THE LEGENDS OF CHRISTMAS EVE
by Bob Brooke
All the best to you and yours this holiday season.
No night in all the year is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve–or so the legends say.
One European superstition says that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the power of speech. But no one can hear the beasts talk with impunity. Once upon a time there was a woman in Brittany who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, "It’s quite time we lost our mistress; she’s a regular miser. Tonight burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they’ll break her head."
"Twill be a good deed," the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbor's house. As she went out, the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help, they broke her head."
Another legend says that at midnight all cattle rise in their stalls or kneel and adore the new-born King. This idea is widespread in England and Europe. A similar belief about bees was held in the north of England where people believed they assembled on Christmas Eve to hum a Christmas hymn.
It’s a widespread idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine. Russian people believe that Christ will reveal all sorts of buried treasures on the evenings between Christmas and the Epiphany, and that He opens the heavens on the eves of these festivals when the waters of springs and rivers turn into wine.
Another instance or the supernatural character of Christmas Eve can be found in a story about a Breton blacksmith who went on working after the sacred bell had rung at the Midnight Mass. To him came a tall, stooping man with a scythe, who begged him to put in a nail. He did so, and the visitor bade him send for a priest, for this work would be his last. The figure disappeared, the blacksmith felt his limbs fail him, and at dawn he died, for he had mended the scythe of the Grim Reaper.
In the Scandinavian countries simple folk have a vivid sense of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. On Yule night no one should go out, for he or she may meet uncanny beings of all kinds. The Swedes believe the Trolls celebrate Christmas Eve with dancing and revelry. "On the heaths witches and little Trolls ride, one on a wolf, another on a broom or a shovel, to their assemblies, where they dance under their stones .... In the mount are then to be heard mirth and music, dancing and drinking. On Christmas morn, during the time between cock-crowing and daybreak, it is highly dangerous to be abroad."
Christmas Eve is also in Scandinavian folk-belief the time when the dead revisit their old homes, as on All Souls' Eve in Roman Catholic lands. The living prepare for their coming with mingled dread and desire to make them welcome. When the Christmas Eve festivities are over, and everyone has gone to rest, the parlor is left tidy and adorned, with a great fire burning, candles lighted, the table covered with a festive cloth and plentifully spread with food, and a jug of Yule ale ready. Sometimes before going to bed people wipe the chairs with a clean white towel. In the morning they’re wiped again, and, if earth is found, some kinsman, fresh from the grave, has sat there. Consideration for the dead even leads people to prepare a warm bath in the belief that, like living folks, the kinsmen will want a wash before their festive meal.
In one part of Norway it used to be believed that on Christmas Eve, at rare intervals, the old Norse gods made war on Christians, coming down from the mountains with great blasts of wind and wild shouts, and carrying off any human being who might be about. In one place the memory of such a visitation was preserved in the nineteenth century. The people were preparing for their festivities, when suddenly from the mountains came the warning sounds.
Among the southern Slavs, if a girl wants to know what sort of husband she will get, she covers the table on Christmas Eve, adorning it with a white loaf, a plate, a knife, spoon, and fork, and goes to bed. At midnight the spirit of her future husband will appear and fling the knife at her. If it falls without injuring her she will get a good husband and be happy, but if she’s hurt, she’ll die early. There’s a similar mode of divination for a young fellow. On Christmas Eve, when everybody else has gone to church, he must, naked and in darkness, sift ashes through a sieve. His future bride will then appear, pull him thrice by the nose, and go away.