It cannot, I am sure, have escaped your notice that it is nearly Christmas.
It’s the season of scrabbling around for babysitters willing to give up their social life so that you can regain yours. It’s the season of promising to do better at your Slimming World meeting (and catapulting off the wagon again, sorry Steph x). It’s the season of hearing relentlessly cheery carols and Christmas songs. By the way, I played and lost Whamageddon – trying to avoid hearing Last Christmas by Wham until 25th December – on the first day of December, so at least I can relax and enjoy George Michael’s classic now, which is just as well considering it’s bl**dy everywhere.
So, lots of ‘togetherness’, presents, over-indulgence and roasting your toes (or chestnuts or whatever) by the open fire then, for the next several weeks at least.
Nevertheless, it’s also impossible to ignore how dark it is outside when you wake up and how quickly the darkness sweeps in when it’s only mid afternoon. During the summer our evenings feel limitless but they quickly concertina down to nothing in the winter. The streets and the lanes you know so well take on a different appearance in the dark, no matter how cynical and non-superstitious you are. I still go out and walk the dog every evening, but I don’t linger. The imperative to get back home, safe and warm, is over-riding.
I suppose most people these days are aware of the overlap between the Christian celebration of Christmas and the pagan celebration of the solstice in late December. It’s a slightly more natural alignment than Easter fertility symbols and a dead man on a cross. The sun is at its weakest and it can feel like it will never return, so you can’t really begrudge anyone a fire ceremony or two conducted in the hope of summoning back the sun. Whilst the day is at its shortest, the pendulum is about to swing back and the day will grow longer again. Though it might need a little push. Whilst we are in darkness, there is the promise of light to keep us hoping.
But all that light can cast shadows. And in those shadows lurks the darker side of Christmas.
The ancient Northern Europeans celebrated the festival of Jól (an Old Norse word which comes from ‘wheel’ referring to the turning of the year). Jól lives on today in our word ‘Yule’.
The Yule Log was a festive tradition for many centuries in England. A huge tree trunk would be dragged in from the woods or hedgerows and ceremonially set alight, then kept burning over the Christmas period. Really big logs were sometimes wedged in the fireplace end-on and shuffled in a bit further as it burnt down. It was lit to draw back the sun, to bring spiritual as well as physical warmth, but it was also lit to keep bad things away.
The solstice marked a significant change in the calendar and therefore it was always considered to be a liminal period. Throughout the year all manner of psychical unpleasantness would gather in metaphorical corners. Now it was time to sweep it all out, ready for the start of the New Year (or in order to welcome Christ). Some cultures banished the bad things with fire and lights (as we still do today). Others used noise, such as the tolling of church bells or whoops, yells and crazy music when wassailing from house to house.
So what exactly are the bad things that we are supposed to be keeping away with our fire and noise? Well, let me introduce you to some pretty horrific folklore characters.
In Icelandic tradition, a huge, vicious cat called the Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat) stalked the local countryside apparently hungry for the flesh of those who hadn‘t received any new clothes for Christmas. That’s one good reason to spend out on Asos.com at least.
Although terrifying, the cat was as nothing compared to the Icelandic giantess Gryla and her twelve sons, the Yule Lads, who are recorded as far back as Snorri Sturluson‘s 13thC epic Edda. Gryla hunted for naughty children to eat as a tasty snack or, her favourite, a naughty child stew. Apparently her appetite was endless but she never went hungry…
In Central Europe, the Krampus, a frightening companion of St Nicholas‘s, has recently become better known to a wider audience. Half goat, half demon and bearing birch branches for thrashing purposes, he appears on Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) which is just before the feast of St Nicholas on the 6th December. Good children will find a present in their shoe the next morning from St Nicholas, bad children will get a piece of coal or some of his birch twigs – if they‘re lucky. In older versions of the stories, they would be carted away in the Krampus‘s basket, to await a grisly fate. It‘s not only Father Christmas who has a naughty list.
“T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
The Yule Cat probably ate it.
Today in Britain, the Folklore Society are doing a masterful job of re-introducing the darker side of Christmas to Twitter (and hopefully then on into wider society). If you’re at all interested in the alternative (though equally historical) festive celebrations then do please take a look at The Folklore Society either on Twitter or their webpage.
Historically, the Western (and Russian) Christmas was a popular time for fortune telling. Throwing nuts onto the fire and divining the future from the cracks they made was a tradition not just for Halloween. However, in Britain it was also the traditional time for creepy tales, especially ghost stories. Perhaps it was in acknowledgement that at this most wonderful time of the year, it is also the darkest. A little frisson of fear adding incalculably to the atmosphere of celebration…
Charles Dickens was a master of the Christmas ghost story genre. He gave us The Signalman as well as the miserly Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, haunted by a series of ghosts released from their bonds during the festive period. The tradition, a peculiarly British one, has ebbed and flowed during the years. On 24th December 1923, the BBC broadcast A Christmas Carol via radio, beginning a kind of shared British institution.
It wasn’t until the start of the 1970s that a series of televisual ghost stories, written by Dickens and the incomparable M.R. James, were produced entitled A Ghost Story for Christmas. They lasted a few years and ebbed away again. Thankfully this tradition has revived in recent times with the excellent Mark Gatiss at the helm of some wonderfully creepy M.R. James reproductions. Also, in the days leading up to Christmas 2013, The Guardian commissioned some short ghost stories from well known authors to add a little seasonal shiver.
This Christmas, Mark Gatiss has created his own ghost story for Christmas called The Dead Room, starring Simon Callow. To say that I can’t fricking wait is an understatement. I’ll be watching it, from behind a cushion, with my legs tucked up so that I can dance about and shout in horror if anything frightening appears on screen.
Perhaps this year you might dig out those old M.R. James adaptations? Or make space in your schedule for The Dead Room, in favour of the Queen’s Speech. You’ll have to work hard to avoid A Christmas Carol in some form or another at the very least.
So this Yule, hug your loved ones close as you stoke the fire, shut the doors and windows tight and pray you make it through till January.
Special Spooky Story For Those Who Have Stayed The Course!
In anticipation of the festivities, I’d like to give you an early Christmas chill with a creepy but true story of that comes from my mum. It happened only a couple of months ago, ironically just before Hallowe’en, though we are still awaiting the denouement.
Mum lives in an old farmhouse out in the countryside, near a popular common. The local farmer has three large irrigation pools around which mum walks her 5 dogs every morning. One morning in late October whilst on her rounds, she saw an injured heron by one of the pools. She thought it best to leave it for a little while to see if it would fly off by itself but, by the next walk, it was still there. She took the dogs home and set out back to the pool for the heron.
After fighting with it and finally getting it tucked under one arm, mum was surprised to see a large aluminium Mickey Mouse balloon floating close to the ground nearby. It was likely to have come from the common that’s heavily visited by adults, kids and dogs at all times of year, so it was odd to see it there but perhaps not entirely surprising. Worrying that it might entangle or scare the local wildlife, she grabbed hold of it and took it home along with the heron.
When she got back to the house, she left the balloon outside the back door (that leads to the utility room) in order to see to the heron. When she went back outside to fetch the balloon, it had gone. Reasoning that it had just floated away, she forgot about it and got on with her day.
At about 4pm, she got ready to go and feed her animals (she has a menagerie of llamas, poultry and horses, etc – don’t ask). As she opened the back door, there stood Mickey, looking as though he was waving at her. She jumped out of her skin, then laughed at herself for being so scared. It was just a balloon! By then the animals were squawking for their dinner so she determined to sort it out when she got back to the utility room in a short while.
When she got back, it was gone.
She busied herself until about 9pm when it was time to lock up the poultry in their roosts and do a final check of all the animals. It was pitch black outside as she pulled on her coat and wellies and went to open the door.
There was Mickey, gently waving at her.
This time there was something more menacing about him and her blood ran cold. She suspected someone was playing a trick on her and called out to see if anyone was there.
No one was.
Quickly grabbing the balloon, she shoved it into the utility room and closed the door behind her. The birds were locked up in double quick time and, sort of thankfully, the balloon was still there when she got back. She locked the outside door, then locked the door leading from the utility room to the kitchen, putting off dealing with the horrible thing till morning.
When morning came, she walked downstairs ready to loose the animals out of their pens and feed them. Normally the dogs would be raising hell, keening and yapping to get into the utility room and then outside. This morning they were quiet. They certainly weren’t rushing to the door like usual. Mum unlocked the door and looked into the utility room.
The balloon wasn’t there.
I was there the next morning and looked around for any shreds of aluminium foil that might perhaps show that it had exploded into small pieces in the night. Or maybe shot into a corner somewhere, it’s a big room containing lots of stuff, after all. But there was nothing. It was very eerie.
Some days later mum happened to be talking to a neighbour who walks his little dog twice a day around the local fields. The first time he’d gone out in the morning, he’d seen the Mickey Mouse balloon in the nearby orchard looking for all the world like it was walking around the trees. He knew that mum had two grandchildren to whom it might belong so he didn’t really question it.
The second time he went out, he saw that it had moved from the orchard into the emu pen (don’t ask). That would necessitate it navigating at least a fence, a brick wall and an 8 foot plus high boundary. It was odd but he thought mum must have had something to do with it. She hadn’t. And it hasn’t been seen again.
When we last travelled up north, the girls demanded that we buy them some massive helium balloons. Obviously, they barely looked at them again after we’d bought them so, for the last 6 weeks they’ve been hovering about our living room, slowly deflating. I hadn’t really got the heart to puncture them (especially as they cost £5 each and their enduring presence represented something like a decent investment).
So I’m pleased to have found at least one of them a new home.
I think I’ll be on the Krampus’s list this year…
P.S. The heron was fine. Everyone always asks about the heron!