the holly. A story of lifecycles, death, and renewal.

The Inuit have a story about a wizard called Tupilak who steals the sun and moon every year. He takes them through a hole in the sky to light his own private world. But the Raven, an old foe of the wizard Tupilak, is wise to this trick and crosses the sky each time to steal the sun and the moon back.

The Nipmuc people of Massachusetts used to live in a warm temperate climate, but kept complaining it was too hot, too mild, too rainy. The creator heard their complaints and sent the sun away gradually day by day until their village became so cold that any number of furs could not keep the people warm. The people called out for mercy and so the creator relented and brought the sun back but kept the pattern every year, so the Nipmuc remained grateful, whatever the weather.

The Sami people of Northern Finland don’t see the sun for about a month in Winter and they tell stories of madness and depression brought on by the lack of sunlight. Their goddess Bievve carries the sun in a cart made from reindeer bones. Her reindeer are sustained with butter smeared on the doors of the Sami people’s huts as she strives to return the sun to the sky every year.

The Polynesian islanders have a broadly similar story of a sun in a hurry. The fisherfolk complain that no sooner have they arrived at the beach to set off in their boats, the sun sets, and they have to return to the village. The demi-god Maui sets off to capture the sun and slow it down. He takes his axe and aims at the sun’s legs, wounding it so that for half the year the sun races across the sky on its eight good legs. The rest of the year the sun travels the other way and has to use its other eight crippled legs.

The Hungarians have a Miracle Stag, Csodasvarvas, who carries the sun in his antlers across the river to bring the Spring to the Huns and the Magyars. It was said to have a thousand branches on its antlers, with a thousand candles to light up the sky.

Was there a favourite story told by a family member or friend, that could bear infinite retellings, and did it ever change over time with newly remembered details? This winter season when extended families and old friends get together is there a particular story that you are keen to hear again?

Which is your top family folktale?


About 14thcenturypoet

Author of The Legend of Zonza, an historical fantasy based on traditional Italian folk tales...
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