When I was a child, we would put out our stockings on December 5, hoping Saint Nicholas would bring us a small toy in anticipation of Christmas. Besides getting a gift, I had never given much thought to the actual Saint called Nicolas, or why we celebrated this “small Christmas” weeks before the real one. Eventually, my parents stopped reminding us to put out our stockings, and the entire holy day got wrapped into Christmas.
There are many stories about Saint Nicholas, most written hundreds of years after his death. He is said to have been born wealthy but gave up his life of luxury for a life of service. In one of his most famous acts of kindness, he is said to have saved three girls from being sold into prostitution by dropping gold coins through their window each night for three nights so their father could afford a dowry for them. Nicholas is attributed to saving three innocent soldiers from execution and also for chopping down a tree that had been possessed by a demon.
But a legend of Saint Nicholas Day that I had never heard of, was that of Krampus. When I began researching legends of the Vosges for the book, I came across this sidekick of Saint Nicholas. I thought I would write about him to bring another legend of the Vosges to light.
Krampus began as a pagan celebration. He is said to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology but became wrapped into the Christian tradition of Christmas.
So, if you are reading this on December 6, Nikaustag, Saint Nicholas Day, that means that you have been good and Krampus did not eat you the night before. Kinda scary for a child’s story, but …whatever…
According to the legend, a half-goat, half demonlike creature with long curly horns, a forked tongue, and a furry black body named Krampus, would arrive on December 5, Krampusnacht or Krampus Night. He would chase both children and adults through town, poking them with sticks if they were naughty. Particularly, disobedient children would be visited that night, and depending upon the severity of the misbehavior, would either be eaten or would be given coal.
Happy Krampus Night and Happy Nicholas Day tomorrow!
I am thrilled to announce that my novel, FROM THE DROP OF HEAVEN, won the 2021 Royal Palm Literary Award for unpublished historical fiction. The Florida Writers Association Conference was canceled due to Covid, and the trophies were mailed. Mine came today. I dusted my shelf just for the occasion.
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Genesis 1:29)
Hanging from the rafters of Le Petit-Courty, like an upside down garden, Francisca dried plants, roots, and bark, ready for immediate use to treat whatever ailed the Cathillon family or the people of Vacquenoux.
Of the myriad of species collected, she relied on Hemp-Agrimony above all others, collecting the leaves and flowering tops in August, before they opened and dried. Vitamin C in plants such as Hemp-Agrimony staved off scurvy and colds during the long Vosges winter without fresh fruits.
A tea made from Hemp-Agrimony leaves or dried flowers treated colds and sore throats, reduced fever, and relieved stomachaches. The bruised leaves applied directly to the skin healed wounds or infections, or rubbed on domestic animals repelled insects. Placing the leaves in a bath relieved aching muscles and joints and a compress of the leaves relieved headaches. Even the roots from the plant were used as a laxative.
Commonly found in wet soil near swamps and thickets or along freshwater streams, Hemp-Agrimony is a tall woody plant, growing between two and five feet high with long, toothy leaflets. The leaves grow in familiar tiered hemp-style in pairs of three lobes. Reddish stems covered in downy hair with clusters of tiny pink or white flowers that burst forth from July to September.
Hemp-Agrimony is no relation to Agrimony, a plant with yellow flowers, nor is it related to Cannabis Hemp, though the shape of the leaf is similar. All parts of the this is poisonous if eaten and should only be ingested as a tea.
Source: Weiner, Michael A., Earth Medicine, Earth Food. MacMillan Publishing Co, Inc. (1980) Print
Marie Cathillon raised five children on the farm in Le Petit-Courty. Her pantry was stocked with wild and cultivated herbs used for cleaning, healing, and seasoning, all without the use of chemicals.
Soapwort(Wild Sweet William)
This plant grew for years along the edge of the woods behind my house, and though I always loved the burst of color and sweet smell, I never knew its practical value.
While Marie did not know how phosphates suspend oil and dirt in water to be rinsed away, she knew that boiling soapwort created foam that would accomplish the same task.
Soapwort, wild sweet William, grows in early summer in the rich, well-drained soil along the edge of the meadow where it is shaded from the strong afternoon sun. The leaves are slightly hairy with flowers forming atop the smooth stem. Little fingers appear to reach out from the stem and grab weeds near it in order to reach its full height of three feet. Left undisturbed, it can be invasive. The prolific pink, sometimes white, flowers burst forth from June to October attracting butterflies and honeybees with its sweet, spicy aroma.
This natural soap is gentle enough for use on wool sweaters or silk blouses without stripping their natural oils. Cleanser made from soapwort makes a nice alternative for sensitive skin or for an herbal bath. Leftovers keep better in the refrigerator. If you cannot use it within the week, freeze it to avoid bacterial growth.
To verify soapwort, pick a handful of leaves and flowers, dunk them in a bucket of water, and rub them vigorously between your palms. A cool green lather will form with a fresh outdoorsy scent.
The entire plant is useful in making soap.
In the spring, harvest the shallow woody rhizomes, scrub, and cut into small chunks. Place two handfuls into a quart of boiling water. Return to a boil, and then lower the heat and let simmer for about twenty minutes. Once the mixture cools, run it through the blender, a little at a time. This will create a lot of foam, so allow to dissolve overnight. Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the bits of roots. Dry and store these bits to toss in the pot the next time.
In the summer, harvest leaves and flowers. Gather about a handful of leaves and flowers and simply pour a cup of boiling water over them. Let steep about fifteen minutes, strain, and whisk the liquid until foamy.
To use all year long, dry the leaves, flowers, and roots, making sure to turn frequently to avoid mold growth.
As with any soap, do not eat soapwort.
Source: Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Gather Ye Wild Things: A Forager’s Year. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Print
Between Yule and Twelfth Night, whilst the dead still walk among the living as they usually do during these thinly veiled times; beware the deep of the night. Be sure to leave the final sheaf of wheat in the field and do not remove the feast from the table to allow the ancestral spirits to come and collect their portion, else, the household of Hellequin will collect their share of souls.
This story, as told by Monique Marie François, was relayed to me by my cousin, Françoise Cordier, and is woven into the backbone of the novel, FROM THE DROP OF HEAVEN.
“When the land of Salm was not yet called Salm, Good Stones of Bethlehem gave a wonderful gift to a virgin named Mary. She could not find a room and was about to give birth. The Good Stones opened as only they could and formed a cave where the child was born.
The Savage King of the county heard the news and feared this child of God wished to become king in his place. He called all his soldiers and ordered them to kill all the little boys in the country. Poor Mary thought only to save her baby. She was lost and came round Vipucelle, which was not yet called Vipucelle. The beautiful forests of the Vosges frightened her and at the same time reassured her. What soldier would come looking for her here in the dense forest? During this period, the great empire did not even know this country existed. Thanking the Good Stones, she decided to live there.
Then she heard music in the distance. The music was nice, but she knew it often announced a lord on the move, soldiers threatening all sorts of things that frightened her. The music of the horns redoubled in intensity, getting closer and closer, accompanied by barking dogs. It was the hunting party of the Savage King, and she knew very well what he hunted. Her baby, Jesus.
The poor woman ran as fast as she could, despite the hills and brush, but was not as fast as men on horses and dogs who constantly gained on her. The chase led her to the edge of Grandfontaine. The Cornerstones still speak of it today, especially the one called Marie Roche Bois, or the Rock of Mary of the Woods.
‘Sit down a moment,’ said the Good Stone of the Lake as it transformed itself into a small stone seat.
After she had rested, Mary escaped her pursuers, but the soldiers killed all the other baby boys in the area, some without having received Baptism.
The abbot, meaner than the soldiers of the Wild King, decided these babies could not go to Heaven. No Baptism, No Salvation! He did not care that innocent children would be punished, never to be in the presence of God. No exception of the law was possible as only Baptized children could go to heaven.
Of course, the High Stones would not tolerate such injustice and met to deliberate the issue at the Lake de la Maix. The Elder of the Stones decided to allow the innocent children to lie on top of them at night so they could receive the Baptism of the Angels, and the stones of the Lake de la Maix became a place of respite.
In the deep of the night, the Virgin Mother casts her gaze on the Lake de la Maix, and if she sees a child lying there in its deathly slumber, she kisses it on the forehead. The baby immediately opens its eyes and smiles at the lovely lady, and then the angels baptize it with water from the lake and carry its soul to heaven.”
Before the land of Salm was called the Salm, there was a prince named Hellequin. From the time he learned to walk, he loved to chase. He chased his siblings, then his nurse, the footman, and the valet. At Mass, he chased the altar boys, and even other members of the congregation. The King never corrected the spoiled prince and no one dared to say anything. Soon the prince’s love of the chase became an obsession.
The prince grew into a handsome young man with dark flowing hair and amber eyes that glinted with mischief. One day at Mass, a rabbit wandered onto the altar and Prince Hellequin could not contain himself. He jumped after the rabbit, chasing it all over the altar, knocking over the chalice and ciborium, and spilling their consecrated contents. The priest raised his eyes to heaven and asked God for help. God heard the priest.
Suddenly the floor of the altar disappeared and Prince Hellequin fell into the pit. Frantically, he grabbed hold of the altar to keep from falling. Three hounds leaped from the pit, grabbed the prince, and ripped his body with ferocity. Blood spurted all over the horrified priest who backed into the corner of the altar.
The hounds stepped back and the prince stood and smiled. Blood dripped from gaping holes in his body and his amber eyes glowed as fire. He pointed toward the congregation and immediately the dogs jumped toward the crowd. As quickly as victims fell, they rose and joined the pack of wild dogs, attacking other members of the household.
The king finally came to his senses and shouted at his son to stop the carnage. Instead of minding his father, the prince attacked him. Soon the entire household of Hellequin had joined the hunt. They rushed toward the stable, mounted the royal horses, and charged into the countryside, so fast that the horses’ feet left the ground. The whirl of the hooves, blowing horns of doom, and screams of the damned, filled the air, accompanied by furious winds, lightning, and thunder, and with a terrifying whirl, and the specter disappeared into the clouds.
Especially on Halloween or between Yule and Twelfth Night, whilst the dead still walk among the living, as they usually do during these thinly veiled times; beware the deep of the night. Be sure to leave the final sheaf of wheat in the field and do not remove the feast from the table to allow the ancestral spirits to come and collect their portion, else, the household of Hellequin will collect their share of souls.
Pity the traveler who dares to wander by himself as he may hear the sound of whispering leaves. The whispering may be the wind, but assuredly, it maybe the Hellequin, roaming the skies, scanning the countryside with his band of demons. As fire flashes from the eyes of the prince, his black hellhounds and from the hooves of black horses, the wild souls of the damned sweep down and grab their prey that have no choice but join in the hunt.
The Wild Hunt of the Hellequin.
Translation and content help by: Thomas Shutt, http://www.mainlineediting.com/
In the novel, THE DESTINY OF THE DROP OF HEAVEN, Martin played his violin in the shadow of the chapel at Lake de la Maix. Furious that a celebration commemorated the memory of a witch, Bishop Michel started a legend that it was, in fact, the devil playing the violin at the lake.
This is his version:
High up in the mountains and pine forests of the Vosges, there was a break in the trees where the sun shone brightly on a peaceful meadow. Tall grass and wildflowers covered the area. Soft breezes wafted their perfume in the air. A single oak tree towered above the meadow. Its sturdy boughs arched toward the heavens and spread a cover of dappled shade through its branches. Its age-old roots weaved as tentacles deep into the earth.
At the edge of the meadow, a little chapel housed a beautiful statue of the Virgin where a hermit monk lived. Peasants brought bouquets of flowers in spring and asked the Virgin for the blessing of rain if the summer was too dry.
Each year on Trinity Sunday, pilgrims from Salm and all the surrounding hamlets and villages of the Vosges, gathered before dawn to commemorate the chapel and give thanks for the abundant blessings the Virgin had bestowed upon them. They began by processing to the chapel where the monk celebrated Mass, after which the pilgrims held an all-day celebration in the shade of the oak tree. At Vespers, another ceremony ended the celebration and everyone returned home in the twilight.
One year, the Mass seemed very long to the pilgrims, and it was midday before they were able to gather in the clearing for the festivities. After their meal, and maybe a little too much wine, the musicians pulled out their lutes and the young people began dancing. The monk, realizing his homily may have been a little too long, merely watched from his step.
After a while, a new musician appeared. Dressed simply, he carried himself with an air of confidence. His smile glistened brightly and his eyes sparkled as if a fire burned within him. He played a melody that the simple folk of the Vosges had never heard. The sound came from a violin. Even the other musicians quieted their instruments to listen.
Attentive to the captivated audience, the newcomer smiled charmingly and bowed. He brought the bow to the string, and began to play. As if mesmerized, young and old clapped with delight. The violinist’s eyes began to blaze as he played faster and faster. The peasants danced, whirling for hours without becoming fatigued.
When the evening drew near, the monk rang the bells of the chapel for the concluding service at Vespers. The pilgrims hesitated, knowing it was time to end the celebration, but the violinist played an even more beautiful melody and the pilgrims could not pull away from the trance. Surprised that the peasants ignored their tolls, the monk rang the bells again, but the pilgrims were so intoxicated by the melody, they could not stop dancing.
God became angry!
The sound of the tolling bells of the chapel, the swell of laughter and shouts of joy of the pilgrims, and the melody of the violin filled the air with a deafening roar, so loud that nobody noticed the black clouds gathering above them or the earth begin to quake.
Suddenly the great oak split in two, as if struck by lightning. Water began to bubble up, and before they realized it, the earth began to sink. The joyous tumult became ear-shattering screaming and wailing as a pit opened. The beautiful meadow collapsed bringing the great oak with it. The monk watched in horror as the black void grew, completely swallowing the revelers. Waves burst forth from the chasm, and within minutes, the entire meadow was gone.
The groans and wails of the pilgrims quieted. The sky cleared and the sun shone brightly on the newly formed Lake de la Maix. The monk fell to his knees, praying for the salvation of the lost souls, when he heard the sound.
At first, he thought it was just the wind rustling through the pines surrounding the lake. Then the echo became louder and louder. The sunshine blazed off the water, boring into his eyes, into his brain. In the brilliance, he could see the blazing eyes of the stranger. From those eyes came the sound of the violin, and the cries of the pilgrims, now prisoners in the depths of the lake, damned to dance until the end of time. As the sound grew louder, the melody changed into the rising of laughter, mocking laughter.