(HOST) To commentator Willem Lange, Christmas Eve’s mix of tradition and expectation makes it the best night of the year.
(LANGE) Christmas Eve in New England is about as good as it gets: snow outside; warm fires inside; and this year, an almost-full moon. Sure, it’s the darkest time of the year, and it’s about to be the coldest. The time of year the ancients feasted to celebrate the imminent return of the sun.
In Rome it was called Saturnalia – after Saturn, the god of agriculture – and it was a lot like our Mardi Gras today. The early Christians borrowed the theme of hope and rebirth implicit in a midwinter agricultural festival and placed the birth of Christ right after the solstice. Like Hanukkah, it celebrates the triumph of light in a dark world. Perfect for New England, where the promise of spring seems pretty remote in December.
Many of our Christmas traditions came from the Old World – the Christmas tree from Germany, Saint Nicholas from the Netherlands and carols from everywhere. We know a Lutheran couple who invite a group of friends over for the Lighting of the Tree and a chorus of “O Tannenbaum.” I do mean lighting, too: candles in little metal sconces, with a bucket of sand and a fire extinguisher nearby. And we rarely miss the broadcast of Lessons and Carols from Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, with its Queen’s English readers and Gothic church acoustics.
There are other traditions less well known, like the Mexican drama of Los Posadas. A young couple, obviously poor, walk through a village with a donkey, knocking at doors and asking for room to spend the night. They are refused everywhere, till at last they find refuge and the young woman gives birth during the night. The message is irresistible.
In Iceland there are traditions of elves, trolls and Hidden People. You have only to see the tortured lava landscape to sense where they came from. The Hidden People, or huldevolk, are descended from Adam and Eve. When Eve heard once that God was coming to visit, she started scrubbing her many children to make them presentable. But God got there before she was finished, so she shoved the unwashed ones under the bed and into closets.
God inspected the kids she showed him, and then asked, “Are there any others?” Oh, no, she assured him, this is the lot.
“What must be hidden from God,” he said, “will be forever hidden from men.” To this day, a majority of Icelanders claim a firm belief in the huldevolk; five percent claim to have seen them.
Every Christmas Eve the Hidden People exchange houses. On the way to their new homes, they stop for refreshment at regular people’s houses. So Icelanders, leaving for church on Christmas Eve, leave their houses unlocked and, on their way out the door, announce loudly from their front porches, “Okay, huldevolk, we’re leaving. The door’s unlocked, and there’s a snack in the kitchen. Merry Christmas!”
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, wishing you all the same.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.