Christmas 1986 - ah, what a
For me, 1986 was an epiphanal
year. My old job and old band had both vanished at the beginning
of the year, and I found myself in the unique position of being
able to reinvent my life - to begin anew, as it were. Having
always defined myself as a musician, it was a strange and extraordinary
thing to look around, as if for the first time, to take stock
of where I was and where I wanted to go.
Early that year I returned
to school, in what would prove to be a lengthy albeit successful
quest to obtain a College diploma. That spring, I worked with
my brothers to help our Mom turn a crazy idea of hers into reality
- the opening of a used Book Store. That summer, I acquired my
first computer. That fall . . .
Well, that fall Mom decided
that it would be a good idea to start a Book Again newsletter.
I agreed to help her with it under the condition that I be allowed
to include a folklore column each issue.
I have been writing these columns,
on and off, ever since.
Finally, that December, I,
with my wife Deanne, put on what remains one of my favorite Christmas
celebrations ever - it began as a polite Christmas tea, but as
the hours passed, the day waned and the brews flowed it began
to get wilder and wilder - good wild, of course, not bad.
For the chief component of
our bacchanal was singing. Yes, singing every carol we could
remember. I'd printed out lyrics to as many songs as I could
find, and by the time my brother Michael arrived we'd been singing
for hours. Now, of course, as Michael and I seem to harmonize
fairly well, we went back and sang them all over again!
Not content with that,
we ended up driving to my Grandmother's to serenade her and Aunt
Pat. (Once you get us started - well, you've been warned!)
And of course, at the end of
that long and boisterous evening I laid my weary head down upon
my pillow, and noticed something hard beneath it. It was, of
course, the Hitchcock book Michael had found for me, and I realize
that, at least on the Internet version of this newsletter, I've
already told you a lot of this.
But that December of 1986 was
special for another reason - it was the first Christmas edition
of this newsletter and folklore column! The column itself was
fairly traditional - a look at the origins of many of our Holiday
customs. I thought at the time that I'd pretty well summed it
all up. I have learned far more about the dark origins of the
Yule celebration since . . .
(I believe I also included
a little story about a mouse which, as I recall, is probably
Well, time passes. Deanne
and I of course went our separate ways years ago (she now lives
happily with a new husband and new kids not far from here), and
actually Mike and I sang together at only one subsequent Christmas
Tea. These days, the family gets larger and more scattered every
year, and many traditions have had to be revamped and even discarded.
Still, the memories remain fresh, and as long as this column
exists I fear you unlucky souls reading this drivel will come
to know more than you probably ever wanted to about our celebrations
from years past!
At any rate, as I've spent
the last few Christmas columns delving into personal memories
and fond remembrances of my own Christmas Past, it seems
as good a time as any to take a break from that for once - to
return for a bit to our roots, the roots of this column as well
as the roots of Christmas Folklore, to take a look at some of
the very odd things that supposedly occur at this festive time.
Some are charming, some are a bit grim, some are downright bizarre,
and one or two are positively chilling!
Christmas Eve is especially
magic, of course. It is at that moment that all the animals
of the world gain the gift of speech, and converse peaceably
with one another. It is also, however, the moment where, if
you dare, you can take yourself quietly to a graveyard, and if
you are very still, at midnight you will see the ghosts of those
who will die the following year. There is an old tale of an
English priest who did just that, only to discover, to his horror,
that his own ghost was among the shades!
On a lighter note, there is
the Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas, who would descend upon
happy rooftops with presents galore on December 6 (his Feast
Day). In time Saint Nick became the modern Santa Claus, of course,
and now does his rounds on Christmas Eve.
He was, however, only one of
many. Each region, each country had their own bearer of gifts,
and it is almost certainly due to the brief Dutch conquest of
New York (then New Amsterdam) that Santa Claus won out over his
Among these rivals were such
celebrities as the Christkindl who visited German children on
Christmas Eve. The "kindle" was variously thought
of at times as an angel from heaven, and at times as the incarnation
of the Christ Child. The modern ritual of swapping gifts in
secret with one another in workplaces and school comes from this
tradition, and as "Saint Nicholas" became "Santa
Claus", so did "Christkindl" become "Kris
The Italian children had Befana,
an old woman who rode a broomstick on January 6, giving presents
to the good and the usual lump of coal to the less-than-good.
The Russians had Kolyada, an elf maiden who rode her gift-laden
sleigh on Christmas Eve.
Finally, in the traditional
homeland of Saint Nicholas (Scandinavia), the presents were brought
by legions of elves that actually hid in people's houses the
rest of the year, presumably in attics and stables. On Christmas
Eve they would emerge, and hide presents all over the house.
Now, these were the nicer ones.
You must remember, however, that this festive Holiday Season
does occur, after all, when days are at their shortest, when
temperatures drop to their deadliest chill, when the nights are
longer, colder and darker than at any other point of the year.
And, truth be told, these (relatively) modern traditions of
friendly folk flying through the night bearing gifts have their
roots in a tradition far older, and grimmer.
For this Yuletide Season was,
originally, the time of year when the dread Wild Hunt appeared
in the night sky, a ghostly horde of spectral riders that hurtled
through the air, seeking new victims to augment their spectral
numbers. This ride was a clarion call to lost souls to come
forth out of their graves and walk the earth once more, and in
many areas vampires, goblins and other unspeakable horrors would
rise as well. Truly, the earliest seasonal bonfires and rituals
seem to have been much more for protection than celebration!
The legend of the Wild Hunt
began to take on local color as it spread. Many initially believed
that the leader of this unholy pack was none other than the Norse
god Odin, but as time passed some believed it was actually King
Arthur, or perhaps Gwyn ap Nudd, the Celtic ruler of the underworld.
In parts of England the Hunt was accompanied by the fearsome
Gabriel Hounds, corpse dogs with eyes ablaze. No matter which
version one was familiar with, however, one certainty was held
by all - to see this passing of ghoulish hunters meant almost
In many areas of Germany, however,
the head of the Hunt was an ancient and revered Goddess named
Berchta. Now, in many ways she could be as fearsome as her Norse
and English counterparts. She had a great dislike for untidy
houses, and homes not measuring up to her standards were cursed
in various horrible ways we perhaps need not dwell on here.
However, she had another side.
She seemed to enjoy sweets, and if suitable offerings were left
for her, she might well leave small presents behind. It is thus
quite possible that Berchta marked the beginning of a change
in the Wild Hunt legends, as the germ of a notion that perhaps
the hordes could be placated, and even induced to bring gifts
instead of death began to take root in subsequent retellings
of the tale.
Until finally the great great
great grandson of the horrible ghostly riders would be none other
than our own beloved Santa Claus, who only leaves presents and
wouldn't curse a fly.
So it is that the legend of
magical beings riding across the world on Christmas Eve evolved
from ghostly demons whose very sight meant death to a happier
breed, bestowing presents instead of plagues.
Having said that, I must point
out that there are a lot of magical folk we've yet to examine,
not necessarily completely good or evil, but certainly different.
The Rusalky, for instance,
didn't really mean to harm anyone. They were Russian
water nymphs who were allowed out into the world of mortals only
at Christmas, and all they ever wanted to do was sing. Unfortunately,
any mortal who heard their songs would go instantly insane.
The Greek goblins of Christmas,
the Callicantzari, were a bit meaner. They were wont to invade
homes, steal food, and wreak general havoc for the two weeks
before Christmas, ultimately returning to their goblin caves
for another year.
Their Norse contemporaries,
the Christmas Lads, were worse. They would do pretty much the
same thing, but at their departure they would carry all the children
And, during this same two week
period in Romania, werewolves returned among the living.
What could one do to protect
Well, outside of the usual
garlic, etc., these strange denizens of Christmas represented
the darkness, and the night, and death. In response, things
that bespoke of light (candles, great fires), the daytime (feasting
and revelry continuing long into the night), and life itself
(holly, ivy, and evergreens) seemed to work as powerful counters
to the evil that lay without.
Of course, all this was long
ago, mostly before a certain Birth occurred that has come to
define the season.
I just thought it might be
fun to look back at our primitive ancestors for a moment, to
turn away from this modern world and smile as we consider how
silly people used to be in those days, bringing evergreens into
their homes and decorating them with light, throwing parties
and exchanging gifts to ward of the gloom of the outside, and
telling tales about magical beings who fly through the sky on
Christmas Eve . . .
Ho ho ho . . .
Anyway, the weather outside
is frightful, the days grow ever shorter, and before this column
grows ever longer I think it best to sign off while I can.
Oh, wait - I mentioned Deanne,
and the Christmas Teas of old, didn't I? Well, truth be told,
she's doing it again this year, a coming together of old friends,
good food, and more rum and Christmas ale than one could shake
a turkey at! And, after all, what would a party of that nature
be without music?
Therefore, all too soon, a
night or so before Christmas, my brother Mike and I will find
ourselves there, for the first time in over a decade, to joyously
sing out all those well remembered carols we sang so many years
before . . .
As for you, my dear, dear readers,
I know precious few of you personally, whereas you know way too
much about me, which perhaps balances it out somehow. I do get
reports from Mom, however, and you have no idea how delightful
it is to find that someone actually enjoyed this column, or went
in search of a particular book as a result. This column is,
as it has been for over fourteen years now, a labor of love,
existing entirely due to my own idiotic desire to share with
others the things I hold dear, the things that fascinate me,
and at times, of course, the things that terrify me .
At this festive time I rejoice
that you are all out there, and I wish you much joy upon this
most Magical Season.
And so I say to each and every
one of you, have the merriest of Holidays, eat too much, drink
too much, laugh too much, sing too much, and give too much!
Now the cold and the night
descend. Grim Winter reaches out from Nordic ancestry to clutch
us firmly in his icy grip, and within we bastion our strongholds
with good food and drink, evergreens and mistletoe, lights and
candles aplenty, and await with baited breath that magical moment
when a special Peace will hopefully descend upon us all, that
moment when all the animals of the world regain for a brief and
precious moment the gift of speech . . .
And, come midnight on Christmas
Eve, I of course will be carefully watching my cat, tape recorder
in hand . . .