Lately I’ve been giving some thought to the ever-lovely story of “The Flying Dutchman”. The original legend of the ghost ship, doomed to sail the seas forever, is already cool enough, but the best version by far is Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” opera, which adds the element of the ship and its captain only being able to manifest once every seven years, with release from his curse coming only if he can find a wife who can be true to him unto death.
A wonderful premise (like Senta, I find being the bride of the Flying Dutchman to be like the coolest thing ever), but lately I’ve found my mind wandering to Christmas as well. Take a ghostly historical chapter such as a ship like the Rouse Simmons, which sunk in Lake Michigan in a severe storm in 1912. The Rouse Simmons was the famous “Christmas Tree Ship”, tasked with bringing holiday decor that never arrived, becoming the subject of ghost sightings throughout the Great Lakes.
What if the captain, during a moment of struggle, invoked evil powers to get him through the storm but ended up showing some hubris toward Father Christmas, leading to him, his crew, and his ship being cursed to sail the five Great Lakes forever as ghosts. The terms of their release? Every seven Christmases they will manifest and the waves will carry them ashore. If the captain can find a maiden pure in heart who shows him the true meaning of Christmas, he will be released and he, his crew, and his ship can finally move on.
The whole good-and-evil paradigm of Christianity, as featured in the Flying Dutchman legend, is honestly a bit dull and tiresome. Taking a page out of the ancient Germanic playbook, why not have the Christmas Tree Ship’s captain in my story be cursed by none other than Father Christmas himself, a.k.a. Yulefather, a.k.a. Odin?
If I wanted to go full pagan with it, instead of an angel it could be a valkyrie delivering to the captain the terms of his redemption. Valkyries do appear in old Norse texts as messengers for the gods, much like angels do for the Christian God, so it wouldn’t be out of place. Instead of the captain invoking Satan, it could be cursing Yule and its Yulefather and saying he’ll sail against that storm until Ragnarok if that’s what it’ll take (the latter is closely based on one version of the Flying Dutchman legend, where the captain says he’ll round the cape until judgment day, and his wish is granted by the spiritual powers that be). Obviously in a context like this Christmas, as in a holiday centered on the Christ, would be out of place, so in a story like this you’d just call it Yule, as in ancient Scandinavia.
So you have a Great Lakes that apparently is dominated by Germanic-European types, as is the case today, but where it’s all Odin, Yule, and valkyries, with Christianity, if it even exists at all, being no better known or influential in the region than, say, Mandaeism is today. In my view slotting such a religious worldview in place of our own would look pretty out of place. Now, our culture is pagan enough that you could file the Christianity off all of it and replace it with the old-time religion and half the population probably wouldn’t even notice; after all, in Star Trek’s episode “Bread and Circuses” to illustrate the far-out idea of “a 20th century Rome” they…just used footage of government buildings in the contemporary United States. Hmm.
Christianity’s influence on the West has always been rather superficial in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time a pagan rather than Christian 19th or 20th century Great Lakes is just weird, and not really the story I’d like to tell with this. Instead, I might take some inspiration from an alternate timeline idea I cooked up many years ago, but never did much with: a universe where for whatever reason Christianity never takes off (perhaps in favor of one of the other scenarios for a pagan world I outline here) but the Vikings still do, in a big way, far bigger than they did in real life, spearheading the Age of Discovery and dominating at least parts of the New World. Such as…the Great Lakes? Now we’re talking.
So if I were to do this Flying Dutchman Christmas story I’d set it in a version of the Great Lakes that was a fantastical realm rather than our own Great Lakes. Imagine if the railroads aligned so that Duluth, rather than Chicago, was the greatest townsite (not as unlikely as you might think; the distance to the cattle drive and to the Atlantic Ocean is about the same in both cases). This provides more Christmas ambience, since at least Duluth usually has a good amount of snow on the ground, unlike Chicago; it helps also that Duluth is significantly further north, i.e. darker and with shorter days and longer nights. It also provides more alternate-history flavor for that site to be the Midwest’s megacity.
I’m thinking it could have been built out by the railroads, which might be of a broad-gauge, unlike in real life, perhaps even starting out in their equivalent of the 19th century with trains of Breitspurbahn proportions. It’s relatively flat terrain, so broader gauge has a chance to take off, even if it’s not a very good one. Nevertheless, being a fantasy, we could take it and run with it, to telegraph that this is another world! This opens up the possibility of a bit of steampunk vibe, which might be awesome material for a Christmas Flying Dutchman story.
To really telegraph that it’s another world, there might be a religious site featured, only instead of a church with a Gutenberg Bible it’ll be a hof where blót is performed, hosting a Gotenborg Edda.
As for the true meaning of Yule? I’m drawing a blank as to what that could be. Though if “A Christmas Carol” is any indication then Charles Dickens thought it was practicing the virtue of generosity. Perhaps I could do something like that. I don’t know.
Anyway, I thought I’d write down my thoughts about a Christmas-y take on The Flying Dutchman, taking inspiration from the Christmas Tree Ships of the Great Lakes, before I forgot it all, and, having written it down, why not share it with the world? I’m currently in the thick of writing an entirely different story, so I might not be in any position to do this idea for this Christmas, but it’s something I might keep in mind for the future.