Ghosts of Christmas Past
by Eric Maple
Every December 25th the normally phlegmatic British let down their hair
and plunge into an orgy of fun which one would normally associate with
the people of more exuberant nations.
Complete strangers wish one another a Happy Christmas as a parting
greeting and the public houses are filled with revellers strenuously
keeping up the spirit of the season of goodwill.
Few of these light-hearted souls will be aware that the celebration
of Christmas had its origins in the pagan worship of the Sun or, for
that matter, that the funny hats, the evergreens and the festive board
have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,
but rather with the older gods worshipped by our ancestors in the
twilight world of pre-Christmas Europe.
It is strange to consider that the presence of pork on the Christmas
table and the custom of carrying in the boar's head was once associated
with the sacrifice of a sacred Boar to the Sun god. At the festival of
Frey, the dispenser of rain and sunshine in the mythology of
Northern Europe, a boar was a good luck offering for the New Year and
its head, with an apple in its mouth, was borne into the banqueting-hall
amid singing and the sound of welcoming trumpets. Later in history,
the boar's head gave way to the goose and the turkey. But where this
custom survives, it should be seen as one of the many curious ghosts of
Consider the evergreens and their modern counterparts: the paper-
-chains which festoon the house at Christmastide. The evergreen was
once the symbol of immortality, declared sacred to the Teutonic nations,
and given pride of place in celebrations associated with the Winter Sol-
stice from which our modern Christmas is descended.
As a symbol, the evergreen means constancy and eternity, and even in
the Orient we find that it expresses a similar idea, for the Japanese
believe the evergreen needle brings longevity and prosperity. The holly,
especially, brings happiness and friendship, but if kept in the house
after New Year's Day misfortune is ordained. Generally speaking,
however, all evergreens must be taken down by Twelfth Night-- then all
will be well.
When we look around the room that has been decked with the regalia
of the Christmas party our eyes inevitably settle on one of the focal
points, the mistletoe. In pagan times, it was customary to celebrate
the death of the old year and the birth of the new by kissing under the
mistletoe's berries. Old enemies were then expected to forget their
quarrels and take a ceremonial kiss, promising to live in amity from
that time forth.
It is not generally known that the mistletoe became a powerful
life symbol because it grew' berries in winter when other plant life
seemed dead. Once known as All Heal, it was employed as an ingredient
in many folk medicines. It was the golden bough of the ancient Druids
and, because of its association with sacrificial ceremonies, was
outlawed by the Church as an emblem of paganism.
Oddly enough, the sole exception was York Minster where a sprig of
mistletoe was placed on the altar each Christmas. A general pardon for
crimes remained in force throughout that city for as long as it remained
The central symbol of the Christmas scene, the evergreen
Christmas tree, had its origins in Germany where St Boniface cut
down a sacred oak which was worshipped by the pagans and, to placate
them, offered a fir tree in its place. However, later research
indicates that traces of a similar custom existed in other lands,
notably Greece and Rome, where trees were decorated at the time of year
later dedicated to Christmas. There is also reason for believing that
the same or a similar custom was known in ancient Egypt.
The mystical heritage of Christmas is very strongly represented in
one of the principal characters in the celebrations, Santa Claus, the
embodiment of the spirit of goodwill. The name Santa Claus is in fact a
corruption of the fifth century St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who was
honoured with special ceremonies by the Greeks and Romans on December
6th, later changed to December 25th.
This distinctly un- ghostlike genus of happiness was a 'reincar-
nation' of Odin, God of the Scandinavians who, on the conversion of
Northern Europe to Christianity, was transformed first into St Nicholas
and later into the modern Father Christmas.
Christmas has no equal as a religious feast; it is the most
important as well as the most enjoyable festival of the entire year. Yet
even the good things spread out on the table have their religious
aspects, particularly the mince-pies which were originally fashioned in
the shape of small cribs in honour of the Christ Child.
Among the superstitions associated with mince-pies is one which
demands that the Christmas reveller makes a pilgrimage among his
neighbours and friends demanding the gift of a mince-pie wherever he
calls. For each one eaten, so goes the tradition, the visitor may expect
a month's good health for the ensuing year.
Originally, mince-pies contained a far more potent filling than
mere mincemeat. They were stuffed with flesh of game hashed together
with pickled mushrooms. One should always make a wish when taking the
first bite of the first mince-pie of the season.
The Christmas pudding qualifies as a magical ritual in its own
own right, for it is surrounded by the most curious ceremonies.
Prior to the 18th century the pudding was known as Plum Porage and was
a concoction of plums, spices, wines, meat broth and breadcrumbs. It was
eaten in a semi-liquid state and only later in its history were the
plums replaced by raisins.
To preserve good luck, the pudding should be stirred deasil or
clockwise: a ceremony known to most psychic cooks. Lucky charms and
silver coins have to be incorporated in the mix to bring good fortune to
the eater, usually a silver coin, a silver thimble and a ring, with the
following meanings: the silver coin brings good luck; the ring promises
a happy marriage to the girl who finds it; while the thimble hints that
she is likely to remain a spinster.
The most interesting feature of Christmas pudding lore is the custom
of setting fire to the brandy, so that the pudding can be brought to the
table all aflame. This is a curious reminder that in ancient times
special fires were lit at the midwinter feast to honour the Sun god.
One ghost which has been finally exorcised from the Christmas
scene is the Dumb Cake which in times past was prepared by single girls
for consumption on Christmas Eve. Its ingredients were salt, wheatmeal
and barley, and it had to be baked in complete silence. It was
carefully placed in the oven and the front door opened precisely at
midnight. The spectre of the girl's future husband was expected to
enter the house at that time and march into the kitchen to turn the
cake. In some areas the cook would prick her initials on the cake and
in due course her future husband would materialise to add his
initials to hers. Alas, this custom seems to have vanished for ever.
The modern Christmas cake is still with us. It is supposed to have
originated with a cake presented by the people of ancient Rome to their
senators. A custom among Scots demanded that the cook should rise in the
early hours of Christmas Day and bake sowen (oatmeal) cakes. These
were distributed to the family at Hogmanay. If a cake happened to
break, bad luck followed, but if it remained unbroken the eater
could look forward to a Happy New Year.
Although there is no clear-cut tradition that Christmas Day was ever
associated with the giving of presents prior to modern times, it is
known that a similar custom was observed by the Romans on New Year's
Day. The Roman gift would have been a goodwill symbol only, consisting
of branches of evergreen, but in time the presents became more lavish.
Many of the enjoyable rituals which involve our lives at Christmas
time are but the shadow survivals or 'ghosts' of very ancient customs
performed around the close of the old year and the birth of the new, and
the feast of fire celebrated at the time of the Winter Solstice to
honour the Sun god.
But the season of fire and light, as it is sometimes called, would
be nothing without the Yule-log,for Christmas is also known as Yule,
which was the Scandinavian feast of the Winter Solstice.
In the days of old, an oak log was cut down on Yule Eve, and borne
with much ceremony into the house and rolled onto the huge fire that was
to burn during the days of the Nativity, especially Christmas Day.
Little did the pious Christians of the medieval world realise that
originally it had been burned in honour of the god Thor and represented
the sacred element: fire.
No doubt it was due to this association with the old gods that the
hearth fire at Christmas assumed the important role which it retained
until the advent of artificial forms of heating. The hearth was the
centre for the telling of Christmas ghost stories and for those curious
superstitions relating to the mysteries of fire.
Throughout Northern Europe there were traditions that the family
ghosts returned at Christmas time to share the festival with their
living relatives. In Brittany there was the custom of leaving food for
the ghosts while the family attended church. In Scandinavia, stories
were told of trolls (who were ogres not ghosts) returning at this
season to rattle the window-panes. In the British Isles there were
contradictory beliefs, some people thought, erroneously, that no ghost
had power to haunt during the Christmas season.
It is when the light is extinguished save for the glowing embers
that the ghost-story teller comes into his own and, surrounded by the
family, describes some ancient haunting which is calculated to chill the
blood of his listeners. Traditional hauntings include the posthumous
adventures of Anne Boleyn who haunts her old homes during the Christmas
season. Her ghost has been reported at Rochford Hall in Essex and Hever
Castle in Kent, wandering headless during the 12 days of the festival.
There are a number of cheerless proverbs which surface at the season
of goodwill, as when someone observes, 'A green Christmas brings a full
church-yard,' possibly to counteract any excessive exuberance among the
However, the children turn to less ghostly rituals, including
divination to discover the future. Each of them cuts an apple and
counts the pips. The one whose apple has the most pips can look forward
to the most happiness in the 12 months ahead.
And so young and old join in quiet communion with Christmas-
es past, present and future, united in quaint ceremonies whose
origins are lost in history - a celebration presided over by ancestral
spirits who have been lured into the home from outer darkness by the
glow of the pagan fire.
Next: A Yule Mythos