We’ve made it to December. Whether you love or loathe the festive spirit, Christmas will be unavoidable this month.
But as we get caught up in pie-making, last-minute Christmas shopping, and listening to ten songs on loop, we forget how dark and sinister December is. The trees are bare; the weather brings frost, snow, gales, and biting cold; and night comes in the afternoon. The zenith of this is the Winter Solstice, the day with the longest hours of darkness. And to generations of storytellers, the Winter darkness was home to all manner of spirits and supernatural beings.
To the Vikings, the Winter Solstice was the time of the Wild Hunt. This was when Odin rode across the sky, accompanied by a convey of the souls of the dead, gods, and elves. They called this time Yol– the source of our concept of Yuletide, with the Twelve Days of Christmas corresponding to the days of Yol. Moreover, the image of a mystical bearded figure traversing the Winter night, accompanied by elves, was likely an early inspiration for Father Christmas.
Centuries later, King Arthur’s court was menaced by the Green Knight, a figure whose clothes, skin, and horse were all green. Barging in on Camelot’s Christmas celebrations, he challenges the Round Table to a duel. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is the only one to volunteer, decapitating the Green Knight. The knight, unphased and very much conscious without his head, sees in Gawain a great amount of honesty and chivalry. He sets the young knight on a quest, to test whether he truly has these qualities. It culminates with Gawain allowing the Green Knight to swing an axe at his neck, yet his neck only receives a small cut. Through this, his chivalry is proven. This man in green, judging the good qualities in people, served as another inspiration for Father Christmas, who was commonly depicted wearing green until Coca-Cola dressed him in red.
Not all spirits were benevolent. The tradition of bringing mistletoe into the house was originally a method of keeping evil spirits away. Bringing in evergreens was treated with caution, as forest spirits lived in them. It was recommended that the household got rid of the tree by the twelfth day of Christmas, lest they became vengeful and wreaked havoc.
Some of these were powerful enough to influence the seasons themselves. Celtic folklore portrayed Winter as ruled by Holly King. Together with the Oak King, they were said to be dual aspects of a woodland god. During the Summer Solstice, the Holly King slew his counterpart, and brought Winter to the land. The line “of all the trees in the wood/ the holly bears the crown”, in The Holly and the Ivy, may be a referenced to this legend.
For centuries, the ghost story was as much of a Christmas tradition as mince pies or carol singing. A Winter’s Tale has Mamilius remark that “a sad tale’s best for Winter. I have one/of sprites and goblins”. Coleridge’s Christabel describes a visitation in the depths of Winter, when “the night is chill; the forest bare”. Even Frankenstein begins its narrative in December. Then of course there is A Christmas Carol, the ghost story to which Christmas owes much of its modern-day popularity.
Christmas has long been a time of magic and superstition, when sinister and supernatural forces roamed the land. Which makes us ask: why did people tell these stories over generations? Why, when the year was at its most unforgiving, did they add to it by inventing phantoms?
Perhaps it was a way of grounding those fears. After all, many of the things that people fear about this time of year are things beyond our control – snow, gales, and the forests losing their greenery. Sometimes, such as with the cold, those fears are barely even tangible. Personifying the season through hunting gods, tree monarchs, and vengeful spirits, turns it into something that can be understood. Understanding something such as Winter doesn’t make it less inevitable; but it does help us engage with it and create ways to withstand it. In Britain, wassailing helped people not just endure Winter; it allowed them to revel in it. People went from orchard to orchard, blessing each one with singing, dancing, and pageantry. Through this process, bad spirits were banished, and the wassailers were rewarded with drinks of cider and mulled wine.
And even if something is inevitable, that doesn’t mean it will last forever. The Vikings celebrated Yol because they recognised the days become longer after the Winter Solstice. They burnt logs to celebrate the return of the Sun, creating our modern tradition of Yule logs. The Oak King was said to rise from his grave during the Solstice and slay the Holly King, ushering in Spring.
When the days are coldest and the nights are longest, we remind ourselves of brighter parts of our life. Through this, we can endure harsh times, and make it to better ones.
The blog will be taking a break as we celebrate NAT’s 100th birthday next year and work on exciting new developments in 2023.
Merry Christmas everyone.