The following is an adaptation of an old German folk tale which was published in the year 1800 in an anthology of stories from the Harz mountains in northern Germany. The book was entitled Volkssagen (Traditions of the Harz) and was written by an unknown writer who named himself ‘Otmar’, itself a common given name.
The word ‘Harz’, which refers to the largest mountain range in northern Germany, comes from an older word which means ‘mountain forest’. Tonight’s tale largely takes place in such a forest and features a mythological figure in whom the people of the area once believed; yet strangely, our story comes from a time when the old religions of Europe had all but disappeared from memory. However, picturing a woman wandering alone in the leafy darkness, it is easy to understand how the potency of imagination and the enduring love of storytelling have preserved the ways of the past.
Picture the scene. It’s the week before Christmas and today is bitterly cold. Even though it’s not yet evening, darkness has well and truly fallen. If you braved the wintry weather tonight, you would soon see the stone walls of a church by the sea. Warm lights shine out invitingly from the windows and make patterns of the churchyard trees on the new-fallen snow.
Then, suddenly, the lights go out. If you went inside right now, you would see people of all ages lining the walls of the church, each holding an orange with a lit candle. The tiny lights show little else but the face of each bearer. And they all begin to sing.