Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Awhile back, I got hung up on this word “troll”, in the carol “Deck the Halls”.
[Click song title for historical background on this ancient Welsh melody, plus the Anonymous lyrics dating to sometime before 1881, first date of publication.]
I first took up the word etymology of “troll” in 2007, but now in revisiting the topic, I find there’s still more to be said about the invasion of trolls into the modern world and the sacred Christmas canon.
Today I found references to the fairly popular Jan Brett children’s book pictured above, in which apparently some trolls want to celebrate a proper Christmas with the help of a hedgehog, but none of them know how. I don’t know the book, so this isn’t a recommendation so much as a reference.
So let’s get to the trolls and trolling that I do know about! — after which we’ll also explore the phenomenon of Yule logs, plus the broader importance of fire in many holiday traditions and rituals, even beyond Christianity.
For you fantasy freaks (like me) out there, I must confess right away that I’m not really going to talk much about trolls, the mythical creatures that supposedly have their origins in Norse and Olde English mythology. Other sites and experts would do a better job of that. I’m here instead to talk about the strange web of interrelated modern uses of the word troll, for example by fishermen and uber-cybernauts.
As for the fishing usage, you may have heard of a certain kind of fishing boat called a trawler. The basic technique for this type of fishing is to drag a net behind a moving boat, and then pull up the net. Similarly, a single fishing line and a bait or lure, dragged far behind the boat, is called trolling. The bait’s forward movement is meant to simulate a swimming fish or frog, the prey for a larger fish. This is the reason why most slow or battery-powered boat motors are called trolling motors.
The hip modern use of the word troll is as internet slang, to identify those “fishing” for or trolling for an angry response from the people that a so-called troll is mocking, or trying to draw into an argument.
You may have heard the term “flaming” in reference to writing inflammatory things in an email, on a public forum or in a blog’s comment area. Often, flaming is associated with using ALL CAPS, AS IF ONE IS YELLING. But that may not be true of all flaming, and it is definitely not true of trolling (which is akin to flaming, but not the same thing).
Okay, let’s put the trolls to bed now. Just because they go around seeking all that negative attention, doesn’t mean we have to give it them!
Instead, let’s move on to flames, yule logs, and the mythological and spiritual usefulness of fire.
Fire, along with wind and the dove, are the three primary ways that Jewish and Christian scripture talks about the Holy Spirit or God’s glory, visible and in action. From the burning bush of Moses, to God supernaturally sending fire down upon the altars of Elijah and King David, to the Maccabean Hanukkah fire that burned many days longer than it should have, and on through to the New Testament (see “tongues of fire” falling upon those baptized by the Holy Spirit), Yahweh is all about the fireworks.
With regard to Christmas, one fire ritual we have borrowed from the ancients is the burning of a yule log — a ritual with roots in pre-Christian Scandinavia, but which reached beyond there to Ireland, Greece, even Siberia.
Again, I will defer to other experts for a full review of the yule log tradition and its “winter solstice” origins. For a more complete description, try this helpful site: NoelNoelNoel.com. But I will re-publish an excerpt from Tomm Larson’s essay, just to make it easier to bring it back to Jesus:
In the fourth century AD When Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the Winter Solstice, the Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the Sun. On or about Christmas eve, a big log was brought into a home or large hall. Songs were sung and stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food and wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes and bad choices were burned in the flame so everyone’s new year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely, a bit was kept in the house to start next years log. The log brought good luck. Any pieces that were kept protected a house from fire, or lightning, or hail. Ashes of the log would be placed in wells to keep the water good. Ashes were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest.
A cool contemporary pickup I made, in a similar vein, is that used in Cormac McCarthy‘s book The Road, where the Boy and his father’s main spiritual mission in a post-apocalyptic world is stated thusly:
“We carry the fire.”
(The Viggo Mortenson movie version was good, but probably difficult or depressing viewing for the average viewer. The book: much better, though still more difficult in some ways.)
For me, carrying or accessing “the fire in the belly” is some of what my recent male spirituality and contemplative prayer work has been about. Teachers such as Jim Clarke of California (an expert on the development and use of rituals), and Fr. Richard Rohr speak about experiencing God’s “fiery” or “still, silent” Presence in a more complete, multi-sensory way.
The intention is to move past the head, to the heart (soul?) and then further down into the gut or the body. Campfires, candles, lamps, torches, Advent wreaths… all these hold the potential to represent real physical power (both creative and destructive) as well as spiritual energy, to call us back toward what we might call the divine spark within us.
In a recent interview published in The Sun magazine, mythopoetic storyteller and men’s movement pioneer Michael Meade connected this view of fire to the Eastern or Chinese spiritual tradition of the prime elements of the universe: Fire and Air (upward flowing), Earth and Water (grounded or descending).
Meade goes on:
Spirit in mythology and traditional cosmology is connected to fire and air, and it rises. Soul is connected to water and earth, and it descends. When we rise with spirit, we get peak experiences and those overviews of life that include moments of freedom. Soul goes the opposite way. Water runs down. The earth has gravity and pulls us to it. The soul wants us to grow down and become deep like a river. When people talk about “connection,” they’re really talking about soul. The real connections are not surface connections. You can have many friends on Facebook, but your real friends are those who know and support your deep self and will remind you when you’re losing touch with your own soul. // What is often missing in modern mass culture is this depth of connection.
The Sun, interview by John Malkin, Nov. 2011, Issue 431
The goal of spiritual practices and rituals –including but not limited to holiday traditions– is full integration of all three (mind, heart, body … or consciousness, spirit, and soul) within God, beyond our usual day-to-day mental or bodily awareness.
Just because I have it handy, I will close with an excerpt from the introduction for a fire ritual created by my friend John Brabeck, conducted at one of MALEs Midwest’s occasional Saturday events:
Christ makes clear that our fire is to be shared. In the Sermon on the Mount he says:
“ Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand . . . let your light shine before others”
Bring your fire and your light to the world.
And now together we light the fire.
We bring our fire to the common wood.
We set our fire to the common fuel.
If we keep our torch to ourselves, it will soon burn out.
When the dark comes
When the cold comes
We have no flame to sustain us
BUT, if we share our fire
We create a greater flame which will give us
into the dark of night.
- Richard Rohr Enters the Blogosphere Through Front Door (markingtime4now.wordpress.com)
- Michigan’s Cherry Knoll Elementary School Under Fire For Removing ‘Gay’ From ‘Deck The Halls’ (huffingtonpost.com)