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The Dead of Winter

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 02:30:29 pm

I hope you have enjoyed your holidays. Christmas is one of those important days in the calendar which is rife with superstition and thought suitable for divination, but none of which is particularly concerned the dead. There is, however, a subtle but definite association between ghost stories and the Christmas season, mostly in the British Isles. Roud says that story telling at Christmas is dominated by the supernatural. As testimony to this the BBC continues to roll out programmes on radio and television. It seems the feeling that it is appropriate for ghost stories lingers. [Roud 2006]
The concept has made its way into that most ‘Chrismassy’ of songs, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, when Andy Williams sings in the seconds verse that ‘There’ll be scary ghost stories’. The vast majority of Americans seem unaware of the tradition; and if they are, they think it a British phenomenon and rather odd.
M.R. James told his ghost stories to an audience of friends at King’s College, Cambridge every year and there have been others beside who have indulged in Christmas story telling. During the last century Robertson Davies, Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, would tell a ghost story for the college Christmas party.
Tracing the origins of this tradition is difficult, but I am quite sure that those who claim it started with Dickens and A Christmas Carol, or his publication All the Year Round (the Christmas edition was packed full of ghost stories) are mistaken. Whilst ‘Mr Christmas’, as Dickens was sometimes known, did help to resurrect many traditions we enjoy, he wrote the following in his story Christmas Ghosts:
‘I like to come home at Christmas. …There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.’ It suggests that the story telling was already an established feature of winter and he was merely drawing upon it.
Evidence from a century earlier shows us that telling ghost stories was a very popular winter past time:
‘Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit around the fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own fancy.’ Written by Henry Bourne in 1725. [Simpson & Roud 2000].
‘I remember last winter there were several young girls of the neighbourhood sitting around the fire with my landlady’s daughters, and telling stories of spirits and apparitions. I … heard several dreadful stories of ghosts as pale as ashes that had stood at the feet of a bed, or walked across a churchyard by moonlight, with many other old women’s fables of the like nature. As one spirit raised another, I observed that at the end of every story the whole company closed their ranks and crowded about the fire’. Joseph Addison wrote in 1711. [Chambers 2006].
The principal activity here is telling ghost stories, even the printed stories in All the Year Round were read aloud to family and friends. Reading a ghost story is all very well, but it is in the communal ‘enjoyment’ that the tradition lies and lingers still. Roud says that the stories are often about the local area and people, so they include ghostly legends of actual experiences (in the broadest sense) [Roud 2006]. The ghost story is a peculiar beast, it can mean fiction or anecdote or local history, and all are in essence the same.
A direct reference to Christmas can be found associated with Judge Jeffrey. He was so infamous for his part in the Assizes after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 that his ghost was said to frighten old women and children in the West Country. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) in his History of England recollected from his childhood, ‘many tales of terror’ were told over Christmas fires over a century after the rebellion [Owen 2007], again taking the tradition back further than Dickens.
There are legends of apparitions which are set at Christmas. In Kingston, London there is a story of an old couple who wanted to be buried side by side. The husband died 1860 and was buried in All Saints’ churchyard; his wife died a few years later after, a new cemetery was brought into use, and she was buried there. It is said that every year, just before Christmas, the husband’s ghost can be seen walking to the wife’s grave and returning a few days later [Roud 2008]. The Battle of Edgehill is said to be replayed in a ghostly re-enactment in the night sky, the first occasion was witnessed just before Christmas 1642 [Clarke 2010].
In the Middle Ages ghosts were said to be attracted to winter, Christmas and the twelve days to Epiphany in particular. Medieval tales of ghosts are often set at this time: Oderic Vitalis tells us that on the night of January 1st 1091 the curate Walchelin encountered Hellequin’s hunt on his way home, whilst the soul of the mother of Arnaud of Calmelles was seen five days after Christmas. One explanation, from the time, is given in a tale where a dead father returns on Christmas Day and explains that, on that night, the souls relieved by the prayers of the living can rest and visit the living [Schmitt 1998].
A legend that persisted throughout northern Europe into the medieval period and beyond took the form of a phantom hunt. On a stormy winter’s night, especially around Christmas, the Wild Hunt might be seem flying in mad pursuit across the sky, their quarry often said to be the souls of men. To see the Wild Hunt is a bad omen. The root of the myth maybe the god Odin (Norse) or Woden (Teutonic) who rode his eight-legged horse Sleipnir across the sky in his guise as wind-god and gatherer of the dead. Other incarnations of the myth have different leaders, from Gwyn ap Nudd (Lord of the Dead), Herne the Hunter, King Arthur and Charlemagne and also the mythical King Herla, hence the other name variant: Hellequin’s Hunt [Orkneyjar 2012].
Other ghostly associations with the winter solstice from the pagan world are known, and may have influenced the Christian and modern traditions. The Christian feast replaces one or more pagan festivals, giving it symbolic potency at the turning of the year. The birth date of Jesus is not recorded in the gospels; early Christian tradition proposed several dates, usually in spring. The 25th of December first appears in a Roman calendar of Philocalus in AD. 354. Some early sources suggest that Christians liked to join in with the pagan festivities during the Sol Invictus (birthday of the Sun on the 25th) and other festivals such as Saturnalia, so the church fathers resolved to solemnise the Nativity to this date [Hutton 1996]. The giving of gifts, candles and festive salutations, general over indulgence and foolery were part of the pagan celebrations. The date of the 25th was assumed to be the solstice in the Roman calendar, perhaps not helped by the tendency of Julian calendar to drift over time, but also because the solstice is very hard to measure precisely as the sun appears to rise and set in the same position for several days [Hutton 1996].
Amidst the celebrations of Saturnalia, Sol Invictus and Kalends, the Romans held the Larentalia on the 23rd of December, and later on, the Compitalia (dates varied every year and ran up to early January). Both are festivals of the Lares, the latter specifically for Lares of crossroads and neighbourhoods. They are guardian ancestral spirits with specific domains such as household and hearth. Their natures is clearly closer to ghosts rather than deities: the mother of the Lares (Mater Larum) is called Mania and is goddess of the dead and co-ruler of the underworld. She is the mother of ghosts, Lares and Manes and her name is sometimes given to mean ‘bogey’ or ‘evil spirit’. The Larentalia is connected with Acca Larentia; she is probably the same goddess as Mania, (being of Estruscan origin and mother of Lares). Confusingly, she is also connected with Romulus and Remus – the spirit of the murdered Remus becoming one of the first Lares [Wikipedia 2012].
The mid winter festival of Yule was a major celebration for Scandinavian peoples. On Orkney, seven days before Yule was Tulya’s E’en which heralded a period in which the supernatural spirits were let loose and the trows were free to come above ground. So feared were these spirits that it was not considered safe to venture outside after dark [Orkneyjar 2012]. The Teutonic Feast of the Dead may have been a mid winter feast based upon similar lines, though evidence is rather lacking.
Orkney’s hogboon or hog-boy had to be brought offerings of food and drink at Yule. The name is a corruption of the Old Norse haug-bui, or haug-buinn, roughly translated as ‘mound-dweller’. The mounds referred to are ancient burial places and the creature a spirit of the dead ancestor, the Anglo-Saxon’s called such a creature a Barrow Wight [Orkneyjar 2012].Barrow Wight or Barry White?
There are hints of supernatural forces rising at this time from other parts of Europe. In Latvia the mid winter celebration is preceded by Veļu laiks, the ‘season of ghosts’ where a space at the table is reserved for the ghosts who are said to arrive on a sleigh [Wikipedia 2012]. In Greece, folklore says that anyone born on Christmas day is in danger of becoming a vampire [Hill 1970].
The final link between the dead and mid winter comes from a very remote time which can provide no historical sources; there is material evidence which can be interpreted loosely. In the British Isles, during the late Neolithic, large monuments were built which held burials. These are often aligned with astronomical events such as the solstices or the major or minor ‘standstills’ of the moon. These tombs only held a fraction of the actual population; their role was symbolic but there seems to be an association between the sky and the dead [Burl 1983].
Interestingly, the winter solstice is a common alignment: Newgrange in Ireland is famous for its ‘roof box’, an opening above the entrance which, long after the giant tomb was sealed, continued to allow the rays of the rising solstice sun to penetrate. Maes Howe on Orkney has a similar alignment to the setting sun at mid winter, whilst at Stonehenge the setting winter sun passes between the sarsens of the tallest trilithon. The latter is not a tomb in the normal sense, although there are burials within the monument. A recent theory put forward by Mike Parker Pearson links Stonehenge to Durrington Walls, a wood ‘henge’ nearby which produced evidence of winter feasting, the theory suggests that the living celebrated at Durrington whilst Stonehenge was for the dead. It has been said that there is very little evidence beyond these major sites [Hutton 1996], but the probable alignment to the winter sun is known in entire groups of smaller graves such as the wedge-tombs of Ireland and the Clava Cairns near Inverness.
We can say very little about the beliefs of these times, but perhaps we can suggest a link between the dead and winter. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prove any link between that and the subtle remains of the modern tradition.Stonehenge at mid winter
The original inspiration for the ghosts may be winter itself, the psychological effect of environmental factors: the darkest time of the year when plants die back, and animals too may not survive the harsh conditions. If darkness and death are the principal components of winter then it is not so hard to put the supernatural onto this stage. Perhaps winter inspired all the beliefs we have seen through history – and in this way they may indeed be linked. Winter, it seems, is the domain of the supernatural and the dead, especially in its darkest part.

Burl, A., (1983) Prehistoric astronomy and Ritual, Aylesbury
Chambers, P., (2006) The Cock Lane Ghost, Stroud
Clarke, R.,(2010) A Natural History of Ghosts, London
Davies, O., (2007) A Social History of Ghosts Basingstoke
Hill, D., (1970) Return from the Dead London
Hutton, R., (1996)The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Orkneyjar, (2012) see Yule and Hogboon Retrieved from Dec 2012
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Roud, S, (2008) London Lore, London
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998)Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Simpson, J. & Roud S., (2000) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford
Wikipedia, (2012) see Lares, Acca Larentia, Mater Larum, Mania and Ziemassvētki Retrieved from Dec 2012

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