It is mid winter again, the time of short days and in some places, cold weather. Gathering food in the wild is difficult this time of year – but it is a good time for hunting with all the game animals too busy foraging to be wary.
Collectively, we watch the sun reduce his work day to a bare minimum. Today, we almost take it for granted that the days will soon get longer again, and the seasons will continue in their course. In ancient days we worried that El Sol would go on vacation all together, as happens during an ice age or as some said, that a giant wolf would swallow the sun, bringing endless winter without spring.
I’m not sure what it takes to stave off an ice age, but a few folks still stay up all night with candles alight encouraging the sun to return in the morning. It is a dangerous trick, and better attempted with friends who will keep you awake to tend the flame. But it was the common way before our time of electrically lit reason. They built a party around its occurrence and called it the Mid-Winter’s Feast.
Today we are admonished to remember the “Reason for the Season” as in the modern retelling of the story of the Sacrificial God, whose birth is celebrated each year with the lengthening days. But there is an older archetype who finds a way into most of our winter holiday festivities. In the contemporary US, we call him Santa and many say he was invented as a department store marketing character but his prototype is ancient.
In the UK he is called Father Christmas – and his resume is far longer, as are his Holly-green robes which reach down to heavy winter boots. Before the mass of the Christ was celebrated, he was called the Green Knight. There are no sleighs or reindeer in his tale, but a message of courage, honor, sin and redemption are woven in this life vs. death adventure. Ultimately, it is I think a call to faith, but that is for you to decide.
Our story begins during a mid-winter’s feast at the royal home of King Arthur. The weather outside is frightful, but the company within delightful. Every knight of the court is in attendance, and all are eating and drinking- perhaps a bit more than usual- with no one left out of the fun. There are minstrels, wenches and games. Food and laughter abound. You could not imagine a gathering more contented and secure against a backdrop of the longest, bleakest night of the year.
And in the midst of the King’s call for another flagon of mead the door of the Great Hall burst open, slamming with force against the wall. The darkness of the night obscures his size at first, as a figure steps into the hall and shakes himself free of ice, snow and sleet like a great wolf hound.
And as he does, the stranger seems to unfold and grow larger in his long green habit decorated with oak leaves, pine boughs and other bits of forest that would not leave him despite his violent disposal of the rapidly melting weather upon the astonished gathering.
“Greetings!” the knight bellows in friendly fashion. His green skin seems to glow in the light of the fire in the great hearth. Towering a full head and shoulders above the tallest of his knights, the king has no trouble recognizing the importance of his strange new guest. Recovering composure quickly, the king orders a flagon for the newcomer and invites the great green man to join in their festivities.
But the Green Knight will not. He has come for a purpose, to challenge the king’s court with a feat of hesitating proportions. “Cut off my head,” challenged the knight. “In a year and a day, I shall return the favor. If you are not afraid, that is.”
After a few awkward moments of silence, the king coughed into his sleeve. Although obviously exempt from the call, it was a stain upon his court that none of his knights, the best and bravest of the land, would answer the insanely silly challenge.
A lady in waiting fainted. At this point, Sir Gawain rose to defend the honor of the court and king, as well as his own reputation as the bravest of the brave. Gawain demanded the terms of the challenge.
“It’s simple,” the Green Knight explained, “you cut off my head. Then you have a year plus one day to find me. That is when I return the blow to cut off your head and finish the challenge. Ready?” The green shaggy giant offered Gawain the use of his equally large axe.
Someone in the back of the crowd twittered a laugh. But it was Gawain who dutifully stepped forward to take hold of the weapon as the giant lay his head upon the feasting table. A scullery maid in the corner held her stomach and shook her head, anticipating the mess to follow.
Not a word or a breath was sounded until the thud of the ax-head echoed from the walls. The great shaggy green head bumped and rolled to upright on the bench below the table with an eerie grin of glee. The hulk of robes did not likewise fall to the floor. Instead, the body rose and stretched to full stature. A hoary green hand reached for and found it’s shaggy detached head, entwining fingers firmly in the locks of hair. The head, now tucked under the arm of the giant, spoke. “The honor of your realm now rests upon your shoulders, Gawain. I’ll see you next year.” And with that the great hall doors blew open once again and the Green Knight, head in hand, returned into the savage night.