Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

Winter Solstice Spirits in Tradition

Yule was the time of the dead for Germanic/Norse peoples, as Samhain/Halloween was the time of the dead for Celtic peoples.

...While most people in contemporary times fixate on October as the "scary month" marked by Halloween and ghosts, in traditional European cultures, the dark cold period around Christmas is much more connected to hauntings.

Remember "A Christmas Carol" with Scrooge, and the ghosts of Marley and of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-To-Come? This is a clip of the scene with Jacob Marley's ghost from the 1984 version with George C. Scott (yes, they used to tie up the jaws of corpses with cloth so the relaxing mouth would not open in death)...there is much to be learned about greed from this story.

That was written in 1843, yet the tradition of ghosts during Christmas is much older than that. The Germanic peoples celebrated Yuletide, the 12 days of Christmas between Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) and New Year's Day. During this period, the spirits of the family and its ancestors would come to visit the household; other spirits as well. On Mutter's Nacht (Dec. 20), there was a special meal for the Mothers of the Germanic peoples, including Frau Holle aka Frau Holda.

Frau Holda's festival is in the middle of winter, the time when humans retreat indoors from the cold; it may be of significance that the Twelve Days of Christmas were originally the Zwölften ("the Twelve"), which like the same period in the Celtic calendar were an intercalary period during which the dead were thought to roam abroad. Holda seems to personify the weather that transforms the land, for when it snows, it is said that Holda is shaking out her feather pillows; fog is smoke from her fire, and thunder is heard when she reels her flax. Holda traditionally appears in either of two forms: that of a snaggle-toothed, crooked-nosed old woman, or a shining youthful maiden clothed in white. As the maiden in white, her garments resemble the gleaming white of a fresh mantle of snow. (

Both American and English traditional cultures are Anglo-Saxon in their main roots (English is a Germanic language), along with Norse (which is also Germanic) and Celtic, so it should not be surprising that the Germanic roots of Yuletide become apparent in the appearance of ghosts during Christmas time. Yule was the time of the dead for Germanic/Norse peoples, as Samhain/Halloween was the time of the dead for Celtic peoples.

Yule, or Jol, was the name of the midwinter festival of the pagan Norse and Teutonic people of northern Europe. From the 8th century onwards, as the Norwegians settled in Orkney and Shetland, they carried their Yule festival with them. And they were celebrated for centuries. In the Northern Isles, Yule lasted about a month - a period referred to as "the Yules" or "atween the Yules". Using our calendar, this began somewhere around December 20 and ended on January 13. The dates from the surviving sources vary, however. ...
...Being the darkest time of the year, midwinter, and Yule in particular, was also a time when supernatural forces were able to cross to the realm of man, and the spirits of the dead would return to their families.
...Tulya's E'en heralded the start of a period in which the supernatural spirits were let loose - free to continue the age-old struggle between trow and man. So feared were these spirits that it was not considered safe to venture outside after dark.
...Yule's strong association with mischievous creatures such as trows and hogboons, stems from its origin as a feast for the dead. Much like the Celtic Samhain, Yule was a festival for honouring the dead, who were thought to be vital for luck as well as the well being of the livestock and family. Over time, the memories of these powerful ancestral spirits, who were permitted to leave their gravemounds at Yule to return to the realm of the living, degenerated into the creatures we know as trows today.
...In earlier times, the dead were believed to walk the land of the living. Part of the Yule traditions involved leaving food out for these wandering spirits. Harking back to these ancient customs, on Yule day in Orkney an extra place was laid at the family table.
...Another element once common at Yule, but now practically forgotten, was the appearance of the Wild Hunt in the midwinter night sky. Although this spectral host could be heard throughout the year, it was most common at Yule, once again reinforcing the festivals association with the dead and in particular the souls of the dead.

Frau Holle/Holda was also a participant in the Wild Hunt:

In German legend, Holda held her court within the Hörselberg, and from this mountain would issue the Wild Hunt, with her at its head. The faithful Eckhart was said to sit at the base of the mountain warning travellers to return whence they came; he also rode ahead of the Wild Hunt warning people to seek shelter from the coming storm. (

The Wild Hunt was a folk myth prevalent in former times across Northern, Western and Central Europe. The fundamental premise in all instances is the same: a phantasmal group of huntsmen with the accoutrements of hunting, horses, hounds, etc., in mad pursuit across the skies or along the ground, or just above it....
The hunters may be the dead, or the fairies (often in folklore connected with the dead)....The hunter may be an unidentified lost soul, a deity or spirit of either gender, or may be a historical or legendary figure like Dietrich of Berne, the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, Woden (or other reflexes of the same god, such as Alemannic Wuodan in Wuotis Heer of Central Switzerland, Swabia etc.), or Arawn.
It has been variously referred to as the Wild Hunt, Woden's Hunt, the Wilde Jagd or Wilde Heer (Germany), Herlathing (England), Mesnee d'Hellequin (Northern France), Cŵn Annwn (Wales) Cain's Hunt, Ghost Riders (North America), Herod's Hunt, Gabriel's Hounds, Asgardreia ("Asgard ride"), and in Cornwall "the devil's dandy dogs."
Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to presage some catastrophe such as war or plague, or at best the death of the one who witnessed it. Mortals getting in the path of or following the Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead.


Speaking of Ghost Riders...I posted this classic from Vaughn Monroe some time ago.

The Ambivalence of Yuletide and Some Ghost Stories...

Finally, on top of the old pagan ambivalence over Yule as a time of darkness, spirits, and family gathering of the living and the dead, came the newer religion of Christianity, with its significance of this season as the Birth of Christ, with its angels and spirit of hope and wonder that no matter which way you believe, Christmas is full of spiritual power...the intensity of joy and hope, and depths of sorrow and melancholy, in human spirituality!

You can also read some contemporary stories of Christmas Ghosts at these sites:
Tags: asatru, christianity, ghost, goddesses, solstice, spirits, winter

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