When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany during the early 1930s, one of the many institutions that felt the change was the holiday of Christmas. Believing that the modern Christmas was only a weak copy of a glorious pre-Christian Aryan holiday, ethnologists were bribed and subverted into creating a false trail "proving" that the holiday of Christmas had originally been German, only to be stolen by inferior peoples later on. By the mid-1930s, many innovations were being introduced under the guise of bringing back the old Aryan customs and eradicating "alien traditions." Esther Gajek writes, "Christmas carols turned up with the familiar tunes, but National Socialist texts; in place of the Christmas chapters from the Gospels, 'German fairy-tales' were offered for reading aloud to convey German mythology; St. Nicholas was replaced by 'Knecht Ruprecht,' who was supposedly a variant of the Germanic god Wotan; the Virgin Mary became the 'prototype of the German mother' and the Christ Child turned up under the name of 'Child of Light'." (Knecht Ruprecht, incidentally, had been a real cultural artifact for quite some time; however his manifestation as Wotan was a Nazi invention.) By the beginning of the Second World War, Christmas in Germany had been thoroughly re-imagined and integrated with the fictional Nazi mythology.
One especially curious Nazi innovation was introduced in 1942. By that time, Germany was suffering heavy losses on all fronts, and the holiday season had not been a festive one. This was something that Josef Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, acknowledged in his Christmas Eve address to the nation; but instead of expressing conventional feelings of grief, he proposed to elevate the occasion somewhat, asking "for Christmas Eve to be entirely dedicated to the memory of the dead. He glorified the fallen and the willingness of their families to make sacrifices" (p 5).
Goebbels's dedication of Christmas Eve to the dead must have been in large part (if not entirely) a political ploy —something to make grieving families feel as if their loved ones' deaths were tied into something greater; that something, of course, being their alleged Aryan roots and the ancient, uncorrupted holiday rituals of their ancestors. But curiously enough, when Goebbels invoked Christmas Eve as a day for honoring the dead, he came closer to reviving a true ancient mythology than did most of the Nazi ethnologists with their terrible concoctions of tortured myth and twisted propaganda. For a brief, propagandistic moment he tapped into traditions and beliefs about Christmas Eve which have only faded in the last few hundred years.
Before this century, Christmas Eve—indeed, the entire Christmas season—had always been a time for ghosts, unnatural creatures, supernatural dangers, and the attendant rowdiness that always seems to spring up around a holiday dedicated to such entities. In fact, throughout the Middle Ages and lasting up until the early twentieth century, the hauntings and spooks of Christmas Eve equaled and in many cases dwarfed anything produced by Halloween, which was until about the eighteenth century a holiday largely unobserved outside certain parts of the British Isles.
This is not something which is commonly emphasized in modern popular culture, which has domesticated the holiday to an extent where it would be almost unrecognizable to our ancestors. The phenomenon of the Christmas ghost or horror story is familiar to us—very few libraries are without at least one seasonal collection along the lines of Murder For Christmas or Christmas Ghosts—and no Christmas issue of a nineteenth-century magazine failed to feature at least one seasonally appropriate supernatural story. But if asked when the first juxtaposition of Christmas Eve and the supernatural occurred, many would probably answer that it began with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. But in fact, Dickens's story is a very late entry in the annals of Christmas ghosts, and in writing it he was drawing heavily, if perhaps not entirely consciously, on a long-established belief in the inherent uncanniness of Christmas Eve.
It may seem like a strange juxtaposition—the celebration of a birthday (divine or not) does not seem to have much in common with the darker forces. The explanation lies in the origin of the Christmas celebration. Christmas, in one form or another, was around long before Christianity itself existed. Known in northern Europe as Yuletide and in southern Europe as Saturnalia, both of these traditions consisted, at the core, of celebrations of the sun's return. In the south (most of the areas that were or would come to be dominated by the Roman Empire), Saturnalia was both a religious tribute to Saturn and a two-week-long party. Golby and Purdue write of this time: "During Saturnalia and the Kalends which inaugurated the new year, buildings were brightly lit and decorated with evergreens, processions crowded the streets and presents were exchanged. The feasting was presided over by a mock ruler or Master of the Revels, and normal customs and social roles were reversed—men dressed in animal skins, or put on women's clothes, while women dressed as men. There was a place in the Roman festival season for children too, and Juvenilia was the special feast of children." The high point of Saturnalia occurred on the 25th of December; this was the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, a significant day in the Mithraic mystery religion.
Yuletide, in the north, was similar in some respects: feasting, wassailing, and openhandedness were the order of the day. But, as Golby and Purdue note, "There was a peculiar north-European preoccupation with the dark forces of the night during Yuletide; not only were northern mid-winter nights long and sometimes frightening outside the Yuletide, but the special season was supposed to liberate ghosts and demons from their normal restrictions."
The advent of Christianity did not at first affect these two feasts; it was only when the new religion began catching hold of more and more of Europe during the third and fourth centuries that they began to change, and then very slowly. Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Resurrection was, and is, considered the primary event of Jesus's life and ministry. As a result, Easter was the important holiday, and that was observed without much feasting and celebration, for they saw these things as earth-bound and self-indulgent. Many of them would have been just as happy with the total abolition of the pagan mid-winter festivals, but many others understandably did not want to give up their celebrations, and so began unofficially transforming December 25th's Unconquered Sun into a celebration of a rather different Son. The Christian church, in a post hoc legitimization, eventually confirmed Christmas as an official holiday during the fourth century, and at least one subsequent Pope—Gregory the Great—pursued the incorporation of previously pagan holidays into Christian traditions with enthusiasm. This compromise between old and new did not please everyone, though. St. Gregory Nazianzen, active in the latter half of the fourth century, complained of people being too willing to feast and dance to excess, and ignoring the event they were supposedly celebrating. He scolded his followers, saying they should behave "after a heavenly and not an earthly manner." Thus unknowingly St. Gregory became the first person on record as complaining that the true spirit of Christmas had been lost in greed and secularization. He would not be the last.
The attempts to Christianize Yule and Saturnalia were not entirely effective. Instead of becoming gradually transformed into wholly Christian holidays, as Gregory the Great had hoped, many of the old traditions continued unabated, particularly in more remote regions. But there was a subtle transformation in many of these traditions; those which had been sinister became subtly more so, and several traditions that had been previously considered innocuous, or at least allowable, took on a darker shade. The reason for this shift is not entirely clear, but at least some of the explanation may lie in the fact that many of the older practices, such as divination, were regarded with suspicion or even outright forbidden in Christianity, whereas there was no such restriction placed on them in earlier times. Therefore, a story of Christmas fortune-telling would be fraught with a sense of the inherent wickedness of trying to look into the future at all, whereas in earlier times there would have been no such pall hanging over the practice or any resulting stories.
These extant pre-Christian traditions can be roughly divided into two groups: stories of supernatural creatures, and stories of prophecy. Everything encompassed in these groups—the trolls, the talking animals, the spells which were supposed to enable one to see into the future—was understood as belonging to the pre-Christian past. An important thing to understand is that just because early Christians did not worship pagan gods does not mean that they did not believe in their existence. They certainly did—but they believed that these gods were demons, who before the birth of Jesus had been able to deceive people into worshipping them (Crippen pg. 32-3). The Christmas season had once belonged very much to pagans, and the perspective of the early Christians was that the old pagan gods (or demons) would not let their time go so easily. They would still attempt to run riot and rule during Yuletide and Saturnalia. But come December 25th, they would be foiled—because Jesus would, in a sense, be reborn, and by Christian thinking, he could not fail to defeat all the dark forces when he re-entered the world. The dawning of Christmas Day itself, by now considered one of the holiest days in the calendar, would send all the dark creatures scuttling out of the way and leaving ordinary humanity alone. (Though as we will see, the dark forces did not always exit in this neat fashion. In Eastern Europe and Greece, they went out with a prolonged struggle which lasted throughout the Twelve Days and finally ended on Epiphany). These traditions, if not endorsed by church hierarchy, were not actively discouraged. As Frank Muir writes, "Superstitions were theoretically frowned upon by the Church as religious beliefs arising from ignorance. However, in the Middle Ages, when so much of nature seemed inexplicable even to the Church, many simple superstitions were permitted as long as they did not conflict with the Church's teachings. There were many superstitions about midnight on Christmas Eve."
Indeed there were. In the weeks leading up to that time, the power of the old creatures and traditions was believed to wax; they were trying to become strong enough to fight the Christian god. But, like the darkness trying to stop the rebirth of the sun, every year their effort failed and they went away. Christmas Eve was the apex of power for these nefarious creatures, and as such the day was both feared for its possible misfortunes, and looked forward to as a once-a-year chance to get a glimpse into the future by fortune-telling.
Undoubtedly one of the most hagridden regions was Scandinavia, whose traditions were handed down straight from the darkest parts of the old Yule holiday. It is probably not a coincidence that Christianity came to Scandinavia quite late as compared to the rest of Europe, and so the old beliefs were much fresher in people's minds. As Jacqueline Simpson writes,
Just as Halloween in British tradition is a night for supernatural incursions, so is Christmas Eve in Scandinavian lore; it was customary for everyone to leave the house to go to a midnight church service, during which time trolls were said to take it over and hold a feast there. In Iceland it was the custom to sweep the house most thoroughly and keep lamps burning in every room and outhouse all the night, and for the mother of the family to go into every room and outhouse, saying: "Let those who wish to come, come; and let those who wish to go, go; and let them do no harm to me or mine."
For the "Christmas Visitors" were wild and often dangerous; they would kill, kidnap, or otherwise harm any rash soul who stayed behind and failed to use one of the standard folk exorcisms to drive them off—the throwing of a steel knife, the display of a Bible. (One nineteenth-century Norwegian manservant supposedly took a refreshingly direct approach by firing a musket at a troll chief and killing him, thus driving away the rest of his crew.)
Not every farm, however, expected visits from trolls or dwarfs. Some spent the daylight hours preparing for visits from the dead—specifically, their ancestors. In many rural areas it was common for a household to lay the table with food for whomever might come, abandon their beds, and then go to sleep all together in some removed place. During the night, the dead were expected to come to eat and drink with each other, and sleep in their old beds. Until Christmas morning, when the Christ child had been born and presumably driven away all the collective evil of the previous year, it was unthinkable for anyone, especially women, who were considered especially weak, to go anywhere alone. Many stories of young girls kidnapped to become fairy wives had the disappearance occurring either on Christmas Eve or during the twelve days following. And although usually the dead came to visit the living, occasionally the living would accidentally visit the dead. Another Norwegian tale, "The Midnight Mass of the Dead," tells of a woman who went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve only to find the church full of long-dead friends and neighbors; she left before the end of the Mass, on being warned that if she stayed until the end she would be killed.
Germany, too, had its Christmas visitors, though these had a broader scope and usually stayed throughout the Twelve Days. Frau Berchta, for example, was a witch of unclear origin (she had many names) who would travel the countryside during Christmas, sometimes giving gifts, but often handing out sharp rebukes to those who were at all presumptuous. One story tells of a servant girl who longed to see what Frau Berchta looked like, and so hid behind some bushes one Christmas Eve night to watch her driving past. When Frau Berchta passed by, she struck the girl blind for spying. (The story has a happy coda, however, wherein a year later Frau Berchta passed by the house where the now much less presumptuous girl was living, and gave her back her sight as a reward for having learned humility.) Frau Berchta and her other incarnations were not as aggressive as the Scandinavian spirits; she stayed outside, and her punishments were reserved for the peeping Toms who dared to open their shutters or slip outside to try and watch her pass. And like her Scandinavian counterparts, she could also give rich gifts to those she thought were worthy—but these gifts she also gave on Christmas Eve, whereas in Scandinavia, that was the last day on which any sort of gift could be expected from an elf.
Frau Berchta's visits were confined to legend; German children do not seem to have ever received gifts that were represented as coming from her. Sometimes, however, they received visits from the Belsnickel—a more common name for the same Knecht Ruprecht who would later be appropriated by the Nazis and raised to a position of honour unto which he was not born. The Belsnickel was a ragged goblin creature with a lantern who would come to children's houses on Christmas Eve and question them to find out how naughty they had been during the year. He also had a stick with which to whip naughty children, and often used it. The Belsnickel was often, but not always, impersonated by a family friend, and he survived a long time for such a nasty personage—he crossed the Atlantic with nineteenth-century German immigrants, and he became a popular subject for the boisterous Christmas Eve rioters and mummers who were the despair of many a respectable American city. Stephen Nissenbaum notes the complaint of a Morgantown, Pennsylvania diarist who wrote in 1842: "Christmas Eve—a few 'belsnickels' or 'kriskinckles' were prowling about this evening frightening the women and children, with their uncouth appearance." Nor were they always content with frightening people—at various junctures Belsnickels and other aggressively merry young people were cited for blocking roads and committing vandalism, and they were in the habit of aggressively begging food door-to-door; a custom that should sound familiar even to a twenty-first century reader. These people were only pale copies of the trolls of legend, who thought nothing of turning owners out of their houses for an entire night, but they managed to alarm and disconcert people quite a bit, even without supernatural powers.
Trolls and Belsnickels were unpleasant enough, but the realm of truly nasty creatures was entered only when one traveled further east of the countries already mentioned. It is difficult to find as much detailed material about Eastern Europe as there is about the west, but it is clear that the entire Christmas season—primarily on Christmas Eve, but continuing throughout the Twelve Days—was considered a time of great power for vampires and werewolves. Vampires were not the creatures of television; though vicious, they were slow and often stupid. The werewolves, however, were neither. The now-familiar rule of never leaving one's house alone applied throughout the season. In Greece, goblins called the kallikantzaroi were said to roam during the Christmas season, also beginning on Christmas Eve. Their prime object was kidnapping or terrorizing anyone they encountered; as in Scandinavia, it was considered very imprudent to go out alone during this time. One familiar-sounding Greek story tells of a girl who was sent out alone by her stepmother during the Twelve Days, her stepmother hoping that she would be caught and taken away by a kallikantzaros. The girl, however, outwitted the creatures by a combination of courtesy and cleverness, and came away with gifts from them. The stepmother, outraged that her stepdaughter had grown so wealthy, sent her own daughter out the next night—but this daughter being spoiled and impatient, she did not fare so well and was taken away by the kallikantzaroi.
Of such stories, Crippen (writing in 1923) sniffs, "It is evident that in all this there is very little but pure heathenism." Not everyone shares his opinion, however. In some parts of Greece, people still keep a weather eye out for kallikantzaroi during the Christmas season—just in case.
Great Britain, birthplace of Halloween, did not lack for ominous Christmas Eve traditions either. A general rule of thumb (with Greece being the great exception to it) is that the further north one goes, the more haunted was the traditional Christmas Eve, and Great Britain followed this pattern neatly—most of its stories belong to Scotland, though there were several southern regions that were rich enough in dark Christmas legends. Supernatural presences made themselves felt in Scotland during the Wild Hunt which was supposed to take place on Christmas Eve. The hunters themselves were given various origins, but two things were certain; they were unnatural (whether fairies, ghosts of the dead, or something else) and to see them was very bad luck and probably meant death.
The further south one went in Britain (and especially when one reached France) legends of "creatures" who were ghostly or unnatural diminished, and their places taken by ordinary animals who underwent what would seem like (and usually was) a milder form of transformation. The story of stable animals being able to talk on Christmas Eve was most common here, though eventually it spread throughout all of Europe, and even today most people have heard of it. The folktales surrounding this particular legend are generally benevolent; the animals speak of Christ's birth and kneel in remembrance of the original stable animals who supposedly knelt at the original crib. However, occasionally a legend comes along that reminds us that even in southern regions, Christmas Eve still retained its old, unpredictable edge. In France, where the main occupation of witches was supposed to be trying to stop people from making their way to Christmas Eve Mass, the cattle-sheds were always locked up because it was thought that on that night, demons could work especial havoc on the supernaturally touched animals and make them useless for work or food.
Further north, predictably, talking animals enjoyed more active participation in bringing about, or at least heralding, misfortune. These animals did not speak so much of Christ's birth as of the bad fortune awaiting their masters in the coming year; for one night of the year, they were prophets. Crippen records a story found in the German Alps about a skeptical servant (so often these stories happen to servants! One wonders who was telling them) who decided to spy on the animals on Christmas Eve to see if they really could talk. Like his compatriot who decided to keep an eye out for the temperamental Frau Berchta, he soon learned that the risk was not worth the reward. "At midnight: 'We shall have hard work to do this day week,' said one horse. 'Yes, the farmer's servant is heavy,' answered the other. 'And the way to the churchyard is long and steep,' said the first. The servant was buried that day week." Even the ox and the ass, the same animals traditionally attendant at Christ's birth, were in their own way purveying misfortune.
This is not atypical of many old Christmas Eve tales, because the power to prophesy—something technically forbidden to Christians but often practiced nonetheless—also reached its height on Christmas Eve. The power to prophesy was supposed to be especially strong because this power, supposed to be peculiar to pre-Christians, was making a last-ditch resistance before being symbolically extinguished by the birth of Christ on Christmas morning. The supposed thinness of the veil between natural and supernatural must have been extremely tempting, perhaps even more so because Christians were not supposed to take advantage of it. There is no way to know how many people actually tried seriously to divine—or manipulate—the future on long-ago Christmas Eves, but there is certainly an abundance of stories about these activities, which suggests that fortune-telling was much on peoples' minds.
By far the most popular of these practices were versions of the dumb-supper, wherein a girl would try to discover who her husband would be by setting a table for two in silence at an auspicious time, and awaiting a vision of the man she would marry. In Scandinavian, German, English and Scottish tales, stories of dumb-suppers are often (in Scandinavia, almost invariably) set on Christmas Eve. One thing many of them have in common is a dark twist to this seemingly benign practice; this may, however, be less a feature of their taking place on Christmas Eve than a feature of their being stories of dumb-suppers. Even in modern fiction, such stories often have sinister twist endings—see Henderson Starke's (Kris Neville's) "Dumb Supper" for one example.
One story from Sweden tells of a maidservant who stayed up late to keep vigil alone in the kitchen, hoping to see the man she would eventually marry. When the master of the house entered the kitchen to get a drink of water, she became so angry that he had broken the magic vigil that she threw a dish at him in fury and then went to bed. When she told her mistress the story the next morning, however, the mistress's reply was simply, "I see how it will be." The mistress died that year, and the master married the maidservant. Good fortune for the maid—but there is an unnerving note nonetheless in the indirect and unwelcome prophecy of the mistress's death.
Clement Miles, writing in the early twentieth century, states that "among the southern Slavs, if a girl wants to know what sort of husband she will get, she covers the table on Christmas Eve, puts on it a white loaf, a plate, and a knife, spoon and fork, and goes to bed. At midnight, the spirit of her future husband will appear and fling the knife at her. If it falls without injuring her, she will get a good husband and be happy, but if she is hurt she will die early." In Poland, diners would pull straws from under the tablecloth: "A green one foretold marriage; a withered one—waiting; a yellow one—spinsterhood; a very short one—an early grave."
Single women were not the only people interested in their fortunes, however; according to Crippen, Christmas Eve in pre-Reformation Scotland (home of the death-foretelling Wild Hunt) usually featured "a cake baked for every person in the house, and if anyone's cake was broken, it was an omen for ill-luck." The unexpected foretelling of death is also present in an English legend about a priest who wished to witness the Christmas Eve processions of spirits, for among those spirits it was said that one could see all the faces of those who would die in the coming year—and among the faces he saw his own. Like the earlier story of the disobedient servant who listened to the animals speaking on Christmas Eve, the story does not make it clear as to whether the death would have happened regardless, or whether it was somehow hastened by the subjects' prying into the supernatural. One thing is clear, though; by foreseeing their deaths, the servant and the priest spent their last days wretched in anticipation—no way to celebrate Christmas.
Few people nowadays are afraid to walk alone on Christmas Eve, and the only visitors anticipated now are ordinary ones—except for Santa Claus, and even he has changed from a footloose, mischievous little man into a benevolent uncle, complete with a cozy domestic establishment at the North Pole. However, lovers of mythology will take consolation in the fact that while outwardly a holiday may be altered almost beyond recognition, it will always have a core which is unchanging. Not many children will abandon their houses in anticipation of troll visitations, but they go to bed convinced that Santa Claus will be able to get into the house no matter how many doors and windows are locked. And although the food left for him is often much less substantial than the old offerings for visiting dead ancestors, in this case it really is the thought that counts.
Christiansen, Reidar. Folktales of Norway. Trans. Pat Shaw Iversen. U of Chicago P, 1964.
Crippen, T. G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. Blackie & Son, 1923.
Davis, Susan G. "Making Night Hideous: Christmas Revelry and Public Order In Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia." American Quarterly 34, 2 (Summer 1982): 185-199.
Gajek, Esther. "Christmas Under The Third Reich." Anthropology Today 6, 4 (August 1990): 3-9.
Golby, J. M., and A. W. Purdue. The Making Of The Modern Christmas. U of Georgia P, 1986.
Miles, Clement. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Dover, 1975. (For selections from the book pertaining to Christmas Eve, go here.)
Muir, Frank. Christmas Custom and Tradition. Taplinger, 1975.
Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle For Christmas. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford UP, 2002.
Simpson, Jacqueline, ed. Scandinavian Folktales. Penguin, 1988.
Verschuren, Ineke, ed. The Christmas Story Book. Floris Books, 1988.