In Hamlet, Marcellus, referring to the royal ghost, says:
“It faded on the crowing of the cock. Some say that ever gainst that season comes wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, this bird of dawning singeth all night long, and then, they say, no spirit dare walk abroad, The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, so hallowed and so gracious is that time.”
However, despite Shakespeare’s optimism about the weakness of demonic power during Christmas, folk in most European countries have thought the season to be one of increased menace from grim supernatural forces. It was widely believed that, as the hour for celebrating Christ’s birth drew closer, the forces of darkness raged ever more furiously against humanity.
The sixteenth-century historian Olaus Magnus said that in Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania, werewolves gathered on Christmas night and then spread out 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.” At a certain castle, the monsters held werewolf games and those too fat to leap over a wall were eaten by their fitter comrades.
It was also a medieval belief in Latvia and Estonia 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.” In Poland and northeastern Europe, it was believed that a child born on Christmas had a greater chance of becoming a werewolf and ritual steps were taken to prevent Christmas babies from this state.
On a milder note, in Louisiana it is said that Père Noel travels through the swamps and bayous on Christmas Eve in a flat-bottomed pirogue pulled by alligators and accompanied by a red-nosed were-wolf.
During pre-modern times, there was often confusion between good female spirits and bad, and a saint in one area might be regarded as a witch in another. Lucia, for example, is celebrated as a saint in Sicily and Sweden but in Central Europe she is the frightening Lutzelfrau who disembowels bad children and punishes lazy girls. Frau Berchta or Perchta can be a stealer of children in one part of Germany or the bringer of Christmas presents in another. In some places she leads the Wild Host, a gang of cursed souls of the unbaptized and murdered. In others, she leaves surprising gifts for those who help her. On Twelfth Night, in some areas, fish, and rolls have to be eaten. If someone chooses to ignore this menu, Perchta will come and cut open his body, fill him with chaff and sew him up again with a ploughshare and an iron chain. It was best to stay out of the way of such figures and keep them from gaining admission to the house.
In order to safeguard humans and livestock against these evil spirits certain Christmas-time precautions were taken. The ringing of church bells had power to drive them away as did holy water sprinkled in corners of houses and barns; incense has a similar effect. Logs were left burning in fireplaces at night—sprinkling salt on the fire also helped as did choosing dry spruce which always provided an abundance of sparks. In much of Central Europe it was believed that loud noises will deter the forces of darkness and a number of ceremonies revolve around the firing of guns, the cracking of whips, the ringing of cow-bells and noisy processions of grotesquely costumed figures to drive demons away. In Austria, the Twelve Nights are known as the “Rauhnächte” or “rough nights;” this is a time for driving evil spirits away by incense, loud noises or using a broom. Figures clad as witches and devils will walk the streets with brooms, literally sweeping away unwanted spirits. In England, it was a time to polish the silverware so that spirits could see their faces and thus be deterred from stealing.
In fairness, it must be noted that sometimes devils such as Krampus, Klaubauf, or Cert accompany the St Nicholas or the Christ Child on their Christmas gift-giving rounds and serve to frighten bad children into good behaviour. It should also be said that there are good witches at Christmas as well. In Italy the Befana, who is depicted as an old crone flying about on her broom, brings presents to children on Epiphany Eve. Her equivalent in Russia is the Baboushka. In the Franche-Comté the Gift-Bringer is also depicted as witch: goose-footed Tante Arie who comes down from the hills with her presents on Christmas Eve.
Featured image credit: “Spooky Moon” by Ray Bodden. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.