As a child, I often heard my elders talk about a tale called “Mr. Fox,” which was a story that was told during Old Christmas, the days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6.
I was a teenager before I actually heard it, one winter night during which the wind shook my great-grandmother’s house and my relatives, who loved the dramatics of the story, helped out with sound effects. It caused me to draw a bit closer to the fireplace when my aunts moaned and Uncle Ardell croaked like a raven that said, “Beware! Beware!”
When the tale ended, we had stack-cake and ginger tea, and we sang “Figgy Pudding,” but I was left with a question: What did “Mr. Fox” have to do with Christmas?
I think I now know the answer, which is nothing at all. “Mr. Fox” is part of an older tradition that has to do with the winter solstice. This was a time when people gathered around great fires and told stories as they waited for the spring. There were strange little rituals that celebrated rebirth, or tales in which evil was defeated and coming of sunlight was assured. In the 16th century, one of those stories was “Mr. Fox.”
There are many versions, but this one begins with a young girl named Ellen who tends her garden each morning because a handsome man named Mr. Fox rides by and sometimes speaks to her. He is always dressed in silk shirts and rides a different horse each day.
Once, he came and bought a little sack of pease blossoms and told Ellen that he would scatter them on his way home – he lived somewhere in the dark woods – and in one month’s time sweet Ellen could come for a visit. And so she did. She followed the blooming pease blossoms into the dark wood, to a foggy hollow where an old mansion sat. A raven sat on the chimney and called “Beware! Beware!” but sweet Ellen went on to the front door. When no one answered her knock, she entered the empty house and descended to a basement where she found racks of clothes, fine boots and silk shirts and one room full of barrels all sealed. Ah, but sweet Ellen was curious, so she opened a barrel and found the head of a missing friend, packed with other heads of young women who had gone missing. Then there was a great racket and Ellen hid in the only place she could – in the barrel with the heads. When she pulled the lid over her, she heard Mr. Fox and suddenly he was there with another sweet girl who was frightened and begging for mercy. Mr. Fox had many friends with him, other men who laughed cruelly as the frightened girl was told to dance. And dance she did until she danced her life away and finally fell dead. Men came with axes and dragged her away, but Mr. Fox demanded his ring back, the ring that the sweet girl wore on her finger – her engagement ring from Mr. Fox. When he couldn’t get the ring off of her finger, he chopped it off with a hatchet. All the men laughed when Mr. Fox searched for the severed finger. Poor Ellen crawled from her barrel and found the finger on the floor and put it in her pocket. She crawled away through a kitchen and out a door and ran, ran, ran all the way home with the finger in her pocket. She found her father and told him what had happened.
What happened next? Why life went on and Ellen returned to her garden where, one morning, Mr. Fox came and renewed his courtship. He spoke of marriage, and Ellen invited Mr. Fox to a banquet at her house to announce their wedding. The banquet was held and a dozen fathers came, all neighbors with missing daughters. During the banquet each member was asked to perform by singing a song or dancing a jig. Mr. Fox did not perform, but asked Ellen to do so. Ellen said she wanted to tell about a dream she had – a dream of how she had followed flowering pease blossoms to the dark wood past the old raven who cried “Beware” to the basement where she saw her childhood friend murdered. When Mr. Fox laughed and said, “Oh, such a dream. It could not possibly have happened!” Then Ellen took the severed finger with the ring from her pocket and placed it in Mr. Fox’s plate. And all of the fathers stood, crowding around Mr. Fox. One of them brought a great barrel into the house, a barrel that had been pierced with a hundred spikes and the grieving fathers placed Mr. Fox in the barrel and closed the lid. They began to roll the barrel then and rolled it from the house and down the road and down a mountainside and all the way, they heard Mr. Fox sing a song that was loud and long. But finally it stopped.
That is the story of “Mr. Fox” as I remember it. I am aware there are other versions in England and Scotland. In some stories, sweet Ellen marries Mr. Fox (“Bluebeard”), and in some versions there is a mansion with hundreds of rooms but only one that Ellen is told to never enter, but she does and there is a bleeding key that betrays her. In another version, there are two doves that Ellen releases when her life is in danger as it is on the day that Mr. Fox learns that she has been in the forbidden room, but always there is the same ending. Mr. Fox sings.
Why such a bloody tale on Christmas? I don’t know, but Mr. Fox used to be told on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day. I remember sitting in the dark in my great-grandmother’s house, watching the firelight flicker as Ellen descended the steps to the basement and the old Raven cried “Beware.” Why did we tell such a story? I don’t know, but I’m glad we did. I think it is part of the Old Christmas tradition. It has nothing to do with the birth of Christ but is part of that older tradition that lives on – a tale of a robber bridegroom that was told on one of the longest nights of the year, Dec. 25.
Perhaps it is told for the wonderful sense of relief that comes at the end when Ellen is restored to her family and Mr. Fox is punished.