LOKI AND THE CAROL SINGERS
Many years ago the gods of the North were called the Aesir and lived in their own land, called Asgard. They feasted night and day, knowing they would one day engage in a mighty battle against the ice giants from the land of Jotunheim, a bit like the Duke of Wellington and the Allies celebrating at the great ball the night before the Battle of Waterloo ...
Well, that's enough historical background, and now down to the story. One day Odin, King of the Aesir, looked happily around his court, unaware even with all his magic powers that one day Richard Wagner would try to turn the whole lot into a musical, and said to his wife Frigga: "I think the party's turning out nicely."
"It's all very well for you to say that," said Frigga, "but this party has been going on for as long as I can remember, and all you have to do is drink, sing and talk and make sure everyone is having a good time, but who do you think has to look after the supply of mead and ale, and keep the nibbles going?"
"I don't know," said Odin. "Who does?"
"The servants, luckily, not me," said Frigga. "I'm just making a point, that's all."
Well, that's enough early Norse feminist propaganda, and now on with the the story. As the feasting went on, the watchman from the gate of Asgard came to report that strangers were at the gate and were singing songs outside.
"Songs?" roared Thor, god of thunder. "What kind of songs?"
"Strange songs," said the watchman. "One is about a king called Wenceslas, and another about a baby in a manger ..."
"What do they want?" asked Odin.
"Money," said the man.
"Bring them here," said Odin.
"Be careful!" roared Thor. "It may be a trick by the giants."
But even Thor could see when the carol singers were brought in that these were not giants in disguise. They were mere children.
"And who is this baby of whom you sing?" asked Odin.
"He is Jesus, king of the world," said one child boldly. "He tells us all what to do."
"Does he, indeed?" said Odin. "And what does he tell you to do?"
"To be meek and gentle and forgive each other," said the boy. The Aesir burst into guffaws of laughter which shook the heavens, until the folk on earth woke and remarked to each other how uncommon thunder at the winter solstice was, then went to sleep again.
"That is no way to be a king," said Loki, god of fire and mischief. "If our king Odin were meek and gentle, he would be on the first thunderbolt out of Asgard. You are an idiot, child!"
"I forgive you for thinking so," said the boy. There was a short silence at this unexpected remark, then another roar of laughter at Loki's expense.
"You are apparently forgiven," said Odin to Loki. "Now you must repay him with a gift. These singers have come collecting money for their baby king. Do the honours for us, Loki.
"I will," said Loki. "I will give them a sack of treasure to take with them."
And so saying he handed over a big sack full of jewels and gold and diamonds, at which the carol singers opened their eyes wide, thanked him and went on their way.
"I have misjudged you, Loki," said Odin. "I thought you were incapable of a kind action."
"And so I am," cried Loki, bristling. "There is a spell upon that treasure. When they return home they will find it's been changed inside the sack into sordid trinkets. Just watch their fury!"
And sure enough, when the carol singers returned home, they found in the sack no sign of Loki's treasures. Instead, they pulled out a pile of valueless objects including an orange, a walnut, a piece of coal, a chocolate mouse, a gadget purporting to seal half-consumed champagne bottles, a miniature of malt whisky, a wooden spoon with a ribbon tied round it, and a flask of after-shave.
"Never mind," said the carol singers. "We will not be cross that we have been tricked. We will be grateful for what we have been given and every year at Christmas we will give each other these gifts again."
And when Loki saw from Asgard that his trick had failed, he gnashed his teeth and sparks flew, which men call shooting stars.