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Christmas Eve is for Ghost Stories

By Violet Wisdom

Before our modern-day Christmas Eve traditions of putting cookies out for Santa, hanging stockings and binge watching A Christmas Story, this beloved evening was spent telling ghost stories.

To understand why telling ghost stories or winter tales on Christmas Eve became so popular, let’s begin by taking a little trip back in time to the late Middle Ages. Imagine you are living in Northern Europe where the average daily temperature is in the 30’s in December and there is less than ten hours of daylight by the 21st. The nights are cold, dark and long. You spend your evening as close to a fire as possible to keep warm, and only have a few candles for light. Your available food is whatever you were able to store by summer’s end and whatever a hunt might bring (if you’re allowed- most of Europe is in a state of serfdom controlled by monarchies). This is a terrifying time! Telling dark and scary stories was and still is a way to express fears while being in control of them.

“Now I remember those old women's words who would tell me winter’s tales and speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.”

Barabas, The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare 1590

Many experts point out that pre-Christian celebrations, ie: Winter Solstice festivities, carried over into the lives of Christians for many years. During these years, people could be found participating in both.

A few fun facts about the origins of December celebrations most of which share celebrating the end of the waning of daylight:

Saturnalia- Roman holiday; a nearly weeklong celebration literally celebrating the god Saturn. The Romans really whooped it up during these festivities hoping Saturn, the god of agriculture would start working right away as the hours of the day grew towards the growing season. Gift Giving, singing and feasting during Christmas are traditions from Saturnalia still embraced today.

Samhain - Celtic tradition - the veil between the living and the dead is thinned allowing the dead to visit the living. Celebrated on November 1st of each year which is also celebrated by Catholics worldwide as All Saints Day, and by the people of Mexico and parts of Latin America as The Day of the Dead. This is not coincidentally the same time of year that most of the northern hemisphere begins to dive into winter.

Yule- A Germanic pre-Christian celebration that appears to have been celebrated similarly to Samhain inasmuch as celebrating and connecting to the dead. The origins of Yule are actually believed to have originated in Scandinavia and spread throughout Europe from there. Vikings brought Yule traditions into northern Scotland, particularly Orkney and Shetland. It was believed that the spirits of ancestors were able to rise from the grave during Yule.

Indigenous people of the Americas also celebrated the solstice with rituals and games. The Cahokia built a circular structure out of wooden posts referred to as Woodhenge, much like Stonehenge in design and astrological purpose. Other solstice celebrations are found in nearly every corner of the northern hemisphere.

Now for Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever seen the movie, "The Man Who Invented Christmas," you’ll understand why mentioning him is even more relevant than just the book "A Christmas Carol." The movie takes you through the mind of the great author as the characters of the book reveal themselves to him. Though impossible to verify, the movie gives credit to his newly hired servant Tara for introducing an old Irish belief that ghosts visit on Christmas Eve. As for inventing Christmas, he doesn’t quite get credit for that. The holiday originates in A.D. 336, however much of England during Dickens’ time treated it like any other workday. The timeless Christmas classic of 1843 revolutionized a holiday that had nearly lost its place amongst popular culture. Christmas ghost stories, although not nearly as popular in literature, continued to be written by many well-known authors into the 20th Century. Many of these stories were made into BBC’s, "A Ghost Story for Christmas" series.

Maybe there really is a consistent thinning of that veil between here and the hereafter during the winter months. That is exactly what nature is experiencing. Your favorite rose, the magnificent oak in the park, the raspberry bush at the edge of the forest, all of them look brown and without leaves. And yet, they are all very much alive despite their appearance. Below the snow and the blustery winds, their roots are safely insulated and protected.

Maybe our ability to connect with those who have moved on from earthly living happens because we are joyous this time of year. We are thinking about them, and we’ve slowed down enough from our busy lives to notice their presence.

In the summer of 1997, my thirteen-year-old brother came to spend the summer with my husband and I and our two young children. What was normally a migraine for him turned out to be meningitis and he passed away before going back home to my parents. I can’t begin to tell you the level of agonizing pain we all experienced. I dreaded the holidays not knowing how we would be able to celebrate anything and how we could still provide a happy Christmas for our children.

Before he had passed, my mother got train tickets for the two of them to come out to our house for Christmas. My brother loved the mountains and always wanted to see them in the wintertime. After several months, my mother decided to come out. She felt that he would have wanted her to.

Only a few days before Christmas, we picked mom up from the train station and went to our shop in town to show it to her. My brother had spent much of the summer working with my husband and had his own company hat, tools and coffee cup. I made a sort of shrine out of the items and placed it above my desk.

When we walked into the office, I noticed that the cup, tools and hat were in different places than I had put them. I didn’t say anything and convinced myself that I must have forgotten what order they were in. The next day they were again in different places. Every single day I would come to the shop and find them rearranged. No one had touched them. By Christmas Eve there was a feeling of absolute happiness, a feeling that my brother was there with us. We not only enjoyed Christmas that year, looking back on it, it was one of the most wonderful Christmases we ever had.

The day after mom left to go back home, the tools, cup and hat remained in the same exact place thereafter.

Whatever your story is, come this Christmas Eve, carve out a little time to turn off the television, light a few candles and gather around to tell it. Heck, it’s a tradition older than the holiday itself!

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