December 20, 2016

Do The Witches Ride At Christmas?

I wanted to read something wintry to put me in the holiday spirit, so I picked up a collection of Icelandic folklore: J.M. Bedell's Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends (2016). I thought, "Iceland is cold and snowy, so I'm sure these legends will put me in a Christmas mood."

Although it doesn't always work out that way, this time I was right. Not only are these legends set someplace icy and dark, many of them are explicitly about Christmas. However, unlike the stories we tell about Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus, these Icelandic stories are quite spooky. Apparently really terrible things happen in Iceland during Christmas. Malicious supernatural beings are very active there in late December.

For example, in "The Magicians of the Westmann Islands," a group of magicians who have fled to an offshore island to escape the plague threaten to kill one of their fellow sorcerers by Christmas Eve if he doesn't return to them. The lone sorcerer has fallen in love with the last woman in Iceland (everyone else has died from the plague) and refuses to return to the magicians. They send an assortment of demons to kill him on, but happily his beloved defeats them with help from her dead grandfather. I don't know about you, but that's not the type of story I usually hear at Christmas here in the United States.

One recurring themes in the Icelandic legends is that you absolutely don't want to be home alone on Christmas Eve. You should go to church with your family because bad things happen to those who stay home alone on Christmas Eve. What type of bad things, you ask? Well, perhaps elves will break into the house and kill you, which happens in the title story "Hildur, Queen of the Elves." These are not the nice pretty elves that one finds in a Tolkien novel, that's for sure.

If the elves don't get you, the witches might. In "The Witch Ride", a minister marries a beautiful  young woman. Her only flaw is that every Christmas Eve she disappears and refuses to say where she goes. This goes on for several years, until one Christmas Eve a new farmhand is working alone on the minister's farm when he encounters the minister's wife. She throws a magical bridle over him and rides him like horse to the witches' Sabbath, where she presents the Devil with a bottle of human blood. Merry Christmas?

It's interesting to compare these stories to local New England folklore. The magical witch bridle is something that also appears in New England folklore, but Christmas Eve has no particular connection with witchcraft or evil here. New England's witches are active year round, and their malicious actions are motivated by personal grudges and feuds, not by the calendar.

In New England lore, Christmas might even be a time antithetical to witches. Benjamin Franklin's brother James printed the following in a 1792 edition of his almanac:

This month (December) is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax... Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month has as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.

Shakespeare wrote something similar in Hamlet. Here is Marcellus, one of the guardsmen of Elsinore, talking about ghosts and witches at Christmas:

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 stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

How common was the belief that Christmas was antithetical to witches and ghosts? This article in Early Modern Literary Studies looks at the passage in Hamlet, and finds some evidence that it was a widely held belief, but also finds other evidence for the opposite - that people thought witches were actually very active at Christmas. I haven't found any other New England references to Christmas being antithetical to witches anywhere except the Franklin almanac (quoted in Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas).

I do know that ghost stories were quite popular in England at Christmas-time up until the modern era, but here in New England the ghosts are not tied to a seasonal calendar. Summer, winter, fall or spring: they are active all year round, much like the witches.

The Puritans dispensed with the old seasonal calendar when they came to New England. They acknowledged few of the old holidays, and to them Christmas was just another work day. Perhaps when they trashed the holiday calendar they freed the ghosts and witches to work their mischief on any date, not just December 25th. But I do like the sentiment that at least one night a year might be hallowed and gracious, a night free from evil and danger.

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