Grab your chestnuts, pour yourself some hot cider, and get comfy because, in this episode, we’re diving into all things spooky solstice! To help get you into the spirit, we keep things light and talk about the creepy folklore of Yuletide before it became the holly jolly holiday we know today.
In this episode
Hello. Thanks for joining us on the dark side. I’m your host Brianna, and this week Dyson is joining us.
We’ve got the fire going, a festive Sugar Cookie Candle lit, and delicious wine in our bellies.
Since it’s almost Christmas, we decided we’d keep it festive and lighter than usual. The research for last week’s episode was a lot so this week it’ll be more laid back.
Dyson, I’m going to tell you all about Christmas and Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
Well sort of. We’re talking about Christmas. The origins, spooky traditions, paranormal happenings, I’m going to touch on a bit of everything.
Dyson, do you know anything about Christmas and where it comes from?
Let’s start with the history:
In Pagan times, December 25th marked Yuletide in northern Europe and Saturnalia in southern Europe, where people celebrated the arrival of the winter solstice. Both celebrations included feasts and gift exchanges, but Yuletide was a bit darker than Saturnalia. Northern Europeans saw the season as an opportunity for the dark forces of the night to create mischief and believed that ghosts and demons were liberated during this time. In the Celtic calendar, December was the month of Samhain, the most haunted time of the year. Ghosts and spirits were said to start work on December 6 and continue through December 20; as the sun’s powers began to regenerate, the atmosphere was supposedly more conductive to spirit activity, resulting in all types of entities and making the season full of supernatural danger until December 25th arrived and neutralized their powers.
Since we’re talking about Christmas, you’re probably wondering, hey, where’s Jesus in all of this?
Well, early Christianity celebrated Easter and the Resurrection on December 25, not Jesus’s birthday, but in typical fashion, around the third or fourth century, the church tried to replace paganism with Christianity. The church made December 25 the birthday of Jesus and began demonizing those that didn’t follow this new belief. To the people originally celebrating the winter solstice, it was about the sun’s regeneration and emergence into their lives again, but Christians made it about the Son, a time of year when Jesus’s “entry into the world” signified a continual rebirth of humanity each year. But, at the end of the day, we’re talking about people who have had this established faith for years, so it was hard for the church to completely rule over their traditions, which is why a few Yuletide and Saturnalia rituals became intertwined with Christmas. So, until the relatively new invention of Halloween in the 18th century, Christmas dominated over every holiday when it comes to creepiness. Speaking of Halloween, trick-or-treating actually comes from a Christmas tradition popular in the Middle Ages. People celebrated the “holy day” by getting drunk and disorderly. The “Lord of Misrule” would lead the rest of the group to rich people’s homes and demand food and drinks. If the rich didn’t offer a treat of some sort, then the unruly group would play a trick on them. Spooky Christmas traditions were prevalent right up and into the 20th century but are really dying out in Western societies today. Some remnants of spooky history remain though, for example in the 1963 hit Christmas song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? Check out these lyrics:
“There’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
Scary ghost stories are in reference to a Victorian Christmas tradition when families would gather around the fire on Christmas Eve, safe in the dark warmth of their home, and tell ghost stories since Christmas is when the veil is thinnest and the door to the other side is wide open.
So, do you want to hear a yuletide ghost story?
On a night in early December of 1878, resident Edward Smith, his wife, and two tenants are in their gorgeous Greek revival house at 136 Clinton Avenue near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when Edward hears his doorbell ring. He opens the door, but no one is there. He goes about his business, and again, the doorbell rings, and again, no one is there. This happens several times that night, but each time with a slight escalation. It’s not just the doorbell ringing now, at the same time the doorbell is rung, the two rear doors of the house are being aggressively rattled and banged on. This raucous was starting to disturb his wife and the tenants, but in a typical no-nonsense fashion, Edward concluded that it was only the wind, and headed for bed. That wasn’t the end of the disturbances though. They continued every night from that day on. Edward couldn’t ignore them anymore, so he decided to sprinkle flour and ash outside the front door… but no footprints ever appeared. Edward called the police who agreed to spend the night, and even though they witnessed the mysterious knocking, doorbell ringing, and rattling, they could not determine the cause. Now the police were also frustrated, so they decided to set a trap the following night, by having numerous officers hide around the perimeter of the house. That night, the bell rings again, but when Captain McLaughlin swung the door open, there was nothing. Suddenly, a brick crashed through the dining room window, despite numerous police officers keeping watch over the path running beside it. Beyond frustrated, a police detective thoroughly investigated, essentially ransacking the house, in hopes of finding some sort of internal mechanism that could be producing the supernatural occurrences, but he found nothing. There was nothing that anyone could find or point to that might explain what was going on at 136 Clinton Avenue.
Now the house was being inundated by onlookers and spiritualists (a paranormal fad of the time), who were begging to be let inside to perform seances and conduct their own investigations. Edward was having none of it and didn’t want anyone in his home, but the spiritualists were not deterred and began conducting “semi-seances” on the sidewalk instead.
Since Edward, his wife, and the tenants weren’t engaging with the nosy Nelly’s outside, locals began to speculate on the source of the haunting and suggested the ghost was probably that of a lawyer who allegedly died by suicide in the house.
But Edward had already decided who the culprit was – Satan himself. But don’t worry, he was able to drive Satan away with a “long and earnest prayer.” The police weren’t accepting that the house was haunted by the devil, but they were willing to accept that they had heard and seen startling occurrences and were absolutely certain that it was beyond all human probability that anything earthly rang the bell, pounded on the doors, or threw the brick through the dining room window. And just like that, on December 20, 1878, exactly 143 years ago, it suddenly stopped after a relentless 3 weeks, and the house was quiet once more.
I’m sure there are a hundred Christmas ghost stories I could have told, but I picked this spooky story because it lines up perfectly with, Samhain, the most haunted time of the year (December 6 – 20).
What’s Christmas without some creepy folklore?
The stories of mountain-dwelling creatures coming into town are directed at children to scare them into good behavior. Like any good folklore, it includes both mischievous pranksters who leave gifts during the night and monsters who eat disobedient children.
The creatures are depicted as a family living together in a cave: The Yule Cat, Gryla the Giantess, and the Yule Lads.
First, we have the Yule Cat, the house pet of Gryla and The Yule Lads. He’s a huge, vicious cat who lurks about the snowy countryside during Christmastime. Farmers would scare their workers into thinking they’d be eaten by the Yule Cat if they didn’t finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who worked hard to get it done would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who slacked off would get nothing and be preyed upon by the Yule Cat.
Next up, the grotesque giantess – Gryla. The oldest poems about Grýla describe her as a parasitic beggar. She walks around begging parents to give her their disobedient children. Her plans can be thwarted by giving her food or chasing her away. Originally, she lived in a small cottage, but in later poems, it’s said she was forced out of town and lives in a remote cave.
Current-day Grýla can detect children who are misbehaving year-round. She comes from the mountains during Christmastime to search nearby towns for her next meal. She leaves her cave, hunts children, carries them home in her giant sack, and devours them. According to legend, there is never a shortage of food for Grýla, and she has an insatiable appetite for a stew made of naughty kids.
Last, and my personal favourite – the Yule Lads. They’re the sons of grotesque Gryla and her third supposedly lazy, slob of a husband Leppaludi. The lads are a group of 13 mischievous pranksters with names that depict how they like to wreak havoc. They arrive one by one over the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, and if you’re good, you’ll receive a small gift in your shoe which is placed on your windowsill, but if you’re a disobedient child, you’ll receive a rotten potato in your shoe.
Ready to hear the name and description of the 13 asshole lads? I’ve ranked them from least to most entertaining:
13. Skyr-Gobbler: Straight up just loves skyr (sour yogurt).
12. Window-Peeper: A little freak who looks through windows in search of things to steal.
11. Door-Slammer: A huge dick that likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.
10. Bowl-Licker: Hides under beds, waiting to steal people’s dishes.
9. Spoon-Licker: Steals and licks wooden spoons.
8. Pot-Scraper: Steals leftovers from pots.
7. Candle-Stealer: Follows children to steal their candles.
6. Gully Gawk: Hides in gullies, waiting to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.
5. Stubby: Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.
4. Meat-Hook: Uses a hook to steal meat.
3. Doorway-Sniffer: Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread.
2. Sheep-Cote Clod: Harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg legs.
1. Sausage-Swiper: Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.
In modern times the Yule Lads are depicted in a more benevolent way, sort of comparable to Santa, and typically portrayed wearing late-medieval Icelandic clothing.
Now, let’s leave Iceland and head over to Eastern Europe.
You know I love me some tinsel… Well, the Legend of the Christmas Spider is an Eastern European folktale which explains the origin of tinsel on Christmas trees. It is most prevalent in Western Ukraine, where small ornaments in the shape of spiders are traditionally a part of Christmas decorations, and they’re usually made of paper and wire.
The story goes: a poor, hardworking widow lived in a small hut with her children. One summer day, a pine cone fell on the dirt floor of their hut and took root. The widow’s children cared for the tree, excited by the idea that they might have a Christmas tree by winter. The tree grew, but when Christmas Eve arrived, they couldn’t afford to decorate it. The children sadly went to bed and fell asleep. Early the next morning, they woke up and saw the tree covered with cobwebs. When they opened the windows, the first rays of sunlight touched the webs and turned them into gold and silver. The widow and her children were overjoyed. From then on, they never lived in poverty again.
The exact origins of this folk tale are unknown, but it is believed to have come from either Germany or Ukraine. In Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, finding a spider or a spider’s web on a Christmas tree is considered good luck. So, the tradition of using tinsel is said to be because of this story and the good luck tinsel will bring you.
It may be based on an older European superstition about spiders bringing good luck and its bad luck to destroy a spider’s web before the spider is safely out of the way.
Since this folklore involved Christmas Trees, fun fact about them: Christmas trees date back to when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. They would use branches of evergreen trees to bring life to their homes during the dull winters as a reminder of the upcoming spring.
There is so much Christmas folklore, I just chose the 2 that I liked most. But here are some honourable mentions:
1. Norwegians believe that evil spirits and witches come out on Christmas Eve, so, people hide all the brooms in the household keep them from flying about or being stolen.
2. Catalan’s Caga Tio, which means “defecating log,” is a tradition from the Catalan region of Spain, where families create a character out of log and sits on the dining room table. The family feeds it nuts, sweets and fruit every day leading up to Christmas Eve. That night, the family takes sticks and beats the log to make it “excrete” its treats – all while singing a traditional Christmas song.
On a semi-true crime podcast, what type pf host would I be if I didn’t mention some “famous” cases that took places around Christmas.
The most well-known:
JonBenét Ramsey’s 1996 Christmas murder caused enormous waves across the world, and to this day, the six-year-old’s murderer has never been identified.
Many people believe JonBenét’s parents took her life. Some blame her older brother. There’s also been accusations of a stalker and local child molesters being responsible.
There’s 2 cases I plan to cover one day, so here’s a preview of them:
Joanna Yeates disappeared a week before Christmas in 2010 and made local news almost immediately, but national interest took hold quickly. On Christmas Day her body was found in the snow, three miles from her home.
Kristy Bamu was only 15 when he was tortured and drowned in a bath by his own family member and their boyfriend on Christmas Day 2010 when the couple finally killed poor Kristy, after a brutal four-days of torture. When his body was found, more than 130 separate injuries were counted.
According to legend, St. Nick dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of a poor man who couldn’t afford a good Christmas for his daughters. On Christmas Eve, the girls had hung their freshly washed stockings to dry by the fire, and the gold ended up dropping into a stocking.
Not actually the busiest day to shop! North America hosts a population of procrastinators, because the most chaotic days of the year are actually the Friday and Saturday before Christmas.
The Christmas wreath first originated as a symbol of Christ. The holly represents the crown of thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion and the red berries stand for the blood he shed.
In America, an estimated 14,700 people visit emergency rooms through November and December each year from holiday-related decorating accidents.
Mistletoe is an ancient symbol of fertility and virility — and the Druids considered it an aphrodisiac.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Dark Adaptation. Be sure to follow us on Instagram, @darkadaptationpodcast, and check out the amazing website we built, darkadaptationpodcast.ca where you can comment on the episodes and buy us a coffee! Thank you, Dyson, for producing our podcast and being a guest on today’s show.
And to everyone else, have a spooky Christmas, and we’ll catch you on the dark side.