A Midwinter’s Tale

With Christmas upon us, I thought it would be fun to share a Christmas story with you. This was written for the Southcart Books’ Christmas Readings event that I hosted in Walsall on Saturday, 11th December 2016.

WHEN PUCK SAVED CHRISTMAS

Ah, these are strange times. Change blows like choppy winds through hollow valleys. Enough to make the knees knock and the teeth chatter. But that’s midwinter for you. At least for now.

   Forgive my bestial appearance. My devilish features, my cloven hoofs, my horns and my dwarfish stature. They aren’t meant to offend. It’s my natural form; it’s why they calls us hobs, gobs, imps, pixies, satyrs, changelings, redcaps or fae. Well, those are some of the choicier names. To the Welsh it’s pwca and to the Europeans bocken, which makes me a spirit, a horny old goat, or something in-between. Some are more polite and call me Robin Goodfellow, though Oddfellow would be a better name. Me, I prefer to be called Puck.

Yes, Puck, you heard my impish     name aright.

Old Shakey’s merry wanderer of night,

Who served Oberon in jolly jest,

His faerie eyes and ears, the very best.

But time moves on like shooting stars in haste,

And old beliefs are lost as new are cast.

My King now holds another epithet,

As Father Christmas is my master met.


But enough rhyme without reason, I’m here to tell you a little story. You see, my day job is mischief. Pranks. Pratfalls. I’ll pick your keys from your pockets, fart under your nose, tie your shoelaces together or even teak your heamorrhoids at an awkward moment.

   No manners, me. Which is probably why I’m not the boss. I hate being the boss. I leave that to, well, the boss. And the bosses missus. Can’t forget her. She’s descended from the Greek titans, you know. Terrible temper if you wind her up the wrong way.

   But I’m here to talk about the season. Yule. Christmas. Midwinter.


Yes, I know you think of me as a midsummer faerie, but if it wasn’t always like that. We spritely types change with the seasons, mainly because we’re creatures of belief, and you humans spend most of your time thinking about the here and now.

   Which is sad, because my tale is about there and then. Way back when. Hundreds of years ago. Back to the Old Times. 1647, in fact.

   It was a bad year. Arthur’s seat was empty and Albion was a headless kingdom renamed The Commonwealth on account of common men ruling by the power of the common prayer book. Killjoys they were. No time for feasting or debauchery, nor for the great traditions that made the people happy.

   Oliver bloody Cromwell. The man that cancelled Christmas.  Odd really, that Christians should cancel Christmas. But then it was never really theirs. They kept attacking it with a St Nicholas’ Day here, a St Thomas’ Day there, a St Stephens’ Day over there and a Childermass coming up behind. Except they were mostly Catholic festivities, and if there was one thing those Puritans hated more than they loved their God, it was the Catholics.

   We had always got on well with the Catholics. Theirs was a great tradition. Cultural appropriation you call it. They knew that the power of belief creates spirits, and that the greater the belief the more powerful those spirits become. So instead of going to war with us they subverted us. Change the facts and you change the beliefs. Pretty clever really, but the Puritans were having none of it. 

They even talked James into rewriting the Bible. Made him miserable, but not as miserable as his son. Poor Charley. He was a rum sport, and like his ancestors before him he’d invited the spirits to join in the celebrations, just as the Romans had all those years before.

   Now Old King Oberon was a forest dweller, but in the winter months with the trees laid bare we fairie folk had a tough time if it. We needed cheering up. Like me, he had many names,I and in the winter he was Yule personified. Julnir, they called him. The Lord of the Midwinter, which was, of course, all about getting drunk and not doing much until the spring.

   Now Charley, he was all about the parties, just like his grandma. Old Gloriana, she was such fun. Ran rings round Old Shakey and Ben Jonson. James was the same. But Charley, he was a true libertine. The one thing everyone missed when he came a cropper to the chopper was his parties. Largely because Oberon was a regular feature. Top of the Bill. Yule, you see, rhymes with Misrule, and with a happy band of fairie-folk there was nobody better as Master of Ceremonies for the Christmas Masques.

   Captain Christmas they called him. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but they didn’t have superheroes back then. No mask or cape, just a crown of holly and a nice green robe. As for the rest of us, we were his companions. 

   For my part I threw a shape, the Yule Goat, that was me, all decked out in straw. I’d piggy-back him and gallop around to the beat of drums and the jingle of bells as each of our company made the party go with a swing.

   The thing about spirits though, is that we all have a special power, an unique kind of magic in which we excel. For me it’s taking the form of whatever men or animals I wish. And holding my liquor. I suppose that’s why I’m such a prankster. You see, the real Yule Goat gets most of his work to the northeast, where they spend more time celebrating an old goat than a jolly old man. For me, a bit o’ wicker and an imagination more than make up for not being the real thing. It also means I get to double up as Cupid, although I haven’t yet mastered the art of flying with feathery flaps yet.

   As for the rest of our company, Master Ben Jonson named them aright. Carol, the singer-from-the-song-book, all dressed up warm in red for fear o’ the frost; Minced Pie, the culinary conjurer that makes magic with nothing more than a dish and spoon; Gambol, the tumbling torch-bearer; Post & Pair, the players-of-games with a card in the hand and a trick up the sleeve; the masked Mummer, always ready to perform; Wassail the toastmaster, with a drink in the hand and another in the other; Gift-giver, always ready with an orange, a sprig of rosemary, a sock of nuts and a bottle of sack; Offering, with a staff and basin–don’t ask–I think it had something to do with the three wise monkeys, but I can’t be sure. And finally Babycake. A baby. With a cake.

   Well the idea was we’d turn up, cheer everyone up, drink all the booze and spirit ourselves away before the dawn brought a hangover.

   You’d think that would be good enough, but no, the moment King Charley lost his head the chains were out. Old Christmas was locked away in a very dark dungeon, and without his leadership we couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewing house.


   They put out this pamphlet that accused Christmas of ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. I mean, wasn’t that the point? Getting everyone round the fire for a good old party to get ’em rosy, pair ’em off and give ‘me a bountiful harvest nine months hence? Still, that’s prohibition for you. And what did they replace it with? Fasting and humiliation. Can you Adam and Eve it?

   But while Father Christmas was in prison awaiting his trial, it was up to old Puck here to make things right.


   Now, over in Germany a few years before, some bloke called Martin Luther–another bloody Puritan–tried replacing our continental cousins with the baby Jesus. Part of the takeover plan that saw Old Yule become Christmas in the first place. Fill it full of Saints days and away you go. 

   But this Christ-child wasn’t like the bible baby Jesus, he became something quite different. The Christkind. Yup, a baby version of Saint Nicholas, toddling around doling out the gifts just like a good fairy.

   So off I went to Germany and kidnapped the little bugger. Now, before you tell me off, he isn’t the actual Jesus. We fairies, we’re made of fairy dust, and the fairy dust is the stuff of wishes and dreams. What Richard Dawkins and his learned friends called emits and etics or themes and memes. That’s why it’s important to believe. In fairies. In Father Christmas. Because if you don’t talk about us and think about us and get your kiddies to leave us milk and mince pies, then the magic weakens and the dust drifts away.

   That’s not how Puck wants to go.

    So anyway, the Christkind. Turns out he fit perfectly into a good-sized sack, and it was no trouble to sling him over my shoulder and make like the Yule Goat. Now flying with legs is much easier than with wispy little wings too small to lift you through the air.

   So I brought him over, slipped him through the prison bars and left Father Christmas to teach him what’s what. Meanwhile I threw a new shape and pretended to be Old Christmas myself. Nobody noticed our fairy troupe was one-short.

   Ten years we faked it. Or twelve. Yes, the Twelve Years of Puck’s Christmases, gate-crashing austerity, terrorising solemnity, anarchising propriety. I suppose it was more of a Punk Christmas really, I mean we were certainly anti-establishment, and just for good measure we’d always hit ’em with a proto-acapella verse of ‘God Save the King’.
   Well, Oliver bloody Cromwell went one further. He put Father Christmas on trial. In a court room no less. You’ve heard of the Star Chamber? Christmas Star Chamber. That’s what it was.

   Well, the Christkind was there. Little Christmas we called him, and he clung tight to to Old Father Christmas’s robes. I like to think it was love and devotion, but it could just as easily have been the bottle of gin tucked up the boss’s sleeve sleeve.

   So they tried to condemn Old Christmas. In front of what they were pretty sure was their precious Christ Child. That’s one character witness a good Christian can’t ignore. So guess what happened?

   Acquitted!

   Again, I like to think I played my part. I did the shape-throwing and made a marvellous wandering wart. Poor old Oliver didn’t know why everyone was staring at him so. On the pews of the chamber there were whispers of “don’t mention the WART” running from east to west. Of course the occasionally coughed out exclamation of “CARBUNCLE” or sneezed “FACEACHE” went practically unnoticed by the ugly old so-and so, but it kept them in good spirits, and good spirits make happy spirits, and we were, indeed, happy spirits when the Jurors set the old man free.


   Well, Cromwell was not a happy chappy, and he died shortly after. Within two years Charley Junior was restored to the throne and the so-called austerity was null and void and the partying was on again.
   But it was never quite the same. Little Christmas buggered off to America to strike out on his own. They call him Santa Clause these days, while we went underground for a few years, turning up with a sock full of fruit and nuts or a lump of coal whenever the mood struck.

   Christmas is an industry these days. Indentured fairy pickers and packers doing twenty-four hour shifts at the North Pole. An online naughty-or-nice list. A Santa tracker – Little Christmas has gone global and all the old Christmas fairies are facing redundancy. That or enduring a treetop in the arse.

   Even Father Christmas gave up his holly crown for a pointy hat and his green robe for a red one. And on that note, hear my parting plea. When you think of a traditional Christmas, don’t think of the fat Santa in the red coat on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Think of Oberon, king of the fairies and his loyal Puck, because Albion is our patch, and I’m fed up of having to throw reindeer-shapes year after year. I want to be a boozy, horny old goat again.
Copyright ©2016 Adrian Middleton

   

   

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