Creepy Christmas Superstitions

Last week's Christmas Superstitions included The Good, the Bad and the Scary. This week’s installment brings you some traditions that are downright creepy! They may not be true, but there's bound to be at least a couple that will give you a chill just the same.

Dogs that howl on Christmas Eve will go mad before the end of the year. A candle or a lamp should be kept burning all night on Christmas Eve to avoid a death in the house in the following year.

Instead of water turning into wine at midnight on Christmas Eve, some hold the belief that the water in streams and wells turns into blood! Not only that, if you witness this change, you’ll die within the year!

A Scandinavian belief maintains that it's dangerous to go out on Christmas Eve because of the many supernatural beings that come out of their hiding places that night. Trolls, witches, goblins and ghosts are said to roam freely, including the spirits of the dead revisiting their previous homes. Gifts must be left outside – bowls of pudding and cream, clothes, tobacco and even ale – in order to appease some of these creatures. The most perilous time occurs between cock’s crow and dawn, when supernatural beings are at the peak of their power. To go outside means risking death or being carried off by them, never to be seen again.

Swedish folklore puts a chilling twist on this story. On Christmas Eve, they prepare their dining room with food and ale and blazing fire – and leave it overnight to enable the spirits of the dead to celebrate undisturbed. The family checks the chairs in the morning for traces of earth, proof that the dead have come calling!

Icelandic children lived in fear of being eaten by bloodthirsty ogres living in the mountains. The most ferocious of these was Mother Grýla, who wandered through the village at Christmastime with her evil cat.

Instead of leaving out cookies for Santa, gifts and food had to be left out to appease the ogres. If they didn't like the offerings, they'd eat you. And if you didn't have at least one brand new article of clothing in honor of the season – the cat would eat you!

A once popular parlor game gave everyone an apple after dinner, which was then cut in half across the middle to reveal the pattern of the core. If the core is star-shaped (most apples have this), the owner of the apple will see another Christmas. If the core is a different shape, the owner’s death will occur in the next twelve months! The appearance of a four-pointed cross was worst of all – although what was worse than death is never mentioned.

Parlor games in Victorian England also included telling ghost stories by the fire, while keeping tabs on everyone’s shadow throughout the evening. If anyone’s shadow were to appear headless, that person would die within the coming year.

While most cultures consider it lucky to be born on Christmas, others definitely do not. In Greece, any child born during the 12 days of Christmas is in danger of morphing into a kallikantzaroi, a malevolent half-animal, half-human monster that lives underground most of the year. Such a creature will almost certainly devour his own brothers and sisters!

In Romania, Poland and Moldova, a child born on Christmas Day may become a werewolf. A different variation on this tale is that any child conceived during Advent (when parents apparently were supposed to abstain from such activities) was almost certainly doomed to become a were-animal by the time they reached adulthood. In some Slavic regions, a child be born anywhere between Christmas and Ephiphany will surely become a vampire after death.

To avoid bad luck, all Christmas decorations should be taken down by Candlemas (Feb. 2). However, make sure you clean up after them – every needle left behind in the house from the Christmas tree will cause the sighting of a spirit or a demon in the coming year. Some believe a stray needle or berry will result in a death in the family. (A good case for having an artificial tree!)

The danger isn't over once the decorations are down because a Christmas tree thrown outside will attract the attention of evil spirits and supernatural beings. For proper disposal, the tree must be burned immediately.

An old Breton tale tells the story of a blacksmith who refused to stop working after the church bell had rung for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Suddenly a tall man entered his shop with a scythe that needed mending.

The blacksmith did the work but the mysterious man refused to pay him. Instead, he told the blacksmith to send for a priest because this work would be the last he would ever do. By the time the roosters crowed on Christmas morning, the blacksmith was dead. He had mended the Scythe of the Grim Reaper himself.

Wishing you a merry-not-too-scary holiday season!

Dani Harper

Your turn -- have you heard of any other superstitions concerning Christmas?

The Longest Night - Winter Solstice

Stonehenge at daybreak on the solstice.
The Winter Solstice is probably the most celebrated annual event worldwide, both now and in the past. Our ancestors rejoiced in the return of the sun, seeing it as a rebirth of life as well as light. Many ancient cultures created incredible structures to align with the sun during solstices. One of the most famous examples of this is Stonehenge, but it’s just one of hundreds of megalithic sites across Europe designed to mark these important days in the astronomical calendar. Ancient inhabitants of the New World, such as the Incas, built similar structures.

Winter Solstice, usually called Yule, falls on December 21 in 2011, and it marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. For those of us who struggle with the annual darkness, it draws the line between one half of the year and the other. After this day, the days will lengthen once more and light will increase.

The holiday now known as Christmas has its origins in many long ago Yule celebrations.

The Yule Log

Yule logs and fireplaces were once
a LOT bigger
Medieval tradition tells of an enormous log – commonly ash or oak – placed in the fireplace on the solstice. It was decorated with evergreens and kindled with the carefully saved remains of last year’s Yule log. The wood would burn all night, then be allowed to smolder for the following 12 days. Pouring ale or wine on the log was customary. So was sprinkling flour or breadcrumbs on it, or even placing coins on the log. All were said to bring good fortune, and the blackened coins were later given as gifts.

Remnants of the Yule log were said to have protective properties and were kept in the house to guard against lightning and hail, and against various diseases. Ashes of the log were mixed with cattle and poultry fodder to ensure that the livestock thrived in the coming year.

Later, as large fireplaces fell out of fashion, small logs were decorated in a similar way and holes were bored into the wood to hold candles, which would be burned for 12 nights. The French were the first to create an edible Yule log, and Victorian confectioners made these Yule cakes famous.

The Yule Tree

Celtic customs are said to have called for the decorating of sacred oak trees. The Celts and many other peoples also held evergreens to be symbolic of immortality, of continuing life in the midst of death. In the coldest, darkest and dreariest of winters, evergreens held forth hope of returning spring. Throughout many cultures and over countless centuries, homes have been decorated with evergreen boughs and other winter greenery.

The practice of decorating trees dates back to before Roman times. The trees were not cut down and brought into the house, however, but left alive and decorated wherever they grew with trinkets, trophies, sacred plants such as holly and mistletoes, bits of metal and sometimes replicas of gods.

The Yuletide Wreath

Wreaths have symbolized the wheel of the year since ancient times, and the word wreath comes from the Old English writhen, meaning "to twist". In many European countries, evergreen wreaths were lit with candles during the darkest winter days, symbolizing hope that light would return. Candles were sometimes placed around a wheel, to ensure that the year would cycle around so that the days would lengthen and warmth return. Holly wreaths were said to ward off the evil spirits that abounded during the darkness of midwinter, and holly might be kept near the door all year long to invite good fortune.

The Yule Goat

Giant straw goats decorate
town squares while tiny ones
decorate Yule trees
The Yule Goat or Julbock was central to solstice traditions in Scandinavia and northern Europe. A human dressed in goatskins and wearing long horns acted out a skit in which he “died” and returned to life. This was symbolic of the sun’s resurrection at solstice. (The goat guise was chosen because the Norse thunder god Thor had two goats which drew his chariot across the sky. He would occasionally kill the goats and use them to feed guests, then would restore them to life with a blow of his magical hammer.)

Goats were originally slaughtered as offerings during Yule, but later, goats made of straw were created annually as both decorations and effigies. This webcam site shows the current giant straw goat in Gävle, Sweden. The reason for the webcam is that the straw goat doesn't usually last the season -- it's a tradition for it to be burnt to the ground in the middle of the night!

Other Winter Solstice traditions

Many people celebrate by staying awake throughout the night of the solstice so they can watch the sunrise the following day. Others wake early to observe the daybreak and dawn of a new cycle. Bonfires are usually lit to simulate the ascent of the sun and sometimes herbs such as sage are thrown into the blaze. Candles are allowed to burn throughout the day. Gifts are often exchanged as part of the midwinter celebrations, and stories told of ghosts and fairies.

Songs are sung, especially carols such as Deck the Halls which mention Yule specifically. Toasts are made and, in some places, groups dress up in costumes and go “wassailing”, which is very much like caroling. “Wassail” comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast for “Be Well” or “Be Healthy”. In modern times, the revelers go door to door, carrying “Wassail cups” that will hopefully be filled at each house.

Wassail was usually
hot spiced cider, alcohol optional.
 In ancient times, wassailing was done around the oldest tree in an apple orchard. Cider was poured on the roots and toast dipped in cider was hung on the branches to thank the tree dryads and ensure a good crop in the coming year. The carolers sang and drummed to drive away bad spirits, and the wassail cup was passed from person to person. Each took a drink and passed on the cup with a kiss and a blessing.

One of the most unique solstice traditions is the lighting of the White Horse on the hillside at Alton Barnes in England. The mammoth chalk figure is outlined by candles placed in glass jars on the day of the winter solstice. When night falls, only the glowing outline of the horse is visible. Here’s a video on YouTube of last year’s lighting ( ).

The Reason for the Season

Winter solstice is often called Yule, probably from an old Nordic word for wheel. With the coming of Yule, the wheel of the year has rolled around to its beginning once more. The word solstice comes from Latin for “stoppage”. The sun is at its lowest point in the sky and its elevation at noon appears to be the same for several days before and after solstice.

The Celts believed that the "wheel of the year" paused briefly on this day as the sun itself appears to stop. Accordingly, they wouldn’t turn a wheel of any kind on this day, not even a butter churn. A time of stillness was prized as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and look forward to the new one.

This concept of reflection is still at the very heart of all midwinter celebrations. It’s a time to meditate on the sorrows of the past year as well as the positive moments and achievements. It offers a chance to bond with family and friends, and to look forward with hope.

Dani Harper

Your turn – Do you celebrate the winter solstice or Yule? What are some of the other traditions you know of?  If you're interested in reading more about Winter Solstice traditions, try The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas for adults and The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice for the young at heart.