“…There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…”
So I have been thinking about our
Contemporary conceptualization of the Christmas season a lot lately and it’s
kind of interesting. So many things we associate with Christmas – Christmas
trees, greeting cards, Santa Claus, his reindeer and elves, gift-giving in
general – all of these things came into vogue in the 19th Century
and are very sticky-sweet, in my opinion. They’re lovely, but not filling. If
we just scratch the surface of the Christmas we know and love and peek back
into its history, we find something much meatier.
Before the cheerful Christmas tree,
a number of other plants were associated with Christmas. The holly, associated
with sacrifice and the blood of Christ, and the parasitic mistletoe, associated
with the death of Baldur in Norse mythology – these were the plants associated with
Christmas before the Christmas tree became the standard.
Also, the Yule log. The Yule log,
meant to provide light on the darkest night of the year, was a magic charm in
and of itself. If it did not burn through the night, it would be a terrible
omen. By watching the fire and coals of the Yule log, one could also predict who
would give birth and who would die in the coming year.
When our simple Santa Claus is reduced
to his predecessors, one is left with Odin, ancient Norse God of battle, Saint
Nicholas, the canonized former bishop of Turkey, and Father Christmas, the
hard-drinking gluttonous representation of holiday merriment. And all of them
brought ghastly friends – Odin, the spirits of the Wild Hunt and Saint
Nicholas, his helpers (including Knecht Rupert, Krampus, etc.). Father
Christmas, more of a personification of the season than a night visitor,
undoubtedly brought many hangovers.
Before stories about reindeer, snowmen,
or things of that ilk, there were ghost stories. Charles Dickens did not invent
the Christmas ghost story in “A Christmas Carol,” but popularized an already-existing
folkloric trend. If we look to the old tales of Christmas, we find stories
about witches that rode the night air, cursing the birth of the Savior. There are
stories about fairies, ghosts, and Devils that wreak havoc, frightening livestock
and damaging property. In an era before television or radio, homemade
storytelling was one of the primary forms of entertainment. And winter was the storytelling
You also have mumming, wassailing,
and caroling – dressing up in colorful costumes and (sometimes drunkenly)
begging for money door-to-door. As John Grossman notes in his book “Christmas
Curiosities,” Christmas before the Contemporary Period resembles our Halloween
more than it resembles the Christmas we know now.
Let us not forget, those of us who
acknowledge the Wheel of the Year, that the season of darkness extends from
Halloween to Christmas. This darkness only begins to fade when we gain back the
Sun at the Winter Solstice. From Halloween to Christmas, the dead may roam the
Earth and weird things may happen. In his classic “Mastering Witchcraft,” Paul
Huson notes that Yule is not a time for pleasant spell work, but cursing! It is
a time of dark magic and mystery. And we need this time. To understand the
light, we must understand the darkness – the witches, ghosts, and Devils of the
old Yuletide. Like the trees that go dormant, we must embrace the darkness of winter
to grow and thrive.
Thank you so much for this article. I love it!