Letter on a Winter’s Night

Æthlflæd of Mercia sends greetings to Edward the king

Brother the news is good. With the borough at Eddisbury completed we continue our building work here in Warwick. Soon all of Mercia will be protected from the Danish host.

But no more of war and danger, I have other matters to recount this winter’s night. My room is cold. The candle flame flickers in the gloom throwing strange shadows on the walls; shadows which press close and take familiar shape. I am not alone. Our ancestors have come. I feel their presence, not hostile but compelling. “Speak of us’ they whisper “So that our old ways are not forgotten”

“What would you have me write?” I answer in my mind, reaching out in the silence filled with voices from the pagan past.

“Lady, let us tell you why and when.

You understand our farming ways, how we depend on the sun for ripening of crops, for a god harvest. As the days shortened with the coming midwinter we saw the sun weaken and sink low in the sky. We were afraid it would be swallowed up by darkness. We watched the heavens and waited anxiously. This was Hweolor-tid, the turning time. To our relief, the sun did not disappear but was born again. Great was our rejoicing as the old year gave way to the new which began on the twenty-fifth day of December.

How we celebrated those 12 days of Yule! Halls decked with bright berried holly and trailing ivy, the scent of evergreen boughs. Food and drink in abundance, mulled ale, tables laden with freshly baked bread, meat of all kinds, cuts of venison and pork and at the centre, the boars head decorated with apples of red and gold. The Yule log burned for all the 12 days. Our halls bright with light and cheer, safe havens against the cold and dark outside. There was peace and welcome for all, even strangers looking for lodging.

And what tales and riddles were told in the glow of the firelight. We passed round the harp and heard the bard sing of gods and heroes, for did not our gods also celebrate at this time? They came together in amity and feasted on meat from Sachimner the sacred boar, exchanging gifts as tokens of goodwill.

Is it so very different now my lady. ?”

Not so. It is nigh on 400 years since we gave up our pagan beliefs and yet there is much that is familiar. As Christians, we think of angels singing of peace and goodwill to all. You celebrate the birth of the Son of God. I think it wise of our Church fathers to merge the old with the new teaching . Both sit together comfortably like the ox and ass in the stable at Bethlehem.

Masters, you have given me much to think about. I thank you.”

The candle flame glows brighter as the shadows slowly fade. I am alone again yet left with a deep sense of peace and wonder.

Brother, this has been a strange encounter. I pray that you will give your scholars leave to record the history of our ancestors so that they will live in our memory. I go now to prepare for mass on the eve of the nativity.

Blessings to you at the season of goodwill.

Æthlflæd

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