Not so long ago, Yule was as much a chilling season of Ghosts, Monsters, Imps, and Uglies as it was a festival of goodwill. Lets open that ancient door, as the moonlight glitters off the holly leaves and also welcome the darker spirits that dart among the boughs.
Krampus and Scrooge’s three Christmas ghosts aren’t the only Dark Spirits of Yule.
When you hear the rooftop, and tinkling bells with that gruff “Ho ho” you might just find the Wild Hunt instead of Santa’s sleigh.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December.
It was a period of general merrymaking and was the predecessor of Christmas.
The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms. Gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves.
Role-playing was implicit in the Saturnalia’s status reversals, and there were hints of mask-wearing or “guising”. Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Rampant overeating and drunkenness became the rule, and a sober person the exception.
The Lord of Misrule
The King of the Saturnalia ruled as master of ceremonies for the proceedings. He was appointed and compared to the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools. His capricious commands, such as “Sing naked!” or “Throw him into cold water!”, had to be obeyed by the other guests since he creates and misrules this chaotic and absurd world.
In Sweden, it’s believed that trolls travel freely through the countryside from dusk on Christmas Eve until dawn on Christmas morning. For this reason, it is common practice there, to stay indoors during those hours.
A tomte, is a mythological creature from Scandinavian folklore today typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It is generally described as being no taller than three feet, having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in red or some other bright color. They often have an appearance somewhat similar to that of a garden gnome.
The kallikantzaros or kallikantzaroi is a malevolent goblin in Southeastern European and Anatolian folklore. Stories about the kallikantzaros or its equivalents can be found in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Turkey. Kallikantzaroi are believed to dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas, from 25 December to 6 January (from the winter solstice for a fortnight during which time the sun ceases its seasonal movement).
Kallikantzaroi are believed to be creatures of the night. According to folklore, there were many ways people could protect themselves during the days when the kallikantzaroi were loose. One such method was to leave a colander on their doorstep to trick the visiting kallikantzaros. It was believed that since it could not count above two – three was believed to be a holy number, and by pronouncing it, the kallikantzaros would supposedly kill itself – the kallikantzaros would sit at the doorstep all night, counting each hole of the colander, until the sun rose and it was forced to hide.
Another supposed method of protection from kallikantzaroi was to leave the fire burning in the fireplace, all night, so that they could not enter through it. In some areas, people would burn the Yule log for the duration of the twelve days. In other areas, people would throw foul-smelling shoes into the fire, as the stench was believed to repel the kallikantzaroi and thus force them to stay away. Additional ways to keep them away included marking one’s door with a black cross on Christmas Eve and burning incense.
According to legend, any child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of transforming to a kallikantzaros during each Christmas season, starting with adulthood. It was believed that the antidote to prevent this transformation was to bind the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or to singe the child’s toenails. According to another legend, anyone born on a Saturday could see and talk with the kallikantzaroi. What set the kallikantzaroi apart from other goblins or creatures in folklore was that they were said to appear on Earth for only twelve days each year.
Legend has it that animals can speak on Christmas Eve. Don’t listen for them though, the same legend says it’s unlucky to hear them!
Of all the odd customs, traditions, and legends associated with Christmas around the world, none seems odder than the werewolves of Yule.
According to 15th century Swedish traveler, diplomat, writer, and cleric Olaus Magnus, in Prussia, Livonia and Lithuania werewolves had a party on Christmas night, and then issued forth to “rage with wondrous ferocity against human beings… for when a human habitation has been detected by them isolated in the woods, they besiege it with atrocity, striving to break in the doors and in the event of doing so, they devour all the human beings, and every animal which is found within.”
Another Baltic belief of the time was that “at Christmas a boy lame of leg goes round the country summoning the devil’s followers, who are countless, to a general conclave. Whoever remains behind, or goes reluctantly, is scourged by another with an iron whip… The human form vanishes and the whole multitude becomes wolves.”
Sinterklaas and Black Peter
In the Netherlands Sinterklaas, a Dutch Santa, like Saint Nicholas, is old and bearded but he never goes anywhere without his sidekick Black Peter whose job it is to stuff naughty children in his sack and carry them off. He’s dressed in a brightly colored cap and resembles a Moorish page boy. It’s Black Peter’s job to go up and down the sooty chimneys to fill the children’s shoes so that Saint Nicholas won’t soil his costly bishop’s robes.
In the attic of homes in Denmark are elves called Juul Nisse. Children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding for them and are delighted to find the food gone on Christmas morning. As a kind of rent payment, I suppose, they hide presents around the home on Christmas Eve, to be discovered the next morn.
They are elder hearth spirits of elfin origin who live in dark corners, in attics or stables, or under the stairs, to emerge on Christmas Eve while the inhabitants of the house are sleeping, and later to feast on the porridge that the children have left out for them and to hide Christmas packages in unexpected places. In some areas of Sweden, Jultmoten the Gift-Bringer is a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by the Julbocker.
The Wild Rider, Wild Huntsman of Winter
Across Europe, the Wild Hunt appears at various times of the year, but most commonly over the Yule season. This is not surprising as Yule was regarded as the season in which supernatural visitations were most common. In particular, the spirits of the dead were allowed to return.
“When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the trees – a rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.
“But then the barking of dogs fills the air, and the host of wild souls sweeps down, fire flashing from the eyes of the black hounds and the hooves of the black horses”
Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson (Mountain Thunder)
The form of the Wild Hunt, or Raging Host, varied across each of the geographical locations/ in which the tradition was found. But the basic idea was generally the same – a phantasmal leader, accompanied by a horde of hounds and men, hurtled through the night sky, their passing marked by a tumultuous racket of pounding hooves, howling dogs and raging winds.
Fear is alive and well among Czech children on the eve of Saint Nicholas, known to them as Angels and Devils night and the star of Angels and Devils Night is a horned demon named Cert who looks rather like an upright goat but has the face and hands of a man, and who’s foot-long scarlet tongue will prevent you from ever mistaking him. His wrists are linked by iron chains and he carries a birch switch in one hand one and an empty basket on his back. Thanks to Cert, Czech children do not have to wait until Christmas Eve to get what’s coming to them. They might be carried off to Hell as early as December 5!
German and dresses like a Trappist monk. He has been recited before many a German Tannenbaum on Christmas Eve. He wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood, and might even carry a rosary. He is always bearded and soot smudged, and carries a bundle of birch twigs.
He can be seen carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and on occasion wears little bells on his clothes. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces.
According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes. In other versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas. He also can be known to give naughty children a switch (stick) in their shoes for their parents to beat them with, instead of candy, fruit and nuts, in the German tradition.
In related folk traditions more closely associated with certain regions of High-Alpine Europe, particularly the snowy villages south and west of Salzburg in Austria, the Knecht Ruprecht character functions as St. Nicholas’ assistant, rather than as the primary actor in the early December rituals; keeping a watchful eye on the benevolent saint during his journey. Both are, in turn, accompanied in these regions by an assortment of terrifying horned, goat-like creatures known as the “Krampus”, who seek out and terrorize misbehaving children identified by St. Nicholas for punishment.
Bellsnickel is a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringing figure in the folklore of the region of southwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald area of Baden-Württemberg. The figure is also preserved in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.
Bellsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.
In Lower Austria he is sometimes followed by Krampus, covered with bells and dragging chains.
Belsnickel was known in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. Amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, Belsnickel is the character who visits homes prior to Christmas to check up on the behavior of the children. The traditional Belsnickel showed up at houses 1–2 weeks before Christmas and often created fright because he always knew exactly which of the children misbehaved. He would rap on the door or window with his stick and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quick for the treats, they may end up getting struck with Belsnickel’s switch.
Yule Lads of Iceland
The Yuletide-lads, Yule Lads, or Yulemen, are figures from Icelandic folklore who in modern times have become the Icelandic version of Santa Claus. Their number has varied throughout the ages, but currently they are considered to be thirteen. They put rewards or punishments into shoes placed by children in window sills during the last thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. Every night, one Yuletide lad visits each child, leaving gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the child’s behaviour throughout the year.
Stallo resembles the troll of Swedish fairytale, with a huge nose, tiny eyes and knotted black hair. He has magical abilities and actually only half troll, the other half is human.
In the folklore of the Sami, a Stallo is a large human-like creature who likes to eat people and who therefore is usually in some form of hostilities with a human. Stallos are clumsy and stupid, and thus humans often gain the upper hand over them. The Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve contains the remains of ancient, large building foundations, considered by the Sami to be the remains of Stallone dwellings. There is also a huge stone placed on some small pebbles on top near Lake Giengeljaure named stalostenen, which literally means stone Stallo. Legend dictates that a Stallo would have placed a stone here to prove his strength.
A squat, misshapen fairy dressed entirely in gray creeps along a misty landscape on a Shetland Island. They dress in gray to blend in. They only go out during the hours of darkness to visit the Islanders cottages as soon as humans have gone to bed and like to warm themselves by the fire and are mortally offended to find a locked door. To this day islanders leave their house is unlocked so ass not to anger the Trows. Especially fond of music and dancing , the Trows great festivals are Yule and Midsummer, u when they leave the mounds and can be seen performing a lopsided crouching and hopping dance called the henking. Trows kidnap human children and leave changelings in their place. Even now islanders will refer to someone who looks pale or ill as a trowie.
Everyone knows Jack Frost, the winter fairy who scatters ice in his wake making the trees and grass sparkle like diamonds. He paints windowpanes with the elaborate frozen patterns, he nips people’s noses, fingers, and toes in his chilly grip. He dresses entirely in white, with icicles dripping from his clothes. Jack Frost is a creature from English folklore and he is the personification of the spirit of winter weather. One of a large number of fairies who control the weather: wind, storm, rain and lightning.
Thatched houses along a narrow street of a village, on a winter’s night, with the snow falling steadily. It is silent, but then you hear a strange laugh. The prince of the winter fairies, with mischievous delight, he paints an intricate pattern on each cottage window, while all are tucked up in bed.
In Russia Father Frost, soul of winter who’s ice embrace brings death to helpless travelers, he slips from tree to tree snapping his fingers causing them to be covered with Frost and he is a Smith binding water and earth together with heavy chains. A sly and clever liar, he embodies winter. A mighty spirit in a country where when the weather is at its coldest your breath may freeze as it leaves your lips and hit the ground at your feet in a tinkling shower of tiny icicles.
You see, in the stories of the fairies, and in their activities we can trace remnants of the religion of the old Gods.
Have you heard of Wind Knots? There are mischievous weather fairies called Foletti in Italy and these Wind Knots are slender, elfin creatures who love to raise storms so that they can travel on the wind. They can be cruel, rousing destructive storms that ruin the harvest, cause rivers to break their banks and blizzards to strike. They also whirl up the dust in miniature tornadoes. Some of the Foletti look like little boys who wear silk hats and shake castanets. They ride on whirlwinds and get into houses through cracks, where they cause all sorts of rattling noises. While many of them are well intentioned, some are more sinister. Another species is called Grandinili and brings hail, although they can be driven off by the ringing of church bells.
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Yule truly exemplifies the great darkness before the dawn and before the growing light takes hold. A time to purge ourselves of that which is no longer useful, and an opportunity to make room to receive all the gifts of the returning light.