Of all the strange traditions of this sceptered isle. I am left scratching my head over the suit of holly.
These days it is difficult to distinguish between original celtic myth and modern wishful bunkum. But a story goes that once upon a time, before Christian monks ever set foot on these shores, a boy would be dressed in a suit of holly, and a girl in a dress of ivy; and at the darkest part of the year, they would be paraded through their village or town to thumb a nose at the dank dark cold which permeates this island when it is angled farthest from the sun’s rays.
If this is indeed true, and not wistful Wiccan tall tales, you have to feel sorry for the boy. Though suits of holly, by all accounts, are preferable to some of the old customs.
Take Fissured Fred, as they called him: a skull found in a lake in Lindisfarne amongst Ancient Briton spears and swords. The presence of Fred’s skull, which had been hit by a sword with some violence, amongst the paraphernalia of ancient homage to some long-forgotten ago. he was in a ‘special place’ where people made homage to the afterlife.
And while archaeologists discovered Fred in 1981, at no time since has any trace of a body ever been found.
We’re a dark lot, here. We respond to the gloom and the incessant rain by assuaging it in whatever way we can.
And somewhere in the midst of that muddled tradition emerged the idea of telling a Winter Story.
Back in the 16th century Shakespeare was writing of them, and perhaps his Winter’s Tale was one of them. At its outset the young prince of Sicily, Maximilius, is asked for a story by his mother Hermione. A merry or a sad tale, she asks?
“A sad tale’s best for Winter,” the young prince replies. “I have one that’s full of sprites and goblins.”
And there it is: the ghost of a ghost story, whispering down the ages from the pen of a man who really knew how to write. Tell stories about the supernatural: it’s a great way of mollifying the darkness.
Perhaps, if you tell a really good yarn, the real wraiths will not feel they have to emerge out of the shadows to prove their point.
The old English Mummer’s plays often acted out a battle between light and dark. Ghosts of old stories float like wraiths in the eddies of time, but they find a far more substantial form when the Victorians found, and devoured them. They loved all traces of The Other Side.
Thus, Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Signalman became tales read out by the fireside, touted by Charles Dickens: and not only he but William Makepeace Thackeray, and Walter De La Mare, and that old gothic master MR James, filled the pages of books with tales full of sprites and goblins.
It is the season to be spooky. The dark is at its deepest, the holly – traditionally known as the evergreen oak, the counterpart of the bright summer deciduous oak – at its most verdant, a light or a flame is never so potent as here, as we approach the solstice of the year.
No holly suits for me. No: let the tale-telling begin.
The ring in the picture is a mourning ring: these were fashionable after someone affluent died. All their friends would wear them to indicate their grief. This one is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.