At every year’s first snow fall, I think of Frau Holle shaking out her feather beds from her home above the clouds. I took a walk this morning through the Volkspark to visit her at the Fairy Tale Fountain and met some woodland creatures along the way!
Unlike Cinderella, Snow White, or Rapunzel, Frau Holle is a character from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales that hasn’t migrated to America. Let’s face it, her long, pointed teeth probably made her an unlikely figure to be featured in a Disney film. And because she’s both frightening and benevolent, she doesn’t quite fit as neatly into the character binary that most fair tales follow. She’s not evil and scheming like a wicked stepmother or haggard old witch, but she’s certainly not the blushing princess either. Instead, her supernatural capacities reflect the all-encompassing gravity of mother nature as well as the prehistoric Muttergöttin, to whom she’s likely related.
Our ancestors were quite astute, asking their children to imagine her thoroughly shaking out her numerous feather beds when the first snow flakes start to fall in the sky. It requires a playfulness of the mind to draw a parallel between domestic exertion and the soporific quiet of a white winter landscape. Any Nebraska kid who’s felt the welcome release of a good snow-day in the middle of final exam week can tell you that snow is the ultimate excuse for a day of unexpected leisure. But remembering Frau Holle might keep you on track when watching the snow dance in the air outside your window starts to seem preferable to, say, trudging out through the cold for 30 minutes to spend a wet afternoon in the library. After all, although she’s connected with the seemingly involuntary passing of the seasons, Frau Holle famously rewards hard work and punishes lassitude.
Here’s a short rendering of her story based on the Grimms’ 1812 edition:
There once lived a widow with two daughters, one who was lazy and another who was hard-working, but despite the difference in their attitudes the mother favored the lazy one. (The lazy girl, was in fact her own daughter, whereas the diligent worker was a step-daughter — go figure). One day the busy girl went to fetch water from a forest well and when leaning over to reach for the bucket that had fallen inside, she herself toppled down to the bottom.
Instead of reaching a cold, watery pit, however, she found herself in a beautiful sun-lit meadow full of many different types of brightly colored flowers. She walked wide-eyed through the blossoms until she came to an oven sitting there in the middle of the meadow and full to bursting with loaves of hot bread. The bread said to her: Take me out! Take me out! I’ve long been finished baking and if you don’t I’ll burn up! The obedient girl took all the loaves of bread out of the oven and then walked on.
She eventually came to a tree full to bursting with apples hanging from all of its limbs. Shake me! Shake me!, it said to her, all of these apples are ripe! The girl did so, and all of the apples fell to the ground. She then continued on until she finally came to a small house where she spied an old woman looking out of the window. This woman was fearsome to behold, because of the uncanny teeth I mentioned before, and so the girl started to run away, but the woman called her back. She introduced herself as Frau Holle and promised that if the girl would behave and do whatever was asked of her, she could live with the old woman in her little house, which was actually above the clouds. The girl felt that the woman had spoken very nicely and so she agreed. In Frau Holle’s house, she helped the old woman to shake out the feather beds causing it to snow in the world.
But although Frau Holle treated her well, the girl still missed her family greatly and ultimately asked if she might go back home. The old woman agreed and as the girl was leaving she showered her with a golden rain that remained on everything it touched. Seeing her step-daughter return home with such riches, the stepmother immediately sent her own daughter into the well to procure the same results for her favorite child. But, as one might expect, the indolent girl did not take the bread out of the oven, or empty the tree of its apples, or shake the feather beds. When Frau Holle finally sent her home, instead of showering her with gold, she let black pitch rain down on her. And, try as she might, she could never wash it away.
I know it’s best to try and avoid the pitch, but Frau Holle’s work up there is certainly creating a cozy distraction. Ah well. If I were telling the story, the good girl would have to pull off a piece of that fresh-baked bread to enjoy with a crunchy apple from the tree, and while she shook out Frau Holle’s beds she’d be singing “White Christmas.” So I’m making myself a hot chocolate and bundling up on my couch with a book on media theory. When we’re lucky, work can feel like play.