Wednesday 23 December 2015

The Legend of the Christmas Rose

Do you know the legend of the Christmas Rose? There are a couple of Christmas Rose legends, actually, but the one I've been thinking about recently is originally a Scandinavian folk-tale. It was retold very beautifully by the Nobel Prize-winning Selma Lagerlöf in the early 20th C. Her story, in the original format, is out of print now but you can get a kind of basic, reprint version here

Like all the best folk-tales, it is a mysterious, and slightly unsettling, mix of light and shadow; good and bad; truth and fiction. The bad guys are not all bad and the good guys are not all good, as in real life.
And because one of my favourite things at Christmastime is to enjoy and share a Christmas story I thought I'd share this one with you here. I hope you enjoy it! I've paraphrased the story as told by Lagerlöf (actual quotations are in italics). So get a cup of tea or coffee and may be a homemade Christmas marshmallow (if you insist and only because they are so yummy and it is Christmas!), put your feet up for a few moments well-earned rest and read on:

The legend is set, deep in the forest of Göinge in the province of Skåne, in southern Sweden. It tells of an outlawed family, who live in the forest because the misdeeds of the father mean that they have to live, literally, beyond the pale, to avoid him being arrested. Beyond the reach of the law and outside society.
       Periodically, the endearingly, if slightly unimaginatively, named, Robber Mother leaves the forest hideaway to beg for food – it’s not easy to provide for five children when you are an outcast.
       One day Robber Mother and the ragged robber children arrive at the gates of the local monastery. While a monk fetches bread for them, one of the children spies the cloister garden. It is a work of art. Robber Mother pushes open the gate and walks along the neat, gravel paths, lined with box-hedging, beside beds planted with herbs and a profusion of flowers – roses, wall-flowers and lavender, among aromatic bushes of rosemary, thyme, dill and chamomile. The air hums with bees in the sunshine. The whole thing is a vision of Eden and Robber Mother and her children love it.
       The gardener - a lay brother novice - however is not pleased at the invasion of Robber Mother and her unruly brood and tries to turf them out. Hearing raised voices, the Abbot comes out and talks kindly to Robber Mother. Abbot Hans is astonished at her delight in the garden. She is a wild, uncouth creature. What on earth does she know about the beauty and order of a garden like this?
       Robber Mother turns to Abbot Hans, “First when I saw this, I thought I had never seen a prettier garden but now I see that it can’t be compared with one I know of.”
       Abbot Hans is even more astonished and the gardener, laughs mockingly at Robber Mother. “We all know that this is the most beautiful garden in Skåne. How can you who live in the wild forest know of a better one? I’ll wager my soul you’ve never ever been in a garden like this before.”
       Robber Mother is angered by this response. “It may be true that I have never been in a monastery garden before but if you are holy men, you must know that every Christmas Eve Göinge Forest is transformed into a beautiful garden to commemorate our Lord’s birth. We who live in the forest have seen it every year and the flowers are so beautiful I dare not pick a single one.”
       Abbot Hans is intrigued. He’s heard the old story that every Christmas Eve the forest blooms as if it’s the garden of Paradise but he’s assumed it was just a myth. He begs Robber Mother to let him come up to Robber Cave on Christmas Eve and show him the garden. Robber Mother is uncertain – she’s worried about revealing where they live but Abbot Hans promises she can trust him and she agrees.
       The weeks go by and Abbot Hans can’t wait for Christmas Eve! He visits the Archbishop and tells him about the robber family living in the forest which blooms every Christmas and he asks for a pardon for Robber Father. “For if they can see God’s glory, they can’t be wholly bad.” The Archbishop is unconvinced but he promises the Abbot that the day the Abbot sends him a flower plucked from the Christmas garden in Göinge, he will sign a pardon for Robber Father.
       Christmas Eve arrives and Robber Mother sends one of her ragged youngsters to show Abbot Hans, and the lay brother who accompanies him, the way. The route is long and arduous. They pass through villages where preparations are in full swing for Christmas. Floors are being swept and scoured; spiced bread is being baked; children’s faces are being scrubbed and new clothes put on; doorways and rafters are being decorated with evergreens. People are joyful and merry together.
       Soon the villages are left behind. The road is steep and desolate. Snow is falling thickly, adding to the drifts that already cover the banks. Rocks litter the path and mountain streams gush in freezing torrents across the way. Finally as the daylight fades, they arrive. The child opens the door of Robber Cave and the visitors enter. There is a log fire but little else. Robber Father lies asleep on a bed of pine branches and moss while the children sprawl on the floor eating a watery gruel from a common pot. Abbot Hans is shocked. “Robber Mother has neither brewed nor baked; she has neither washed nor scoured.” A few of us might, in our heart of hearts, own to a pang of envy of Robber Mother bypassing the cooking and cleaning tyranny that can sometimes beset Christmas, but that’s by the by!
       Abbot Hans talks to Robber Father and Robber Mother about the Christmas merriment down in the villages from which the family is excluded and explains his hope of a pardon from the Archbishop.
       Robber Father and Robber Mother laugh at him. “If I get a pardon from the Archbishop, I’ll never steal again.” Robber Father mocks.
       Now midnight is approaching and on the cold, night wind, through the snow, they hear the faint clang of the first Christmas bells chiming in the valley below. Everyone rushes outside into the dark, frozen forest. After a few moments, there is a glimmer of light and the darkness begins to lift. The snow on the ground begins to melt and in its place is fresh green moss and new fern shoots. Blossom appears on the trees and there are crimson, bell-shaped flowers on the heather. Butterflies, woodpeckers and finches fly among the leafy branches. A warm wind blows up from the south scattering wildflower seeds that take root, spring up and bloom the instant they reach the earth. Purple blueberries, lingonberries and juniper berries are everywhere. Russet cones deck the spruces. The whole place is a version of Isaiah’s vision of God’s holy mountain with peace and plenty throughout Creation. There are even the faint strains of harp music and angelic singing on the breeze.
       Abbot Hans’ heart is filled with wonder and delight. His face is radiant. Never did he think he would get to taste the joy of heaven on earth or hear the Christmas angels sing. He kneels down in adoration of the heavenly vision before him.
       But the lay brother is sceptical. Instead of recognising the glory of God, he thinks it is all a work of deception and devilry. A forest dove flutters down to nestle on his shoulder but he strikes out at her and cries out, “Be gone, you sorcerers!”
       Now, suddenly, everything changes. The light and warmth vanish abruptly and the darkness rushes back. The frost inches its way back over the moss and green plants. The fresh leaves shrivel and drop. Abbot Hans is so struck with grief that he drops down in a dead faint and when they carry him back to the monastery, they find he is indeed dead. The lay brother is full of remorse. He knows it was his fault for scoffing at the miracle.
       As they come to bury the Abbot they realise that he has something clutched tight in his hand. A pale-fleshed bulb. The lay brother gardener plants it in the cloister garden but all year there is no sign of life from it.
       Finally it is nearing Christmas again and on Christmas Eve he sees that the bulb has sprung into life with green stalks and fragile, white flowers. He realises that the bulb had been plucked by Abbot Hans from the Christmas Garden in Göinge Forest and so he takes a flower from it to the Archbishop and secures a letter of pardon for Robber Father. The Robber Family are now able to leave their cave and rejoin the warmth of human society and share everyone’s Christmas joy and merrymaking.
       But the damage has been done, for after the lay brother’s outburst of cynical scoffing, Göinge Forest never again bloomed on Christmas Eve. Of all its glory only one flower remains – the Christmas Rose that Abbot Hans plucked. Each year, the legend goes, she blooms again at Christmastime and “sends forth from the earth her green stems and white blossoms as if she never could forget that she had once grown in the great Christmas Garden at Göinge Forest.”

       It is a poignant tale, albeit a very charming one. Like all the best stories, it holds some precious kernels of timeless truths. Nothing earth-shattering, in fact most of them are well-worn truisms, but somehow seen through the lens of the story, there is a freshness about them, I think. 

 The story reminds me that “The whole world is a series of miracles, but we are so used to seeing them, we call them ordinary.” (Hans Christian Andersen)  It nudges me to remember that to experience miracles depends on faith and a willingness to see. It's so easy to become cynical especially when you look around at what's going on in the world. But it's a slippery slope I would like to resist.

It reminds me that the magic of Christmas is not about a perfect family enjoying perfect presents, a perfect house, perfect hand-made decorations, and a perfect turkey dinner – go, Robber Mother! - it is about having room for wonder in one's heart at God coming among us.

It reminds me that sometimes we have so much "stuff"in our lives that if we're not careful, we can miss the real gifts that come our way unbidden, without fancy wrapping or a hefty price tag and that sometimes our certainties are the things that cut us off from light and joy and peace.

It reminds me that sometimes it takes the outsider, the stranger, the one who is different and even unwelcome to show us what really matters and that sometimes we realise that, only when it is too late.

It reminds me that Christmas is still a magical time even when I feel snowed under with work and other stuff.

Inspired by the legend and among all the unexpectedly time-consuming busyness that this autumn has brought, I've made a Christmas Rose wreath. Like to see?

Wishing you all 
a wondrous and blessed Christmas 
and Christmas Roses of hope and faith to light your 2016.