Christmas has always been a time for sharing stories. Winter is a dark time of year, so it follows that these tales are often dark in nature. Some feature disaster and tragedy, in others ghosts and magic abound. Some of these are true stories, bringing warnings from the past, or tidings of hope for the future. Sometimes they are tall tales that grow taller in the retelling! Here are 7 of my favourite Oxfordshire Christmas tales, perfect for telling around the fire this festive season.
The Legend of the Mistletoe Bough is an English folk story popularised in the 19th century, based on events said by some to have taken place at Minster Lovell hall in West Oxfordshire. The details have evolved in the retelling, but the outline of the story is below.
One Christmas, a celebration was taking place at to honour the marriage between the daughter of a wealthy local family and her betrothed. As part of the festivities, a traditional game of hide-and-seek was proposed, with the bride hiding and the bridegroom searching for her. For a while, much merriment ensued, but this merriment slowly turned to alarm when it became clear that the bride was nowhere to be found. They called for her all around the house and grounds, entreating her to come out of hiding, but their calls went unanswered. Search parties were organised and the river was even dragged, but no sign of the bride could be found.
Many years later, the mystery was finally revealed. The occupants of the hall were clearing out an old attic room when they found a large oak chest, locked from the outside by a latch. Within they found a skeleton in a wedding dress, and what had happened to the bride became clear. Thinking she had found the perfect hiding place, the bride had climbed into the chest, only to find the latch falling into place and locking her inside. With the heavy oak chest muffling her cries, she had suffocated.
According to some, the ghost of a woman in a white dress can sometimes still be seen floating around the atmospheric ruins of Minster Lovell hall.
Christmas Eve 1874 saw one of the worst railway disasters in Oxfordshire's history. A train left London late in the evening, packed with passengers travelling home to spend Christmas with their loved ones. The train was heading for Birmingham but left London so full that an extra carriage had to be added at Oxford to accommodate the extra passengers. However, this extra carriage was older and had not recently been serviced.
Shortly before midnight the train was travelling through the snowy Oxfordshire countryside when disaster struck. As the train rushed up the Cherwell valley between Shipton-on-Cherwell and Hampton Gay, one of the extra carriage's wheels fractured, causing the carriage to violently derail and take a number of the coaches behind it with it. Carriages packed with panicked people tumbled off the track and down the railway embankment, their momentum propelling the carriages across the snowy fields, with some coming to rest in the icy river nearby. 34 people died in the accident, and 69 more were seriously injured.
Some years later the nearby Hampton Gay Manor House was gutted by fire. Some claim that the building was cursed because the owner refused to take part in the rescue efforts, or allow the dead and wounded to be brought inside.
At Queen's College, Oxford, it is tradition that a boar's head be served at the Christmas dinner table, all in remembrance of an old college legend.
One day a student is said to have taken his copy of Aristotle's Logic to Shotover forest in the hope of finding a peaceful and shady spot in which to study. So engrossed in his book was the student that he failed to notice a wild boar charging at him until the beast was almost on top of him.
The quick-thinking student thrust the book into the boar's mouth with a cry of 'Swallow that, if you can!'. The surprised boar choked on the book, only having time to croak 'Eheu, Graecum est!' ('It's all Greek to me!') before expiring!
Whether this tale is designed to whet the appetite or put you off your dinner is hard to say, but even today a boar's head is served every Christmas at the college, accompanied by a procession and the singing of a unique boar's head carol.
Christmas Common, high up in the Chiltern hills in the east of the county, is undoubtedly Oxfordshire's most festively named settlement. Its name is said to date from the English civil war, when a midwinter battle between the royalist and parliamentary forces was halted so that both sides could come together to honour Christ's birth on Christmas day.
It has been suggested that the spectral horseman who is reported to startle drivers in the area could be the ghost of a civil war cavalier. Those who have witnessed the ghost describe the horse as grey in colour, and it's rider as having long hair and a brown jacket.
Christmas Eve has always been considered a magical time. In North Leigh, there was once a tradition that on this date young women could, if they dared, carry out a ritual that would reveal to them the man they were destined to marry. However, according to a local legend, this tradition ended in horror for three local girls.
The tradition stated that if a girl went to North Leigh church on Christmas Eve and walked three times around the churchyard while scattering hemp seeds over her shoulder and reciting a certain rhyme, and at the end of the third lap they would be able to look over their shoulder and see a vision of the man they were going to marry following behind them, harvesting the plants that had grown from the seeds they had sown.
The three girls in the story went to the church with high hopes of learning the identities of their future husbands, but got more than they bargained for! The girls sat in the porch of the church while they each took turns around the churchyard. The first girl returned to her friends complaining that she had seen nothing. The second girl returned shrieking to her friends, saying that she had looked over her shoulder to see a coffin silently gliding after her. The third girl wisely decided against taking her turn around the churchyard. The three fled home and no-doubt prayed extra-hard at the Christmas day service the following morning.
Did the prophecies come true? Perhaps, as the first girl lived a long life and died at age 83 having never married, while the second girl died in just a few months time.
A rather enigmatic statue on a brick plinth can be found buried in woodland on the grounds of Mapledurham park. The statue is known as 'Old Palm', though there seems to be little consensus about who the figure on the plinth is, why he is so named or why such a grand statue is hidden away in woodland.
Local legend states that Old Palm climbs down from his plinth on Christmas Eve and goes for a walkabout in the nearby village to spread Christmas cheer!
In Folklore of the Cotswolds (1974), Katherine Briggs tells a charming (if somewhat fanciful) local tale about a group of travellers lost in the snow while trying to get from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold one Christmas.
The group found themselves in woodland near Idbury that had a fearsome reputation for being haunted by ghostly 'snow foresters', and sure enough their caravan was soon surrounded by white, wailing figures. A mewing was heard outside and the door was opened a crack to admit a tiny kitten, who could speak, but only if spoken to in rhyme! This kitten told them that if they listened and followed the sound of birds, it would put them on the right track.
The travellers took the kitten's advice and following the sound of birds until the sound was overtaken by the distant ringing of the Stow-on-the-Wold church bells, ringing out for Christmas. The ringing led them to the safely of Stow, where upon the travellers found that the kitten had disappeared, leading them to wonder whether they had been visited by a guardian angel.
On a personal note, a big thanks to everyone who has visited DarkOxfordshire this year or enjoyed my content on social media. A particular thanks those who have got in touch to say 'hi', or to share their own strange and ghostly Oxfordshire tales with me. A very merry Christmas to you all!
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