Today, I am starting this new column, and I will chat to you in a neighborly fashion across the fence. But I also would like to invite you to hop across your fence to discover and explore all kinds of things and places. Let’s start with something that is as current as it gets.
You may think that today is just another day in the first week of January. You are right – to most people that’s exactly it. But not to everybody. Because in ancient European folklore it’s the time of the Wild Hunt, and in my childhood, I happened across more than one old neighbor who still believed in it. Or rather obeyed the rules that went along with the old tale.
When I was about seven years old, we shared a drying room in the basement of our apartment house. Dryers were not as common as they are these days – and so we did a lot of line-drying. That morning after New Year’s Day way back when, my mother had washed a load of white laundry. And she had hung it to dry when she ran into the old woman who lived next door on the same floor as we did.
“You did your laundry before January 6?!” she asked my mother, eyes wide and her voice a bit wobbly. “I never do. The Wild Hunt …”
My mother was obviously never superstitious; she believed in hygiene over malicious ghosts. So, she continued her chores that day. She knew neither good luck nor bad would come to our family due to doing the laundry in a 20th century apartment house. But the episode stuck with me. And I had my mother explain to me what it was about the white laundry and the Wild Hunt. Here is the story.
In the ancient days when the year was counted in lunar months, a year only had 354 days. But in order to be consistent with a solar year, you had to add 11 days to the calendar, also called “dead” days, or twelve nights. These days that were not accounted for by the lunar calendar were, of course, a source of superstition. Allegedly during this time nature’s law was unhinged, and the border between the dead and the living was down. The Wild Hunt were the haunted spirits of murdered people or ones that had committed suicide and who flew through the night along with hordes of horses and hounds. Imagine the roaring sounds and the darkness of medieval winter nights, and you get the basis for a horror tale of the finest kind. Midnight of Twelfth Night or January 6 ended the sinister magic.
The most important of the twelve nights (in Germany they are thought of as “rough nights”) were spent indoors, fasting and in prayer. Clothes lines were not hung during the entire twelve nights unless the Wild Hunt would get entangled in them and might steal a person’s soul. And woe to the person who had hung a white sheet! That sheet might get stolen and turned into a shroud for its owner in the upcoming year. White underwear hung on a clothes line might lure the evil spirits to wreak havoc with the women it belonged to. Of course, back in those ages nobody would have wanted to hang clothes outdoors in any nightly storm. The wind might have blown off the costly linen, and that would have meant bad luck in itself. Think of the costly loss!
Remembering that occurrence in my childhood, I’m chuckling softly. Our drying room was storm-proof, for sure, and I know that anybody who wasn’t lying directly on the ground outside the house and taking a peek through the window wouldn’t have seen any laundry at all. Of course, wicked spirits might have had their own means of spotting white laundry in the basement of a 20th century apartment house. If you believe in such spirits in the first place.