The Ghosts of Christmas Eve

In folk belief there is a sense of the nearness of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. Throughout Northern Europe there were traditions that the family ghosts returned at Christmas time to share the festival with their living relatives.

In Scandinavia Christmas was the time when the dead revisited their old homes and had to be made welcome. Before people went to bed, they made sure the house was left tidy with a fire burning in the hearth. Food and ale were left out on the table. If earth was found on the chairs in the morning, it was known that a kinsman, fresh from the grave, had sat there. Sometimes a warm bath was left for the dead visitors so that they might wash before their meal. 

In Poland, the dead were invited inside to warm themselves and funeral foods were eaten. In Portugal the souls of the dead are welcomed at Christmas with crumbs are scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the dead so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time.

In Portugal the souls of the dead, the alminhas a penar, are welcomed on Christmas. Crumbs are scattered for them on the hearth. In ancient times, seeds were left out for the dead so they could return with fruits and grains from the Otherworld at harvest time. At the consoada in the early morning of Christmas Day people set out extra plates for the dead among them to celebrate as well.

In Lithuania a special dish called kûèia was prepared for the souls of dead ancestors. It was made of stewed wheat, peas and beans, and sweetened with honey. Oat puddings were also considered to be suitable food for the dead, and a spell was chanted while they were being made. In the region of Merkinë, kûèia was a special loaf of bread which was carried three times around the house by the master of the household. He would knock on the door saying “God together with kûèia asks to be in your house”. In other regions, baskets of kûèia foods or Christmas wafers were carried around in the same manner. Supper was eaten by the living when the stars rose in the sky, and if a family member had died during the year, a place was laid for them.  The eldest family member went outside to invite the souls of the ancestors, the cold, the wind and bees to eat together. Food would be left on the table as it was believed that once the family was asleep, the dead would come in and feast. The tradition of feeding the souls of the dead continued into the twentieth century in Lithuania. 

In Guernsey the powers of darkness are supposed to be especially active between St. Thomas’s Day (21st December) and New Year’s Eve, and it is dangerous to be out after nightfall. People may be led astray then by Will o’ the Wisp, ominous black dogs appear to them, or folk find mysterious white rabbits hopping along just under their feet.

In England people prepared for supernatural visitors during the Twelve Days. The house and its contents were cleaned with extra care. In Shropshire, the pewter and bronze vessels had to be polished to the point that that the maids could see to put their caps on in them, otherwise the fairies would pinch them. If the fairies were satisfied, the maid would find a coin in her shoe. In Shropshire special care was taken to put away any washing suds. Anne Boleyn is alleged to have been seen haunting her old homes, her headless ghost reported at Rochford Hall in Essex and Hever Castle in Kent.

For this reason, it was a tradition to tell ghost stories at Christmas time. Charles Dickens penned several such tales for his readers, and until recently, the BBC still televise a dramatised supernatural tale every Christmas Eve.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010


[1] In Brittany there was the custom of leaving food for the ghosts while the family attended church.

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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