It’s December, which means Christmas stories on Thursdays. Today’s folktale comes from Germany and was retold in Good Stories for Great Holidays by Frances Jenkins Olcott published in 1914.
The story tells of a handsome count, Otto, who was a confirmed bachelor who never so much as admired the pretty maidens of the kingdom, earning him the nickname Stone-Heart. One Christmas Eve, Count Otto organized a hunt, but in the midst of the chase he gets separated from the rest of the party and stops at a spring known as the “Fairy Well.” He stops to wash his hands, but instead of the water being cold as he expected, it is warm. As he plunges his hands into the water, he feels a small soft hand grab his own and slip off the gold ring he always wore. And when he drew his hand out, the ring was gone.
Count Otto returns to his home, but can’t sleep because he keeps thinking about what happened at the spring. Suddenly he hears the dogs in the courtyard barking and then little feet pattering up the stone steps and then footsteps in the adjoining chamber. He stands and hears music, then the door between the rooms is flung open. He hurries into the next room and is surrounded by fairies, dancing, singing, laughing, and in the middle of the room is a splendid Christmas tree, the first ever seen in that land. “Instead of toys and candles there hung on its lighted boughs diamond stars, pearl necklaces, bracelets of gold ornamented with colored jewels, aigrettes of rubies and sapphires, silken belts embroidered with Oriental pearls, and daggers mounted in gold and studded with the rarest gems. The whole tree swayed, sparkled, and glittered in the radiance of its many lights.” Then a beautiful woman approaches him and introduces herself as Ernestine, the Queen of the Fairies. She gives him his ring and he, overcome by the wonder and carried away by her loveliness, begs her to marry him. She agrees under one condition: that he never say the word “death” in her presence.
The following day the two are married and live happily together for many years, until the inevitable day. The Count and his wife were to participate in a hunt and the lady is slow getting ready. The count, exasperated, yells at her when she finally comes down. “You have kept us waiting so long,” he cried, “that you would make a good messenger to send for Death!” With a cry, the Fairy Queen vanished. Count Otto is overcome with grief and remorse. He searches and searches, but can find no trace of her except a small handprint in the stone arch above the gate.
Years passed, but she never returned and the Count grieved endlessly. Every Christmas Eve he set up a lighted tree in the room where he had first met the Fairy, hoping in vain that she would return to him. Time passed and the eventually count died. The castle fell into ruins, but the small handprint can still be seen in the arch.
“And such, say the good folk of Strasburg, was the origin of the Christmas Tree.”
Such a sad story for Christmas time, bittersweet. I can just picture him, each year sitting in the darkened room staring at the tree, remember his love and longing for her to return.
You can read the story for yourself several places on-line, including here.
Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.