Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday story time: "The Christmas Crab Apples"

Detail from Raymond Briggs' color illustration for "The Christmas Crab Apples,"
on page 172 of Festivals

"The Christmas Crab Apples"
adapted from a Bohemian folk legend;
gently adapted from Ruth Manning-Sanders' version
that appears in the anthology Festivals (1973, E.P. Dutton & Co.)

Rubizal was a leshy (woodland spirit) who lived within the forested mountain. He was a mischievous one! He enjoyed playing tricks on people. He especially enjoyed plaguing the wicked and the proud. He put horns on their heads; he gave them pig snouts and donkey tails.

But he had a kind heart.

Many a poor peasant found coins in his pocket, put there by Rubizal. And if he should meet a tired old woman, a long way from home, staggering under a bundle of branches — puff! Rubizal would blow out his cheeks, and the tired old woman found herself seated in comfort by her own fireside, with some of the branches she had been gathering already blazing in the hearth.

Well, one bitter cold day, just before Christmas, Rubizal gave a hop, skip and jump down from his mountain into the valley. The ground was covered with snow, and trudging along through the snow toward Rubizal came a peasant, very ragged, very thin and blue with cold. Under his left arm the peasant was carrying a little fir tree, and under his right arm he was carrying a bundle of ivy and holly twigs; and he was looking about him in a worried kind of way.

"What do you seek, my friend?" says Rubizal.

"Oh sir," says the peasant. "I am looking for crab apples. Today is Christmas Eve, and after Christmas Eve comes Christmas Day. I am a widower with seven little children, I would make the time merry for them if I could. I have dug up this little tree; and as you can see, I have some ivy and some holly to decorate it. But I have no money to buy toys or pretty trifles to hand on the tree; and I thought if I could find a few crab apples to brighten it up — well, the children would like that. And they could eat the little apples afterwards for a bit of a treat like. Though it would be but a sour feast, when all's said. But then, children will eat most anything..."

The peasant sighed.

"But it seems no crab apples grow hereabouts," he added.

"I know where there is a crab apple tree," Rubizal said, rubbing his beard. "Come!"

He took the peasant into a little wood. In the middle of the little wood was a little crab apple tree. (Of course, don't you know, Rubizal had just magicked it there.) The tree was bare of leaves, but there were still small apples hanging on it: not very bright, not very rosy, but still — apples.

The peasant, joyful, set down his bundles, filled his pockets with the little apples, and picked up his bundles again.

"Goodbye, and thank you, sir," says he.

"Goodbye," says Rubizal. "A happy Christmas to you!"

"The same to you, sir!" The peasant turned to go home.

"Love to the children!" Rubizal called after him.

"Whose love shall I say, sir?" says the peasant.

"Oh, just a merry old fellow's," says Rubizal. And he laughs.

The peasant trudged off across the snow. Rubizal gave a jump. There he was, back on his mountaintop.

The night, when he had put the children to bed, the peasant filled a box with earth, and planted the Christmas tree in it. He fastened a tallow candle to the top of the tree, and decorated the branches with ivy and holly. Then, very carefully, he threaded some wire through the top of each little apple, and hung the apples on the tree.

"And it does look quite festive," said the peasant to himself, as he stood back to admire his work. "Though I could wish the apples were a bit more colorful."

On Christmas morning, when the children saw the tree, they jumped and shouted. They took hands and danced round the tree. And when evening came, and the peasant lit the tallow candle, the ivy glittered and the red holly berries shone, and it seemed the even the little apples looked brighter.

How the children clapped their hands and danced and shouted:

"Oh how pretty! Oh how pretty!
We've got a tree,
A pretty, pretty tree,
We've got a tree, the prettiest of all!"

And there they were, hopping and skipping and turning head over heels.

"But we mustn't forget the gentleman who found the apples," said the peasant. "He sent you his love!"

"No, we won't forget him!" cried the children, "Who was he?"

"Just a merry old fellow," said the peasant. "Or so he told me. But the way he spoke, he seemed to me like some great lord."

"Thank you, thank you, great lord!" shouted the children.

It was merry evening, though they had nothing but cabbage soup and some rye bread for supper.

"And when may we eat the little apples?" asked the children.

"Not until Twelfth Night," said the peasant. "That's the day we must take down the tree."

So, for twelve days, the tree stood in its box of earth in the kitchen. The ivy looked a bit more shriveled every day, and the holly berries dropped off one by one. The grease from the tallow candle, which of course had burned itself out on Christmas night, lay in patches on the withering leaves. But surely, surely, the little apples were growing every day rosier and bigger! Yes, there was no doubt about it. They were rosier, and they were bigger. By Twelfth Night they were so big that the branches on the tree bowed under their weight.

"I don't understand it," exclaimed the peasant, as he carefully cut the wires and piled the heavy apples on a dish.

"Seems to me half an apple each will be enough for tonight," says he. "And they'll last you longer that way."

"No, no, a whole one each!" cried the children.

"Well, half to begin with anyway," said the peasant. And he took a knife and began to halve one of the apples.

The knife cut into the juicy flesh, then it grated on something hard and stuck. What could it be? The peasant turned the apple upside down, and cut again. But again the knife stuck.

"There's something odd about this apple," muttered the peasant. And he put down the knife and wrenched the apple in two with his hands.

Oh! Oh! Oh! What do you think? Out of that apple tumbled six big rubies. Yes, the pips of that apple were precious stones.

"It's ... it's witchcraft! It's a Twelfth Night dream, that's what it is!" gasped the peasant. And his hands trembled as he took up another apple and halved it.

It was no dream. The pips of the second apple were shimmering pearls.

And so it went on: the peasant halving apple after apple, and every apple pip a jewel — diamonds, sapphires, pearls, emeralds and rubies. When all the apples were halved, there on the kitchen table lay a gleaming heap of jewels; and even the children, as they munched away at the most delicious fruit they had ever tasted, were awed into silence.

It was a long time before any of them went to bed. And the peasant couldn't sleep. he turned and tossed, thinking of that pile of jewels.

"It's the fairies up to their Twelfth Night tricks," he said to himself. "In the morning all those precious stones will be gone."

But they weren't gone. The fairies had nothing to do with it. It was a Christmas gift from Rubizal.

So the peasant sold the jewels and bought a farm. Everything prospered with him and his children. No more meager suppers of cabbage soup and rye bread for them! And they shared their good fortune, helping others who were as unfortunate as they had once been.

And each year, before they sat down to their Christmas feast, the happy peasant-turned-farmer gathered his children and their families and friends about him, raised his glass, and said, "Here's a health to the Merry Old Fellow! May we never forget his goodness, whoever he may be!"

And "A health to the Merry Old Fellow!" cried all in chorus.

Did they hear a chuckling laugh somewhere outside in the snowy darkness? Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn't.


Adaptation notes
1. Most of this is verbatim from the version by Manning-Sanders in Festivals. A few scattered bits of punctuation or wording were adjusted here and there. More notably, I changed a few words — faggots became "branches," for example, to suit the modern audience.
2. The biggest change, perhaps, is that Rubizal is called a demon in the original story. I felt that unnecessary, especially given how he acts and is described. Demon is a stronger and more loaded word in our times, and I believe the change was a natural one for the story. I tried to find something that would fit comfortably within a Bohemian/Slavic tale, which is how I ended up making Rubizal a leshy for this adaptation.
3. Near the conclusion, I completely added this line: "And they shared their good fortune, helping others who were as unfortunate as they had once been." I've read scores of fairy tales, and I believe that's entirely in keeping with the moral of standard folk and fairy tales about good people sharing good fortune. I believe Manning-Sanders would approve.
4. Also at the end of the tale, where it originally read "gathered his children and his work-people about him," I changed it to "gathered his children and their families and friends about him." Chalk that one up to a Christmas indulgence on my part.
5. This is a favorite tale in our family. I've read it to my daughter a few times over the years, including this month. It also makes me smile because of the widespread use of the word peasant. I'm always so unsure when pronouncing that word during read-alouds. I can never remember whether I'm supposed to say PEAS-ent or PEZ-ent. It's kind of a family in-joke.
6. This story shares a key plot point with "The Dragon of the Well," a folk tale from Greece that appears in A Book of Dragons by Manning-Sanders. In that tale, a misunderstood dragon gives out pomegranates containing jewels inside to a couple in need.
7. You can read more about Festivals on this Wikipedia page.