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THE SPIRITS AND GHOSTS OF YULE
© Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Synopsis: The Winter Solstice has long been associated with ghosts and sprits in Pagan as well as Christian Traditions. “Christmas” has its ghosts, as does the Yule; when there are spirits behind every door and in every closet as well as dancing in the flames of candles and hearth-fires. What are these spirits and who are these ghosts, and why are mortals haunted in the tides of Winter’s Solstice? In this article we will explore these questions, becoming acquainted with some of the more traditional Yuletide ghosts in Celtic traditions as well as reclaiming one of the more well-known spirit entities in our secular western “December Holiday” celebrations.
We are all familiar with ‘Christmas’ ghost stories – from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare before Christmas.” I have often been asked, though, why there should be ghosts and hauntings at this time of the year when many people want to be focused on family, the return home (either actual or in their imaginations) and deeper quests for personal and spiritual renewal. “Isn’t Samhain (31 October) the night of haunting?”
One answer – at least from the perspective of Celtic mysticism & mythology – is simple, and has to do with the nature of the Winter Solstice (21 December). This festival – called Alban Arthuan in Druidic traditions – has long been thought of as a time of death & rebirth when Nature’s innate powers and our own souls are renewed. This event – which marks the moment in the spiral of earthen time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December) – frames the longest night of the year. The birth of New Sun is thought to revivify the aura of the Earth in mystical ways, giving a new ‘lease on life’ to spirits and souls of the dead.
As such, Yule is probably the second most haunted time of the Celtic year, Samhain being the first. The haunting begins in early December, as if in anticipation of the rebirth of the Sun’s powers. Spirits become more animated in the days leading up to Alban Arthuan (from the 6th to the 20th of December). As practitioners of earth-based spiritualities light fires in their hearths and decorate their huts of dwelling for the advent of New Sun, spirits and the deer come near, communing with us as we prepare ourselves for the death of Old Sun. These spirit-visitants gather with us near fires in the hearth and around the Yule Tree. They haunt us in the glow of the Yule’s festivities.
What are the spirits and what is the ‘ modus operandi ’ of the ghosts that come to our abodes and haunt the landscapes of our inner and outer worlds at this mysterious time of the year?
This haunting is not of the same character as that which happens during the Season of Samhain; i.e., it is not a general ‘walking of the dead’ or even a general return of any and all ancestors & relatives, friends & lovers from beyond the veil. The spirits that come out during the Yule are often connected in one way or another with the mystical and psychic logic of the Winter Solstice Season. Yes, Celtic people are prone to experiencing visits from ancestors, relatives, spirit-guides and anamchara (soul friends) as Alban Arthuan draws nigh. Most of the spirits haunting this season, however, are closely linked to the main poetic theme of the death & rebirth of the Sun.
One of the most pervasive stories of Yuletide hauntings in Celtic traditions is that of the Sluagh-Sídhe of Brug na Bóinne . “ Sluagh-Sídhe ” means “People of the Sídhe.” A “sídhe” is a mound or barrow where the dead have been interred. All sídhe in Celtic mythological traditions are essentially haunted; they are gateways through which spirits and souls of the dead – and even living mortals like you and I – can pass, back & forth from one world into another. On the other side of the sídhe is the Otherworld; a “Land of Youth” or the “Isle of the Blessed,” where living souls continue in their quest for wisdom, wholeness and self-realization. “The People of the Sídhe” is one way of naming the Faeryfolk; that strange race of people living perpetually in the sídhe or just beyond them, in ráths (partly submerged roundhouses) or dúns (Faery ‘fortresses;’ magical castles) in the Otherworld.
Brug na Bóinne is a great Faery Mound located in the northeast of Ireland, along the Boyne River. It is often connected to the burial mound called “Newgrange.” In pre-Celtic times it functioned as a place to lay the bones of the dead to rest. Irish Celtic mystics later believed it to be the residence of a tribe of the Sluagh-Sídhe . The mound is riddled with passageways and burial niches, one of which is lined up with the rising of New Sun on the morning of 22 December. As such, Brug na Bóinne can be seen as symbolically linked into the Celtic logic of the Winter Solstice Season and the mythos of the Sun’s Rebirth. Celtic saints later connected the Brug with the birth of Christ, seeing its passageways, metaphorically, as “the Cave [or Labyrinth] of the Nativity.”
The Sluagh-Sídhe of Brug na Bóinne are Faery People who come out of their spectral domicile as Winter’s Solstice approaches, going off to visit the hearths of devout mystics and practitioners. They are said to come in pairs, one to haunt the kitchen and one to haunt the room in which the fire glows in the hearth during the long nights leading up to Alban Arthuan . Their role is to chant magical runes and in other ways inspire mortals to keep the season of Yule well; inciting us to engage in acts of kindness, compassion and hospitality, going beyond our usual conception of what it means to be human in earthen ways. They are probably the original mythic impetus behind our persistent idea that ‘elves’ are connected with the Yuletide season.
The Sluagh-Sídhe of Brug na Bóinne are often said to be dressed in the traditional Celtic colors of Yule; yellow, green and red. Red and green symbolize animal and plant life, respectively. Yellow stands for the light of New Sun, and is generally not prominently displayed around the house in decorations until after Alban Arthuan .
The Sluagh-Sídhe who come to us from Brug na Bóinne bless our meals and encourage dreams of a better world as Yuletide observations clarify our spiritual perceptions. They invite other spirits that are friendly and kindly disposed to the celebration of Alban Arthuan to visit your house. They may be imagined standing at the doors of your place of dwelling, receiving spectral guests. Among these is the “Guardian of the Hearth;” the soul of a representative ancestor or anamchara (soul-friend) who will then establish a connection between your hearth and anyone you may know in the Otherworld.
Another Celtic spirit of Yule is The Wandering Stranger, also called the “Mysterious Stranger” and “The Unexpected Guest.” This spectral visitor is understood as a manifestation of ‘need’ in the world. It usually comes to haunt us in the guise of a hard-working middle-aged man or woman not quite in great health, perhaps, as some difficulty has overtaken them in life. To dream of encountering the Wandering Stranger out of doors, perhaps along an open road, is said to signify that someone needs shelter. One response to this visitation is to do something toward the sheltering of homeless people in your area. To dream of the Wandering Stranger coming to your door may signify that you need to engage more heartily in acts of hospitality (perhaps by hosting a meal) as the Yuletide unfolds.
Sometimes the Wandering Stranger is symbolic of the mysterious presence of “the divine” in the world with us, rather than signifying ‘need’ or ‘loss.’ In this guise, the Wandering Stranger is said to come to people who need inspired to open up to wider mystical horizons at the tides of Winter’s Solstice. In ancient Celtic times it was said that gods & goddesses would visit mortals in their huts of dwelling at crucial cross roads of the year. One of the Faeryfolk might also come to visit mortals unawares, as might the local chieftain, a Druid or a Gwrach (“wise woman”; the counterpart of a Druid). To be so visited was to be honored, and so it was thought that one must be ready, at all times – according to Celtic codes of hospitality – to receive guests at one’s door, whether lowly or grand.
When at home at night during the Yule (13 – 25 December), listen for strange knocks at the door; especially during storms or windy weather. The door-latch may rattle, and you think you hear a voice – not a threatening one; perhaps just a murmur or a word – but when you go to the door, there is no one there! In Celtic mysticism this is said to indicate the coming of the Mysterious Stranger. If it happens twice or thrice, you might invite the invisible presence into your abode, saying, “May the gods who sent you come and bless this hearth!” Sometimes a kind of strange ‘rapping’ may be heard at a windowpane on dark Yuletide nights. If you hear it – especially at a window above ground level – throw open the sash and allow the night air to flood briefly into your room. Say as you do so, “May the Mysterious Stranger come in and warm herself/himself at our hearth.”
If you are out walking along a lone and rustic road or woodpath at any time during the Yule – but especially at dusk or dawn – keep your eyes open for any sign of a strange visage or ‘ghost’ as you go along your chosen course, as the Mysterious Stranger is wont to appear briefly to travelers during the Yule, awakening them to supernal possibilities in the mundane rounds of daily life. The Stranger sometimes comes and appears, just briefly, along a path or road you are taking, perhaps standing by a tall Oak or Willow. Yet when you turn to look, there is no one there! If this happens, say, “Hail, Mysterious One, I bless your journey; prosper mine in return.” The appearance of the Mysterious Stranger is thought to signify the presence of divine beings (e.g., gods & goddesses) in your vicinity. By hailing the Stranger, you may address deities in their nearness without danger of affronting them.
Today this Mysterious Stranger may be imagined by those of us practicing earthen spiritualities in the guise of the ever-popular “Saint Nicholas” or “Santa Claus.” While this idol of our materialistic and consumer-driven society has been debased into a cartoon caricature of its former mystery, there is much about the “Santa Claus” legend that is Pagan and that might still be quite edifying for those of us living close to the Earth today, provided we reclaim the stories of Santa Claus in symbolic terms. If you care to engage in such a mythic reclamation, perhaps the following story will help.
Imagine, if you will, a mystic of Christ in the 4th century CE named “Nicholas” living in what is now Turkey, along the Mediterranean coast. As he grows in spiritual awareness, he finds himself inspired to help the unfortunate, disowned children in his town. He begins to beg money from merchants to help feed and clothe the young who are living in the streets without means. At one point – and here comes the Pagan element into the story – a troop of Sluagh-Sídhe from Ireland, on quest for wisdom out in the wide world, join up with Nicholas to help him distribute food and clothing to abandoned and needy children.
These Faeries find fulfillment of their quest in this work of charity, and so they remain in Turkey until Nicholas dies. Then – by way of their Celtic magic and mysticism – they help him to cross over into the Otherworld. Once on the Otherside, they travel ‘North’ in search of the place of their discarnate dwelling beyond the sídhe. Now, “north” in Celtic mythology is the direction of mystery and darkness. “Out of the north have we come, and back into it we shall go,” the ancient Celts would have said. Thus it is extremely significant – from a mythical point of view – that Saint Nicholas (now Santa Claus) has his “workshop” at the “North Pole.”
Once in the wild northlands, the Sluagh-Sídhe and Nicholas set up a ráth (Faery hut) as a ‘home base’ from which to carry on the saint’s work. Using Reindeer – a manifest form of the Celtic god Cernunnos from more northerly lands – to drive a magical sleigh, they come back across the veil each year during the Yule, hoping to inspire mortals with the kind of generosity and hospitality that once characterized Nicholas’s incarnate life. As these Sluagh-Sídhe , of course, got called “Elves” in English speaking countries, you can see that the stories we tell of “Santa Claus” have a certain Pagan ambiance, and that his traditional ‘mission’ in the world is very similar to that of the old Mysterious Stranger.
All during the Yuletide Season, a ‘spirit’ is growing; an aura of magic and mystery, that crescendos on the 21st of December and then maintains a climactic intensity until after midnight on 24 December; the night called Matrum Noctem (“The Night of the Great Mother”). This “spirit” is collectively called the Spirit of Yule; a term that applies to the particular anima loci of this sacred time of the earthen year. “The Spirit of Yule” is a metaphor for the Presence of Mystery among us – or perhaps a symbol of the essence of the Universe itself – becoming present to us in our devout earthen sojourns near the Hearth and the Yule Tree as Old Sun’s powers wane.
Just as all of the Faeryfolk (Elves) of Yule may be seen to come from Brug na Bóinne , so all of the general spirits that haunt us during the Yule can be said to be manifestations of this “Spirit of Yule.” This is the ‘spirit’ that inspires visions of a better world in our hearts and minds. It causes magical apparitions meant to inspire us with joy and encourage us to throw off our shackles and any self-imposed limitations with which we may be struggling. It is the ‘spirit’ of psychic clarification that aids us in our soul’s quest for rebirth & renewal; a degree of transformation or perhaps self-realization each year as we path our way through the Yule to the thresholds of Alban Arthuan and beyond. To be inspired to keep the Yule in Pagan Celtic ways is to be infused with this “Spirit of Yule,” which is to say, “to be attuned to the Mystery of the Universe as it presences to us.”
The Spirit of Yule often becomes manifest in the hearth. The hearth has long been a Celtic icon of authentic domestic life, signifying the value of earthen dwelling. It was thought of as the ‘center’ of the house and the ‘heart’ of the household’s collective psyche. To gather around the hearth during the long nights leading up to Alban Arthuan is to draw close to the source of life itself; for – in Celtic oghams of Wisdom – “life begins in a spark; a fire is the light of the soul.”
“The Spirits in the Hearth” are a characteristic theme in Celtic tales of the Yule. This is because the fire in the hearth is thought to attract spirits of all kinds; elves and helping-spirits, gnomes and faery-lights, spriggans and leprechauns, and many others. Thus the hearth is a good place to sit and engage in anal- duccaid (i.e., “breath prayer”; meditation) during the Yule. There you can commune with these spirits and engage in taghairm (i.e., “divination”), seeking wisdom from these spectral visitors.
If you have a fireplace and the space to spare in front of it, cast a ritual circle. Then imagine Spirits of the Hearth dancing with you as you go round and round. Imagine such spirits leading you on out-of-body journeys, perhaps running with great reindeer herds through the wilderlands or maybe going in search of the Ráth of Nicholas at the top of the world, hoping for a glimpse of the Faery-Workshop!
If you do not have a hearth in your house or apartment, set up a “Yule Table” with plenty of candles on it, along with various symbols of the Season (e.g., pine cones, evergreens, a sprig of mistletoe, holly and cinnamon sticks, etc.). Consecrate this table by sprinkling it with salty water in the name of Mabon, a Divine Child in Celts myths and the god of Winter’s Solstice. Then practice anal-duccaid (i.e., “meditation”), either sitting before the table or on a chair near it, seeking to commune with the Spirits of the Hearth. Cast a circle in front of the Yule Table and then dance, going off on wild, imagined journeys during the dark nights leading up to Alban Arthuan (21 December).
The Yule Tree is another place where the Spirit of Yule becomes present to us as Winter’s Solstice draws near. Though originally a Germanic custom, the erection of a pine tree in the house during December has been adopted into the mysticism of many spiritual traditions around the world. This tree, being green and never losing its needles, represents the powers of life that never fade and never wane during dark, cold seasons. The Yule Tree is a representative of the primary masculine forces in the Earth, just as the Hearth (or Yule Table) represents the primary feminine forces in Nature. By bringing it into the house we invite this ever-present natural power into our abode, to keep us ‘charged’ and healthy as Old Sun dies and then as New Sun grows in power after Alban Arthuan .
Bring the Yule Tree into the house on the 14th of December; the Second Day of Yule, which is called “Cedar Day” or “Lighting Day” in “the Thirteen Dayes of Yule” (for a description of this spiritual paradigm based on ancient Celtic symbolism, see my book, The Fires of Yule, 2001). One old custom is to decorate it in the evening and then “leave it alone” until midnight, at which point you may return to the room where it is set up and turn on the lights on the tree. Then sing an olden carol (a song intended to accompany circle dancing). At this point the Yule Tree is said to “come to life.” It will now be filled with the Spirit of Yule and remain green until after Matrum Noctem (the night of 24 December).
It is at this point that the Yule Tree becomes the “house of Yuletide spirits” in our mortal dwellings. The Tree itself represents both this world and the Otherworld, in that it normally grows in natural soils, but is now being ‘fed’ in part by the basic power of reality, called shunnache in Celtic mysticism. The Yule Tree is also a ‘house’ for any spirits that have come to stay with us during the Yule. You can imagine that you “see” these spirits in the blinking of the lights and in the light reflected in the shiny glass ornaments and other trinkets adorning the tree.
When you trim the Yule Tree, think of its mystical symbolism and decorate it accordingly. As the tree itself is important as a symbol of the presence of ‘life,’ try to avoid so covering the Yule Tree with wrappings (e.g., angel hair or foil icicles, etc.) and garlands that the green of the tree ends up obscured from view. Consider trimming the Yule Tree in such a way that the tree itself is primarily what you see when the lights are unlit, but so that there is as much light as possible reflected in the various decorations when the lights are lit up. This will facilitate the impression that this natural icon is ‘alive’ with the Spirit of Yule, thus encouraging mystical communion with the spirits that dwell in it.
Another manifestation of the Spirit of Yule is what is called the Gifting Stag; a revelation of Cernunnos, the Horned God of the Celts – at the tides of Winter’s Solstice. This Stag comes to inspire moderation and balance in our hearts as Alban Arthuan approaches. This is necessary, as it is so easy to go to extremes as the days get darker and we find ourselves seeking for ways to keep ourselves buoyant and more or less on an even keel, emotionally and mentally. We can go toward excess in our decorating, in our eating and drinking, and in our buying of gifts. What the Gifting Stag represents is a spirit of good sense as the days get darker and ever shorter. He comes to show us a ‘middle path’ through the wildwood of spiritual desires at the darkest time of the earthen year.
The Gifting Stag usually shows up on the eve of the 6th of December, the Feast of Nicholas and the Elves. The Stag may be imagined as standing at the edge of the woods in the Otherworld that surround our place of dwelling in this world, peering in toward (usually) the kitchen window, his eyes flaming yellow with compassion and spiritual succor! If he appears to you – in either dream or apparition – accept him as an anamchara for your journey toward Winter’s Solstice.
On the 13th of December – the First Day of Yule – the Gifting Stag may be imagined as coming to the side door of the house and ‘knocking’ with either his hoof or his antler. If you hear such a ‘knock’ near dusk on this day, go to the door and open it, saying, “Hail Cernunnos, Stag of the Wildwood, come to our hearth, we pray you.” Then, as you proceed through the Season of Yule, imagine the Gifting Stag as standing by your Hearth (Yule Table) or Yule Tree whenever you need to regain a sense of natural or spiritual verve as the days wane away. The Season of Yule is a time to go into darkness and experience its wonders and its power; but we must adjust to this lack of light if we are to avoid getting either depressed or else too listless to enjoy the Season’s deep spiritual ambiance. Seeing the Gifting Stag as an icon of what it means to be ‘balanced’ as you journey through the Yule can aid you in this adjustment.
As Pine is an ancient icon of this god, to bring the Yule Tree into the house is also to invite the Gifting Stag to come and dwell with you. If you go out to select your own Yule Tree – perhaps at a local Christmas Tree farm or at a Mall parking lot, for instance – invoke the Gifting Stag when making your selection. He knows which tree is best for you; just as he is said to know what you need during any particular Yuletide Season – and he will help you to attain it, if you allow him to be your guide. If you spot deer in a snowy field or along the road as you bring the Tree home, consider yourself ‘visited’ by the Gifting Stag. After you set up the Yule Tree and decorate it, chant the names of Cernunnos as an evening anal-duccaid (meditation). You might repeat these names, for instance: “Herne—Cernunnos—Downie Hornie” each day at dusk near the Yule Tree. Chanting his names, you may experience a deep communion developing between yourself and this mythic icon of Yuletide moderation and balance.
As the Season of Yule passes, The Gifting Stag will help you maintain a sense of decorum in the midst of revelry. It is important at the tides of Winter’s Solstice not to exhaust yourself, as most people experience a falling-off of vigor and energy as the days grow ever darker. It is absolutely ridiculous that, in our society, the “Holidays” of December have become such a hyperactive time! Too many people allow themselves to get caught up in endless tasks and activities. No wonder people experience such exhaustion at this time of the year! Pagans should know better, however. If you desire, ask the Gifting Stag to help you maintain a more contemplative approach to the keeping of Yule.
If you celebrate the Yule in a quieter, more contemplative way, you will find that you have lots of energy for the all night dancing, caroling and magical rites of Alban Arthuan . These celebrations may begin at dusk on 21 December and need not end until dawn the next morning. A good way to begin this night’s festivities is by lighting a fire in the hearth (or else by lighting the candles on the Yule Table) about half an hour before dusk. Then, chant the names of Winter Solstice deities (perhaps “Mabon—Coventina—Nerthus—Bran”) and sing songs that reflect your connection with the mysteries of the Yuletide Season. Then, set up your circle and begin with a spiral dance, going widdershins (counterclockwise) to represent the death of Old Sun. After Midnight, dances should then turn deosil (clockwise) to symbolize the coming birth of New Sun.
As dusk turns to night, invoke the spirits and ghosts of Yule that we have discussed in these pages, inviting them to “become present” to you in imaginative ways. If you know the name of your “Guardian of the Hearth,” invoke their name and pour them a glass of good wine or beer. Set this glass by the hearth or on the Yule Table at dusk. If you want, drink it at midnight in honor of your Guardian. This is said to insure that the spiritual revels that take place around your hearth and Yule Tree during the next few nights will bring no harm to you or anyone else living under your roof. This is an old ritual and may be one myth behind the secular custom of leaving an offering out for Nicholas and his Elves on Christmas Eve.
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A rush of spiritual energy is released at the birth of New Sun at dawn on the 22nd of December, as a result of which it is believed spirits & ghosts become much more active for the next few days, presencing to mortals more frequently than they did before Alban Arthuan . It is during these days that the ghosts of relatives and ancestors, lovers and friends usually come visiting. Then – beginning on the 26th of December – all of these discarnates will begin to grow quiet and then depart, going back beyond the sídhe. At dusk on this day, say “farewell” to the Gifting Stag. At last, on the night of the 6th of January, say goodbye to all of the Sluagh-Sídhe (Elves) who have spent the Yule in your place of dwelling, as they must return by midnight to their spectral homes in “the Hinterlands” and to Brug na Bóinne .
© Copyright 2002 Montague Whitsel, All Rights Reserved.