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Stephanie Laurens | The Traditions of BY WINTER’S LIGHT

October 9, 2014

Stephanie LaurensBY WINTER'S LIGHTBY WINTER’S LIGHT is an unabashedly holiday-themed novel. How did that come about?

The concept was fortuitously created by the characters, rather than being a deliberate choice made by me. In the Epilogue of the preceding Cynster novel, THE TAMING OF RYDER CAVANAUGH, at the Cynster Summer Celebration in August of 1837, the older group of children go off in a group to discuss some subject – and the most obvious subject I could imagine them discussing  was where to hold their family Christmas gathering later that year. The older group is dominated by males, and the notion that they would vote for a Christmas in Scotland, where they could ride in forests and hunt, again seemed an obvious tack – and thus BY WINTER’S LIGHT, the Cynster holidays of 1837, held at Richard and Catriona’s manor in the Vale of Casphairn in snowy Scotland, came to be!

Can you describe the Norse, pagan, Druid, and folk customs that feature in the story?

Because we are looking back so far – in some cases possibly a millennia or more to the beginning of some of these traditions – it’s not always easy to say this custom derived from this tradition or that. Customs get merged or molded by local folk traditions, which is something we see to the current day. But as to the customs featured in this story:

Sun cakes – derived from the Vikings, but also may have pagan roots. You’ve almost certainly seen the modern version of these, but not realized what they represent. The original sun cakes were cakes baked in a ring, with lines marked on the upper surface radiating outward from the hole in the center. The lines signified the sun’s rays, and eating the cake on or about the winter solstice was intended to call the sun back into people’s lives. But the Scots, possibly because they didn’t have the right ingredients for cake, converted the cake to shortbread – so the modern version of Scottish sun cakes are plate-sized shortbread with a circle drawn in the center (the sun) with lines of varying length radiating outward. On seeing these shortbreads, most people today think the radial lines are simply convenient divisions for dividing the large circular shortbread into wedges – but no! The lines are the sun’s rays, and by eating that shortbread in the dead of winter, you are calling the sun back into your life.

Carolling, wassail, and egg-nog – carolling, also known as wassailing, was widely popular, more a folk tradition than anything else. Carollers were rewarded with a tot of wassail – spiced ale – at each house they entertained at, to help keep the icy cold at bay as they walked to the next house. Egg-nog was a common festive drink shared with others, like a winter punch, and may have Nordic roots. Based on egg and milk, it could be laced with anything alcoholic – in those times beer, cider, wine, and spirits were all used.

Decorating the house with fir and holly – was an old and well-established custom, possibly more Druidic in origin. The most common places to hang or place freshly-cut boughs were on mantelpieces, on tables, and over open doorways. Exactly what this represented, or was meant to do, seems to have been lost in the mists of time, but the custom of decorating houses remains to this day.

Hanging mistletoe – and kissing under it, is likely a pagan-folk custom, and a very old one. However, the specifics – such as from when and for how long the mistletoe is “active” – vary between communities. One of the additional twists that I’ve described in this book is that in some areas, in order for a man to claim a kiss from a woman under a sprig of mistletoe, the sprig had to be carrying berries, and for each kiss, the man had to pluck a berry, thus limiting the activity of each sprig to the number of berries it carried.

Burning the Yule log and the banishing of Cailleach, the spirit of winter – I’ve always thought the first a pagan-Druidic ritual, but the carving of the logs with Cailleach’s face and the subsequent burning to banish the spirit of winter seems to be a more Nordic influence.

Oidche Choinnle—the Night of Candles – seems a very old Gaelic folk tradition. The welcoming of strangers over the threshold was important both on Christmas Eve, and also on New Year’s Eve, as part of Hogmanay, in part reflecting the isolation of many farmhouses and homes, and the dreadfully harsh winters common in those regions.

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