It's that time of the year to smooch under the mistletoe, shop for loved ones and go view Christmas lights on the Tacky Lights Tour. The season is full of good tidings and happiness, nothing scarier than what might be inside that special gift from Santa Claus. Or that you might receive cold in your sticking for being bad and not good this year. Right?
WRONG! People in olden days didn’t stay indoors due to the “frightful” weather, but more because it might have been cold and dangerous outside. They knew in their hearts that dark forces lurked amidst the shadows of the snow drifts. Winter Solstice (December 21) was seen as a time when the fabric between the mortal world and the world of malicious spirits became thin enough for things to snatch unwary victims. Though the fiends are lout all winter, still, this time prove to be the scariest. When many gathered together to celebrate, it was hoped that the dark spirits would realize with all that din that there were too many bodies inside or caroling outside to grab one person. Another custom practiced was doors were flung open at midnight to let out trapped evil spirits caught inside the building. A candle was left burning in the window all night to insure good luck for the family inside. Any candle that burned out before dawn was deemed a bad sign.
Another thing said is that those born on Christmas are apt more to see a spirit than those not. But they have nothing to fear from any ghost if they chance to encounter one. They are also protected against deaths by drowning or hanging.
Witches are a part of Christmas too—through our very own Christmas ornaments, or balls. In Scotland, people used to wear them around their necks to ward off witches. It was also believed in Scotland and Canada that if a witch touched one, her/his soul would be caught within the ball forever.
A witch ball is a hollow sphere of plain or stained glass hung in cottage windows in eighteenth-century England to ward off evil spirits, witch's spells, or ill fortune, though the witch's ball actually originated among cultures where witches were considered a blessing. Witches would usually "enchant" the balls to enhance their potency against evils. Later, they were often posted on top of a vase or suspended by a cord (as from the mantelpiece or rafters) for a decorative effect. Witch balls appeared in America in the nineteenth century and were often found in gardens under the name "gazing ball,” something that has come back, as I bought one last summer to place in my own garden. However, "gazing balls" contain no strands within their interior. According to folk tales, witch balls would entice evil spirits with their bright colors; the strands inside the ball would then capture the spirit and prevent it from escaping.
Witch balls sometimes measure as large as seven inches (eighteen cm) in diameter. By tradition, but not always, the witch ball is green or blue in color and made from glass. There have been others made of wood, grass, or twigs, instead of glass. Some are decorated in enameled swirls and brilliant stripes of various colors. The gazing balls found in many of today's gardens are derived from silvered witch balls that acted as convex mirrors, warding off evil by reflecting it away.
Because they look similar to the glass balls used on fishing nets, witch balls are often associated with sea superstitions and legends. The modern Christmas ornament ball is descended from the witch ball. According to an ancient tale, the ornament was originally placed on the tree to dispel a visitor’s envy at the presents left beneath the tree.
Besides the ball, mistletoe was also considered a powerful charm to be used against witches, along with lightening. The lightening? Is it connected, as maybe caused by a witch? Good question.
This time of year also has ghost stories told. Just as much as Halloween. Charles Dickens’ novel, the Christmas Carol, Is proof of that. Those Victorian people did more than go Christmas caroling or drank mulled wine by the roaring fires. There’s even that line in It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year song that goes "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmas long, long ago." There are novels and anthologies that come out this time of the year, ghostly fiction or horror stories. One book of fiction I found is Christmas Ghosts, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. I ordered for myself, a ghostly tale set during Christmas time for my Kindle, The Carousel by James Cessford. The eBook intrigued me to read it and it was not a bad price. Search Amazon or your local brick and mortar independent bookstore for other Christmas ghost stories to buy and read.
Besides, ghost stories, there are other dark myths and legends concerning with Christmas. In the olden days gone by in Finland, they believed in Joulupukki. Pagan people used to have festivities to ward off evil spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them. The Christmas Goat was an ugly creature and frightened children. It is unclear how this personality was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas. Nowadays the only remaining feature is the name. The process was probably a continuous amalgamation of many old folk customs and beliefs from varied sources. One can speak of a Christmas pageant tradition consisting of many personages with roles partly Christian, partly pagan: A white-bearded saint, the Devil, demons, and house gnomes. Nowadays the Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus. This reminds me of Black Peter and the Krampus, both being Santa’s “evil twin.” In many areas of the world, it is said that St. Nicholas has a companion. This companion is Krampus, though another version is Black Peter, or Zarte Piet or Zwarte Piet. Black Peter is associated with the Netherlands and has dark skin. Krampus isn't a man though. He has horns, goat hair, hooves, and claws. Just like a demon. His job is to accompany St. Nicholas and to warn and punish bad children. He is said to carry a basket on his back where he will place the bad children and take them to Hell to be tossed into the pit. Puts a frightening twist on “have you been naughty or nice!” Krampus originates from Krampen--meaning claw. Young men dressed up in goat skins and masks they spend two weeks making and on December 5th go out to scare all and carry out "birching," mainly on young girls.
So, besides a season of “good tidings,” it is also a time of terrible fear. So get your children in at night and make sure they are good. And do the same for yourself. For you never know if that shadow moving along the street past your front yard is just someone looking at your Christmas lights, or something else waiting to get you! Happy holidays.