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They Came upon a Midnight: Dark Myths and Legends of the European Yuletide

by Dave Aftandilian

Raging winds scream past the shuttered panes, and the fire shudders behind the grate. Families huddle together for comfort, and mark the sign of the cross upon their doors to ward off the evil that rides the demon gale. In the distance the baying of hounds can be heard; the Wild Hunt has begun. Witches, trolls, and goblins are abroad, and the spirits of the damned howl in rage. Only a fool would leave the hearth on a night such as this, and a wise man would think twice about answering a rapping at the door.

As we stroll down brightly lit and gaily decorated streets, sharing cheerful holiday greetings with total strangers, it is hard to believe that once this time of year held not only the awe and magic with which believers in the Christian mysteries are familiar, but also real fear. Long before the time of Christianity, and even before the coming of the Romans (who brought with them the religious festival of the Saturnalia in mid-December and the New Year's debauchery of the Kalends), early Europeans held festival at the Yuletide, seeking the renewal of the sun's life-giving warmth for another year. But they did not stray from the safety of their homes from sunset to dawn, for they knew that all manner of supernatural creatures ran riot in the night.

Even today we feel something of this uneasiness on midwinter nights. We hasten from one island of warmth and light to the next, never thinking why we dare not tarry in the open. Although Christmas Eve holds the greatest charge of fear and danger in many cultures, all of the Twelve Nights between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6 (Epiphany) have more than their share of odd doings.

Many peoples believed that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals gained the power of speech. But hearing what they had to say could prove disastrous. When a German farm servant hid in the stable to find out whether the beasts could speak, and perhaps in the hopes of learning the future, he heard one horse saying to another "we shall have hard work to do this week." "Yes," answered the other, "for the farmer's servant is heavy, and the way to the churchyard is long and steep." The servant died exactly one week later.

Luckily, there were much less dangerous ways to find out what the next year held in store. Southern Slavs believed that if a young girl wanted to find out what kind of husband she'd get, she should cover a table, and place upon it a white loaf, plate, knife, spoon, and fork, and then go to bed. At midnight the spirit of her future husband would appear and throw the knife at her. If she took no injury, then the marriage would be a happy one, but if she were hurt by the knife, then she would die young. In Russia each young person at a party would drop a ring or other personal possession into a bowl, which was then covered with a cloth. Traditional carols were sung, and at the end of each song one of the rings was drawn at random. The owner would then read an omen from the words of the song just sung.

Just as an omen could bode well or ill, so could the coming of the mysterious German Frau, who was known by many different names (Holle, Perchta, Gode, Frick). She haunted the villagers by night in her carriage, often with a host of the souls of children following close behind. Although she punished lazy spinsters by soiling their unspun flax, and cut open the stomachs of naughty children, she also rewarded those who did her service. A man who cut a new pole for her carriage found the waste chips turned to gold, and another who showed kindness to one of the Frau's children received her promise that his children would never come to want.

Some of the other beings that stalk the Twelve Nights have no good side at all. Greeks live in terror of the nights between Christmas and Epiphany, for they are the domain of the terrible Kallikantzaroi, half-animal, half-human monsters that exist only to ravage the countryside, rending all they catch and ruining any household that has not prepared for their coming by marking doors and windows with the sign of the cross, and leaving offerings of food or other items outside. Some scholars connect these monsters with the revels of satyrs and maenads during the winter festival of Dionysos, but others point out that in southern Greece they are known as Lycanthropoi--werewolves. Folk-tales in Livonia and Poland support this latter theory, for they speak of the increased activity of werewolves at this season; in parts of Germany it is believed that anyone unlucky enough to be born during the Twelve Nights is cursed to become a werewolf.

But these ancient fears of supernatural visitations during the Twelve Nights need concern us no longer. In this modern day there is no place for such pagan superstitions. Our strong electric lights banish all darkness, even the kindly shadows. And yet--is the winter night not still very dark, and frigid, and inhospitable to men? Are we not more than happy to stay close to the warmth of the hearth and the companionship of our loved ones? Still, that deep growl in the distance must be nothing more than a passing freight train, bound from one island of light to another. It must be that, and nothing more.

"It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide...." --H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"