Christmas Past: More Yuletide Demonology

Earlier this week I posted an excerpt from Moncure Daniel Conway’s 1881 book Demonlology and Devil Lore Volume 1 in which the author posited a connection between St. Nicholas and a nickname for the devil, Old Nick. That wasn’t the only instance in which Conway discusses the devilish side of Christmas. Here, he theorises about the possibility of modern Christmas celebrating inheriting pre-Christian narratives of sun-gods triumphing over winter-demons…

To our sun-worshipping ancestor the new year meant the final faint advantage of the warmer time over winter, as nearly as he could fix it. The hovering of day between superiority of light and darkness is now named after doubting Thomas. At Yuletide the dawning victory of the sun is seen as a holy infant in a manger amid beasts of the stall. The old nature-worship has bequeathed to christian belief a close-fitting mantle. But the old idea of a war between the wintry and the warm powers still haunts the period of the New Year; and the twelve days and nights, once believed to be the period of a fiercely-contested battle between good and evil demons, are still regarded by many as a period for especial watchfulness and prayer.

New Year’s Eve, in the north of England still ‘Hogmanay,’–probably O. N. [Old Norse] höku-nött, midwinter-night, when the sacrifices of Thor were prepared,–formerly had many observances which reflected the belief that good and evil ghosts were contending for every man and woman: the air was believed tbe swarming with them, and watch must be kept to see that the protecting fire did not o out in an household; that no strange man, woman, or animal approached,–possibly a demon in disguise. Sacred plants were set in doors and windows to prevent the entrance of any malevolent being from the multitudes filling the air. John Wesley, whose noble heart was allied with a mind strangely open to stories of hobgoblins, led the way of churches and sets back into this ancient atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the rationalism of the age has influenced St. Wesley’s Feast–Watchnight. It can hardly recognise its brother in the Boar’s Head Banquet of Queen’s College, Oxford, which celebrated victory over tusky winter, the decapitated demon whose bristles were once icicles fallen beneath the sylvan spirits of holly and rosemary. Yet what the Watchnight really signifies in the antiquarian sense is just that old culminating combat between the powers of fire and frost, once believed to determine human fates.

In White Russia, on New Year’s Day, when the annual elemental battle has been decided, the killed and wounded on one hand, and the fortunate on the other, are told by carrying from house to house the rich and the poor Kolyadas. These are two children, one dressed in fine attire, and crowned with a wreath of full ears of grain, the other ragged, and wearing a wreath of threshed straw. These having been closely covered, each householder is called in, and chooses one. If his choice chances upon the ‘poor Kalyada,’ the attending chorus chant a mournful strain, in which he is warned to expect a bad harvest, poverty, and perhaps death; if he selects the ‘rich Kolyada,’ a cheerful song is sung promising him harvest, health, and wealth.

The natives of certain districts of Dardistan assign political and social signifcance to their Feast of Fire, which is celebrated in the month preceding winter, at new moon, just after their meat provision for the season is laid in to dry. Their legend is, that it was then their national hero slew their ancient tyrant and introduced good government. This legend, related elsewhere, is of a tyrant slain through the discovery that his heart was made of snow. He was slain by the warmth of torches. in the celebrations all the men of the village go forth with torches, which they swing round their heads, and throw in the direction of Ghilgit, where the snow-hearted tyrant so long held his castle.

When the husbands return home from their torch-throwing a little drama is rehearsed. The wives refuse them entrance till they have entreated, recounting the benefits they have brought them; after admission the husband affects sulkiness, and must be brought round with caresses to join in the banquet. The wife leads him forward with this song:–‘Though hast made me glad, though favourite of the Rajah! Thou hast rejoiced me, oh bold horseman! I am pleased with thee who so well usest the gun and sword! Though has delighted me, oh thou invested with a mantle of honours! Oh great happiness, i will buy it by giving pleasure’s price! Og thou nourishment to us, heap of corn, store of ghee–delighted will I buy it all by giving pleasure’s price!’

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