Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve - from Beyond Sing the Woods

Beyond Sing the Woods (and its sequel, The Wind from the Mountains) are the saga of the Björndal family from about 1760 to 1826.  The books were published in the US in 1936 and 1937 -- and it's odd that they haven't come back into print, while so much else from the bad to the good-but-obscure has, in this digital age.

From these novels, I am posting TWO Christmas descriptions tonight --- but the other excerpt is on the book blog, so go here to read another one.

Here is Christmas in about 1809(?) from the first novel, Beyond Sing the Woods:


There was an old custom at Björndal by which all the gaard ate together on Christmas Eve.  In earlier days the old living room had been big enough, but so many more people now lived at the manor that it had grown too small, and for twenty years now the Christmas meal had been spread in the sal.  This had been built for feasts in the days when the rococo style still lived and laughed in the northern countries.

There were chairs enough for all, and handsome they were for the most part.  Some were from Holland, some from England, and some had been made at Björndal by Jörn Mangfoldig.  They were not alike for they dated from widely different times.  The finest had high backs and were upholstered in yellow leather and of these there were eighteen.

There must have been parties in that room before, with dancing and music;  but long since, thought Adelaide, for tonight it looked very solemn.  The candles hanging from the ceiling were unlit.  All the light there was came from the table--from the holy Christmas candles.  There they stood in straight lines in sticks of silver, brass, and iron.  In the middle of the table stood the candle of the Three Kings in a stick of heavy silver, and before it lay the Bible flanked with two tall wax candles as in church.

Adelaide did not take in much of all this, but the solemnity of the hour stole into her.  It was very quiet in the hall among all those many people.

Glasses were filled with spirit and ale, and the food was brought and set upon the table.

Then Old Dag read the Christmas text as in all years.  Hands were folded and heads bent in silence.  Major Barre, the tough old soldier, laid first his left hand upon his right, and then his right hand upon his left--then he, too, folded them together.  Adelaide's eyes stole round to Young Dag sitting at her side.  His hands were clenched together, iron within iron;  he was leaning a little forward over the table, and his head was bent as though listening to something far away.

Old Dag's voice carried the words of the Scripture firmly and gravely out into the room, and the sputter of the candles as the flames flickered was the only other sound.  The air was heavy with food, candles, ceremony and newly-washed people.  Adelaide was conscious of all this, as she sat beside him she wished to be beside, and the happy spirit of Christmas and festival penetrated her as never before.  The Bible images of shepherds, star, stable and manger and Kings from the Orient passed living through her mind as in her happy childhood.

Those at the table who had lived at Björndal for some years--and there were many--looked in surprise at Old Dag this evening.  His voice was strange and fuller of meaning than ever before.  He shut the Bible with slow dignity and said Amen;  there followed creaks from chairs and breathings from people as all began to eat.

When all had had their first taste of meat, Old Dag took his glass in his hand and surveyed them all.

"There is much to be remembered on this evening," he began, "much good from the long year which is past."  Every man should therefore thank Him who governs all, he said, and he himself gave thanks especially because he still had health to see them gathered about him once more.  Then he wished God's peace on the house and upon all, and with this was given the signal for them to take up their glasses.

Adelaide peeped stealthily out from beneath her lashes, and fixed these pictures in her memory.  She had never thought to sit down at meat with so many sorts of people.

Nearest the door sat mostly vagrants, some very white-haired, shaky old fellows among them.  Some had furtive eyes and bent heads, others sent sly or greedy glances at the food, and ate as if never to eat again.  Life has been hard for them, thought Adelaide;  they have had but little food in their time.  And she thought kindly of all she saw.

There were many and varied people at Björndal and all had their places at this table.  There was Stygg-Hans and Espen Fillehaug and Ruske-Per and Lang-Ola and Stum Jens and Anette Paasa--these and many others who could work no longer.  Then there were some among them who could still use their hands, such as Jörn Mangfoldig who was once so skilled at carpentry.  Now his eyes were dim and his hand shaky, but he still had work to do mending things, he imagined, and he had his safe home at Björndal until the end of his days.  He was one of those who had Dag's cast-off clothes, so he was finely dressed for the party.

Here and there all around the table were those who were young and strong, like Syver and the other grooms, and there were wild young people among them, but at this table they behaved themselves.  People from the woods were here too, and Martin Hogger himself, the most powerful tree-feller in the forest.

Chairs scraped and shoes shuffled when every one left the table.  Each in his turn, according to his station, walked past Old Dag and shook hands to thank him for the meal and wish him a happy Christmas.  The old man took each one's hand with special warmth this year.  Then chairs were shifted back against the wall, the table was cleared, and all went back to their own quarters about the gaard.

1 comment:

Ronnie said...

How did I miss this wonderful story! Thank you...