It has been a while since my last post, caused partly through the lockdown blues, pressures of the day job and a large stack of books waiting to be read by the fireside. We’ve also been busy with the Tales of Wyrd Scotland podcast, with new episodes added since my last post. We’re very excited about how this new venture is going and hope to have monthly episodes throughout 2021. Please listen – wherever you access free podcasts – and please let us know what you think!
The following entry is taken from our ‘festive’ podcast episode six, which was uploaded in December 2020.
Now, I know that it’s a bit late, having reached mid-February and with signs of spring popping up, but I thought the following was interesting enough to repeat here. So, Merry Christmas!
“A sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins.”
Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale was written in 1611, in the reign of King James VI – and I. Of course, Shakespeare’s works feature some of the best-known literary supernatural elements, from soothsaying hags to Macbeth’s murdered King Duncan appearing at the dinner table like a disliked drunk uncle. Only more gory. And fatal.
Shakepeare may not have invented the winter ghost story, any more than MR James; and Dicken’s Christmas Carol of 1843 was also not unprecedented. Dickens himself reminisced about his own childhood Christmases of ghost stories by the fireside.
These are part of a long-lived collective cultural heritage which knows that Christmas is a time for chilling tales of skeletons and spectres, beasties and bogles. Lost in the pagan past, perhaps, folktales for winter told beside the safety and warmth of the hearth, helped pass the long, dark nights – especially in the north of Europe, in nations like Scotland where winter darkness falls in the mid-afternoon.
Emphasised and enhanced through mass communications of the nineteenth century, from cheap newspapers and serialised stories to mass-produced novels, it is in Victoria’s reign that the idea of a Christmas ghost story really took hold. Resurrected more recently, in part, by the BBC through their televised MR James stories – among others – the idea of a Christmas phantom is part of our modern festive tradition as much as trees, holly, advent calendars and turkey: their original meanings mostly forgotten or overlooked, but still enjoyed. Perhaps, a Warning to the Curious, is at the heart of each retelling of every tale retold.
Or, maybe, this is an echo of old Yule, the darkest festival of the ancient kingdoms of Europe, when the veil between living and dead was stretched very thin indeed and stories and songs were an everyday part of family and village life.
Having said all this, it is actually quite hard to find a report of supposed hauntings taking place at Christmas.
The ghost of one John Leith, Laird of the beautiful old Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire, may be one such spirit. Shot – in cold blood, or possibly in a duel – on Christmas day 1763, he is said to wander around the quiet, picturesque mansion. He once scared the bejingles out of one overnight guest in 1968, apparently appearing at the end of their bed, his bloody head swathed in bandages. His haunting, though, does not appear to be confined to the anniversary of his untimely demise.
Elsewhere, though, the folklore and traditions of some places indicate that spirits were vanquished by Christmas, the holy opposite of Hallowe’en. The wonderfully-named Tristram P Coffin, in his 1973 Book of Christmas Folklore mentions this old tradition and notes a number of traditions associated with Christmas:
- At midnight, bees hum the 100th Psalm and cattle bend their knees, bowing to the newborn Christ child.
- A person born on Christmas day can see the spirits of the dead.
- A windy Christmas day indicates good fortune to come.
- Bell ringing, from the church towers or hand bells, dispel and terrify evil spirits at Christmas.
There are countless more.
In Scotland, however, things were slightly different. Christmas was not a great celebration for the Scots until recent times. Following the Protestant Reformation of 1560, feast days and holy-days were abandoned as relics of Catholicism. And this included Yule, with its pagan overtones. The Parliament of Scotland went so far as abolishing the superstitious ‘Yule vacation’ in the 17th century, “for all time coming”, indicating that some of the people had maintained their forbidden festivities long after 1560.
Hogmanay and New Year became the winter festival in Scotland, when feasts were held, songs sung, tales were told and gifts exchanged. But, for Scots, Hallowe’en remained the time for ghost stories. That’s not to say, though, that tales of hauntings didn’t feature here in the winter months.
It is still very much within living memory, 1958 in fact, that Christmas even became a day off for workers in Scotland and Boxing Day as late as 1978. Now, of course, in the age of TV and mass media, there is little difference between Scotland and England in terms of Christmas. Perhaps, though, we must look further back to the very early days of Scotland’s story, to understand the importance of the bleak midwinter.
December 21 marks the longest night, the Winter Solstice. For our early ancestors, the movement of the sun and moon may have had particular significance. In Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, some 4000 years ago the people living there began to change the landscape, recording the movement of the sun and the passing of time and their ancestors with standing stones, circles and cairns of stone and a henge. Some of these monuments seem to align to the winter and summer solstice – the longest and shortest days. These are often magical places on a grand scale. The effect on the people and their landscape must have been spectacular. What they were used for, in addition to burial places of the dead at some, can only be guessed.
December 25, was, before changes to the calendar, originally the day held to be the winter solstice. The birth of Jesus replaced the pagan festival of old, some three hundred years after Christ. The Roman’s week-long Saturnalia and the feast honouring the rebirth of the Sun, changed to heralding the Son of God. Many of the customs associated with the first: feasting and decorating homes with evergreens, transferred to the new celebration.
And in the houses of the past, candle-lit and festooned with evergreen, folk gathered around the fire. A time for stories…
To hear a little more about this and a gloomy true story from a tragic Scottish Christmas, go listen to our blog. This text is taken from a longer script which we used in episode six of Tales from Wyrd Scotland. We’re now on Twitter, too, so please follow RT / comment. Find us @TalesWyrd.
It’d be great to hear from you.