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                        Ghosts of Christmas Past 
                              by Eric Maple
 Every December 25th the normally phlegmatic British let down their hair
 and plunge into an orgy of fun which one would normally associate  with 
 the  people  of more exuberant nations.
     Complete strangers wish one another a Happy Christmas as a parting
 greeting and the public houses are filled with revellers strenuously
 keeping up the spirit of the season of goodwill.
     Few of these light-hearted souls will be aware that the celebration
 of Christmas had its origins in the pagan worship of the Sun or, for
 that matter, that the funny hats, the evergreens and the festive board
 have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,
 but rather with the older gods worshipped by our ancestors in the
 twilight world of pre-Christmas Europe.
     It is strange to consider that the presence of pork on the Christmas
 table and the custom of carrying in the boar's head was once associated
 with the sacrifice of a sacred Boar to the Sun god. At the festival of
 Frey, the dispenser of  rain  and  sunshine  in  the mythology of
 Northern Europe, a boar was a good luck offering for the New Year and
 its head, with an apple in its mouth, was borne into the banqueting-hall
 amid singing and the sound of welcoming  trumpets.  Later in history,
 the boar's head gave way to the goose and the turkey. But where this
 custom survives, it should be seen as one of the many curious ghosts of
 Christmas past.
     Consider the evergreens and their modern counterparts: the paper-
 -chains which festoon the house  at  Christmastide.  The evergreen was
 once the symbol of immortality, declared sacred to the Teutonic nations,
 and given pride of place in celebrations associated with the Winter Sol-
 stice from which our modern Christmas is descended.
     As a symbol, the evergreen means constancy and eternity, and even in
 the Orient we find that it expresses a similar idea, for the Japanese
 believe the evergreen needle brings longevity and prosperity. The holly,
 especially, brings happiness and friendship, but if kept in the house
 after New Year's Day misfortune is ordained.   Generally speaking,
 however, all evergreens must be taken down by Twelfth Night-- then all
 will be well.
     When we look around the room that has been decked with the regalia
 of the Christmas party our eyes inevitably settle on one of the focal
 points, the mistletoe.  In pagan times, it was customary to celebrate
 the death of the old year and the birth of the new by kissing under the
 mistletoe's berries.  Old enemies were then expected to forget their
 quarrels and take a ceremonial kiss, promising to live in amity from
 that time forth.
     It is not generally known that the mistletoe became a powerful
 life symbol because it grew' berries in winter when other plant life
 seemed dead. Once known as All Heal,  it was employed as an ingredient
 in many folk medicines.  It was the golden bough of the ancient Druids
 and, because of its  association  with  sacrificial ceremonies, was
 outlawed by the Church as an emblem of paganism.
     Oddly enough, the sole exception was York Minster where a sprig  of 
 mistletoe was  placed on the altar each Christmas. A general pardon for
 crimes remained in force throughout that city for as long as it remained
     The  central  symbol  of  the Christmas scene, the evergreen
 Christmas tree, had its origins in Germany where St Boniface cut
 down a sacred oak which was worshipped by the pagans and, to placate
 them, offered a fir tree in  its  place.  However, later research
 indicates that traces of a similar custom existed in other lands,
 notably Greece and Rome, where trees were decorated at the time of year
 later dedicated to Christmas. There is also reason for believing that
 the same or a similar custom  was  known  in ancient Egypt.
     The mystical heritage of Christmas is very strongly represented in
 one of the principal characters in the celebrations, Santa Claus, the
 embodiment of the spirit of goodwill. The name Santa Claus is in fact a
 corruption of the fifth century St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who was
 honoured with special ceremonies by the Greeks and Romans on December
 6th, later changed to December 25th.
     This distinctly un- ghostlike genus of happiness was a 'reincar-
 nation' of Odin, God of the Scandinavians who, on the conversion of
 Northern Europe to Christianity, was transformed first into St Nicholas
 and later into the modern Father Christmas.
     Christmas has no equal as a religious feast; it is the most
 important as well as the most enjoyable festival of the entire year. Yet
 even the good things spread out on the table have their religious
 aspects, particularly the mince-pies which were originally fashioned in
 the shape of small cribs in honour of the Christ Child.
     Among the superstitions associated with mince-pies is one which
 demands that the Christmas reveller makes a pilgrimage among his  
 neighbours   and   friends demanding the gift of a mince-pie wherever he
 calls. For each one eaten, so goes the tradition, the visitor may expect
 a month's good health for the ensuing year.
     Originally, mince-pies contained a far more potent filling than
 mere mincemeat. They were stuffed with flesh of game hashed together
 with pickled mushrooms.  One should always make a wish when taking the
 first bite of the first mince-pie of the season.
     The Christmas pudding qualifies as a magical ritual in its own
 own right, for it is surrounded by the  most  curious  ceremonies.
 Prior to the 18th century the pudding was known as Plum Porage and was
 a concoction of plums, spices, wines, meat broth and breadcrumbs. It was
 eaten in a semi-liquid state and only later in its history were the
 plums replaced by raisins.
     To preserve good luck, the pudding should be stirred deasil or
 clockwise: a ceremony known to most psychic cooks. Lucky charms and
 silver coins have to be incorporated in the mix to bring good fortune to
 the eater, usually a silver coin, a silver thimble and a ring, with the
 following meanings:  the silver coin brings good luck; the ring promises
 a happy marriage to the girl who finds it; while the thimble hints that
 she is likely to remain a spinster.
     The most interesting feature of Christmas pudding lore is the custom
 of setting fire to the brandy, so that the pudding can be brought to the
 table all aflame. This is a curious reminder that in ancient times
 special fires were lit  at the midwinter  feast  to honour the Sun god.
     One ghost which  has  been finally exorcised from the Christmas
 scene is the Dumb Cake which in times past was prepared by single girls
 for consumption on Christmas Eve. Its ingredients were salt, wheatmeal
 and barley, and it had to be baked in complete silence.  It was
 carefully placed in the oven and the front door opened  precisely  at 
 midnight.  The spectre of the girl's future husband was expected to
 enter the house at that time and march into the kitchen to turn the
 cake.  In some areas the cook would prick her initials on the cake and
 in due course her future husband would  materialise  to  add  his
 initials to hers. Alas, this custom seems to have vanished for ever.
     The modern Christmas cake is still with us. It is supposed to have
 originated with a cake presented by the people of ancient Rome to their
 senators. A custom among Scots demanded that the cook should rise in the
 early hours of Christmas Day and bake sowen  (oatmeal)  cakes.  These
 were distributed to the family at Hogmanay. If a cake happened to
 break, bad luck followed, but if it remained unbroken the eater
 could look forward to a Happy New Year.
     Although there is no clear-cut tradition that Christmas Day was ever
 associated with the giving of presents prior to modern times, it is
 known that a similar custom was observed by the Romans on New Year's
 Day. The Roman gift would have been a goodwill symbol only, consisting
 of branches of evergreen, but in time the presents became more lavish.
     Many of the enjoyable rituals which involve our lives at Christmas
 time are but the shadow survivals or 'ghosts' of very ancient customs
 performed around the close of the old year and the birth of the new, and
 the feast of fire celebrated at the time of the Winter Solstice to
 honour the Sun god.
     But the season of fire and light, as it is sometimes called, would
 be nothing without the Yule-log,for Christmas is also known as Yule,
 which was the Scandinavian feast of the Winter Solstice.
     In the days of old, an oak log was cut down on Yule Eve, and borne
 with much ceremony into the house and rolled onto the huge fire that was
 to burn during the days of the Nativity, especially Christmas Day.
 Little did the pious Christians of the medieval world realise that
 originally it had been burned in honour of the god Thor and represented
 the sacred element: fire.
     No doubt it was due to this association with the old gods that the 
 hearth  fire  at  Christmas assumed the important role which it retained
 until the advent of artificial forms of heating. The hearth was the
 centre for the telling of Christmas ghost stories and for those curious
 superstitions relating to the mysteries of fire.
     Throughout Northern Europe there were traditions that the family
 ghosts returned at Christmas time to share the festival with their
 living relatives. In Brittany there was the custom of leaving food for
 the ghosts while the family attended church. In Scandinavia, stories
 were told of trolls (who  were ogres  not  ghosts) returning at this
 season to rattle the window-panes. In the British Isles  there  were 
 contradictory beliefs, some people thought, erroneously, that no ghost
 had power to haunt during the Christmas season.
     It is when the light is extinguished save for the glowing embers
 that the ghost-story teller comes into his own and, surrounded by the
 family, describes some ancient haunting which is calculated to chill the
 blood of his listeners.  Traditional  hauntings include the posthumous
 adventures of Anne Boleyn who haunts her old homes during the Christmas
 season. Her ghost has been reported at Rochford Hall in Essex and Hever
 Castle in Kent, wandering headless during the 12 days of the festival.
     There are a number of cheerless proverbs which surface at the season
 of goodwill, as when someone  observes, 'A green Christmas brings a full
 church-yard,' possibly to counteract any excessive exuberance among the
     However, the children turn to less ghostly rituals, including
 divination to discover the future.  Each of them cuts an apple and
 counts the pips. The one whose apple has the most pips can look forward
 to the most happiness in the 12 months ahead.
     And so young and old join in quiet communion with Christmas-
 es  past,  present  and  future, united in quaint ceremonies whose
 origins are lost in history - a celebration presided over by ancestral
 spirits who have been lured into the home from outer darkness by the
 glow of the pagan fire.

Next: A Yule Mythos