Christmastide Ghost Story Traditions

the house of twigs pagan sostice ghost spirits yule

Storytelling has been part of human culture since before the written word.  Druidic traditions would use story telling as a mnemonic device for memorizing vast amounts of information.  Bardic traditions kept the stories of warriors and kings alive in their sagas with the intention of immortalizing the heroes of Old Europe.  Myths symbolically conveyed ancient wisdom and transmitted esoteric knowledge between those who understood their deeper symbolism.  Without the stories of these oral traditions, which were eventually written down much of the most ancient history of Pagan Europe would have been lost.

Up until the modern technological age storytelling was still an integral part of human social interaction.  However, with the 20th century, the television, film industry, and electronic media replaced the living-breathing art of storytelling.  There is something magical about the connection made between an audience and narrator.  If we allow ourselves to lose the ability to tell our own stories and take time to listen to those of others, we will be missing a genuine part of the human experience.  Stories connect us to the past, to the ancestors, and to the well of memory.  They are acts of magic in and of themselves.

When my cousins and I were young we had a tradition of going to my Uncle’s house with the rest of the family to be read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  This was an enchanting ritual that would fill us with excitement for the following day.  Now that we are grown we no longer gather on Christmas Eve, but this tradition is one I hope to revive when my sisters have children of their own.  

In Britain, the telling of stories at Christmas time is still a widely practiced tradition.  Telling ghost stories or devil’s stories during the winter months is part of the holiday celebration in parts of Northern Europe.  It was with the help of Charles Dickens and the commercialization of holiday greeting cards that rekindled the Christmas celebrations of old.  Christmas was a time of festivity resembling Pagan Yuletide celebrations before being oppressed by puritanical powers.  A Christmas Carol (1863) became the most widely known story of the Christmas season, rivaling even the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth.  The same puritanical suppression was the reason this tradition did not make it to America.  

The revitalization of Christmas celebrations during the Victorian Period drew from romanticized folk traditions with roots in pagan religion.  A Christmas Carol contained many themes from older Yule and Winter Solstice celebrations such as: death and rebirth, visitation by spirits, mirth, and the taking power of Fate.

It was a natural thing for families to gather close for warmth around the fire, and pass the long winter nights with stories and conversation.  The older themes of death and rebirth and growing darkness combined with pagan folkways and Christian concepts created a backdrop conducive to the Christmas ghost story.  During a time when the spirits of the dead were known to roam the Earth and the powers of the underworld were at their height; it was all people could do to assuage their fears by telling stories.

Revenants, Fairies and the Wild Hunt

One common theme of these stories was the Revenant, or reanimated corpse, usually a family member, a criminal or another familiar individual from the village.  Revenants would often come to portend impending doom, demand the performance of some ritual or to claim the living.  These creatures were a combination of evil spirits and reanimated corpses and were usually dispatched by burning or severing the head.  Various tales describe the steps taken to seal an individual in their grave to prevent them from returning as the dreaded Revenant.  Stories of reanimated dead were common in England, Iceland and other parts of Northern Europe.  This was also during a time when grave-robbing was a common problem.  

Stories of fairies were also prevalent especially in England and Ireland.  These fairy tales were more horror stories than tales of gossamer winged, child-like pixies.  These fairies were dark, bloodthirsty and quick to lead a wandering human to their death.  Legends of people being taken to Elfhame for a night only to find that a hundred years had passed in the human realm.  

The Wild Hunt or Hellequin’s Hunt, as it was known in the tale by Oderic Vitalis a 12th century monk, was a popular theme as well. He tells the story as it was relayed to him of a monk named Walchelin, who on the night of January 1st, 1091, crossed paths with a retinue of sinful dead, dwarf-like demons and the Devil himself.  It was said that people were often swept away by these processions from the spirit world never to be heard from again.

While Charles Dickens popularized the tradition of Christmas Ghost Stories, there were other writers who were well known for their chilling tales told on winter nights.  Montegue Rhodes James (MR James) is known as one of the great English ghost story writers.  He held a yearly tradition of reading his stories to colleagues and students around the fireside while enjoying drinks.  It is important to note that many of the Victorian ghost stories were written by women such as the famous JH Riddell.

Rituals of storytelling can serve as a means of invocation, and of honoring the dark gods of the waning half of the year.  They are a means of remembering lost loved ones, and for a moment, bringing them back to life to share in the warmth of the Yule fire.  They can also serve as a means of protection from the dangerous powers of the winter and wild clawing to get inside during this time of extended darkness.  By naming these dark powers and paying them the respect they are due, we can hope that they will pass us by unharmed.  Perhaps even leaving us with secret wisdom that can only be gained from the shadows.

Bright Yule Blessings!

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Coby Michael Ward
,
I am a practitioner of traditional witchcraft, proud armchair occultist, and cultivar of baneful herbs. I have a passion for potion-making and arcane artifacts. I love researching and writing about the history of magic, occult philosophy, and the Pagan practices of Germanic/Norse traditions and the British Isles. As a writer, I have been working for about two years, and have taught workshops on esoteric herbalism, witches’ flying ointments, and the Poison Path. I recently self-published a zine-like booklet called “The Poisoner’s Pocket Guide” a collection of baneful plant lore and witchcraft. I have been growing a Witch’s Garden for about six years consisting of various plants commonly associated with witches and sorcery. I have been studying magic and the occult for a number of years. I later decided to go to school for religious studies, which helped me with my writing. Arizona State University is where I studied religion with an emphasis on religious text and ritual. I became interested in poisonous plants and traditional European witchcraft via my studies of American Folk Magic and African American Hoodoo, which introduced me to the grimoire tradition and eventually Sabbatic Witchcraft. In my writing I look to draw new connections between ancient mythology, symbolism, astrological correspondence and traditional witchcraft practices like spirit work, herb craft and soul flight.
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Coby Michael Ward
,
I am a practitioner of traditional witchcraft, proud armchair occultist, and cultivar of baneful herbs. I have a passion for potion-making and arcane artifacts. I love researching and writing about the history of magic, occult philosophy, and the Pagan practices of Germanic/Norse traditions and the British Isles. As a writer, I have been working for about two years, and have taught workshops on esoteric herbalism, witches’ flying ointments, and the Poison Path. I recently self-published a zine-like booklet called “The Poisoner’s Pocket Guide” a collection of baneful plant lore and witchcraft. I have been growing a Witch’s Garden for about six years consisting of various plants commonly associated with witches and sorcery. I have been studying magic and the occult for a number of years. I later decided to go to school for religious studies, which helped me with my writing. Arizona State University is where I studied religion with an emphasis on religious text and ritual. I became interested in poisonous plants and traditional European witchcraft via my studies of American Folk Magic and African American Hoodoo, which introduced me to the grimoire tradition and eventually Sabbatic Witchcraft. In my writing I look to draw new connections between ancient mythology, symbolism, astrological correspondence and traditional witchcraft practices like spirit work, herb craft and soul flight.

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