Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spirits of Christmas

With Christmas/Yule approaching we are getting to the time of the year where ghosts seem to be traditionally more present. In many ways this seems to be more profound than Halloween which on first impressions seems spookier but perhaps less ghostly.

The Christmas spirits feel very different to the Halloween spirits however, much more primal and elemental in nature. They are very varied and start by taking us to those cosy warm firesides laced with mulled wine, laughter and hot mince pies. But there is another very different aspect to these spirits. This is full of snowy glaciers, superluminal reindeer arcing across a freezing sky laced with the glittering Aurora Borealis and painted with blizzards of perfectly designed crisp symmetrical snow crystals and bleak icy pine forests haunted by spirits of ancient times. Paradoxically it is domesticated indoors but in the northern wastes the Yule magic is perhaps one of the wildest and least tame of all.

Serafina Pekkala summarised this very well in Philip Pullmans "Dark Materials trilogy" which I will paraphrase. When asked if it was cold flying on those snowy wastes she said, yes but without the cold she wouldn’t feel the icy magic and the exultation of flight "the bright tingle of the stars, or the music of the Aurora" . She is right and to truly feel the spirits and their gifts we need to give up some of the trappings of the warm fireside at least for a time so that we can go out and see the world with glacial magelight. I would take the ice and the cold every time.

I think that the idea of ghosts at Christmas descends from (or is at least strengthened by) our literary traditions. We are all aware of Charles Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol" with Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounters with the ghost of Jacob Marley and also the more archetypal ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Thinking about it the idea of very abstract ghosts such as "Christmas past" is very sophisticated from an occultist point of view. As far as I know Dickens was rather atheistic in his world view but could certainly tell a spooky story.

Has anyone ever tried magically working with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, Future? As archetypal entities I rather suspect that exploring the universe around such entities might be extremely fruitful.
In the UK there is also a tradition with the BBC to show a traditional "Victorian" ghost story usually over Christmas Eve. This tradition seems to have declined somewhat over previous years but happily this year we are beginning to see a return to seeing a ghost story as a part of Christmas.

I do wonder if this is enough to account for the idea of Christmas ghosts or whether something else is coming through our collective consciousness making the period more magickal. I rather suspect that society will tend to interpret phenomena, experiencing the energies of various supernatural beings but perceiving them as ghosts simply because we have lost our folklore lexicon of wild spirits.

Christmas is a very magical time with elements which far pre-date the current Christian "desktop theme" society places on the period. As we all know that, if there is any truth in a historical Jesus he would have been born later in the year when shepherds would have been in the fields by night (Ironically it seems to me this would have been around Easter when sheep were lambing) and Christmas is placed here to supplant the pagan festival of the Sun with themes which would earn Rome revenue.

I am not sure what really to make of the Christian hijacking of Christmas. It seems strange that a festival I always associate with snow and ice and winter forests is replaced by a Middle Eastern cult from lands where there is no snow or reindeer and one cannot hear the bright tingle from the stars.

In fact barring imagery relating to the nativity itself, most of the Yule symbols are pagan. These symbols range from the use of holly, mistletoe and ivy, through to flying reindeer, Christmas trees and even the giving of gifts. With the latter of course we are all aware of the magi, but Sami cultures in Lapland have accounts of spirit messengers also flying down chimneys and through windows to give gifts.

Even that patriarch of Christmas variously known as Santa, Father Christmas etc seems much more pagan that Christian. We are told about how St Nicholas used to give dowries to women of ill repute so they could marry, but this seems a far cry from the jolly figure we have today. It has been suggested in various places that he has more in common with images such as the Woodwose; The Wildman of the woods; who is possibly a form of Herne the hunter.

There is another, this time female, figure, steeped in magic and prehistory which also stands here. This is the Goddess Elen who is so strongly associated with reindeer and trees that I am surprised that she is not more associated with Christmas. For more information on Elen I will refer you all to Caroline Wise's remarkable essays which are hosted on Andrew Collin's Psychic Questing website:

There is a bit of an urban myth that Santa’s red and white fur trappings come from an advertising campaign by Coca Cola sometime in the early 20th century. Whilst it is true that Victorian images of Santa included him wearing yellow and green, we must also consider the fact that Sami shamen and spirit travellers also wore (in fact still wear) red felt.

We must also consider the colour of the fly agaric mushrooms here, those beautiful “fairie tale” toadstools which are red capped with white spots of which there are some lovely specimens in Epping Forest. I am sure many of know how these work, in that they are a bit unpleasant for humans to eat neat, but reindeer can process them with no problems and pass out the active ingredient in their urine. The shaman would then drink the reindeer urine and then experience spirit walking, and flying through the air.

The reindeer are so sacred to the Sami that they would certainly have been around whilst the Sami were spirit walking and (speaking as a believer) quite possibly joined the shamen in their journeying. So it is not surprising that reports of flying reindeer circulated from these regions.

There are darker elements which also intrude upon the Father Christmas mythology. Less known are the myths of his darker allies and servants such as Zweite Piet who some accounts place as being a traveller or a slave from Africa, but other accounts have him more demonic, sometimes making him a servant of Satan. We are all aware of the similarity between the words Satan and Santa or course.

Zweite Piet is known to give children a good flogging if they are naughty which is a bit more interesting that just not getting any presents. Perhaps we should all look to magically strengthen this sadly depleted astral form in the hope that we could help better behaviour develop in future generations. :)

Yule is big and we also encounter snowy forests full of life and ancient spirits, the idea of Christmas ghosts is perhaps too small and cynical 20th century, a faded remnant of past glory. For me at least it is a very ancient, primal time where the spirits of the ancient forests come alive and walk the earth. We see trees in many forms associated with Christmas, as well as the Christmas tree which adorns our houses and of course this brings us back to Elen again.

My beliefs are beginning to take me back out into the wildest places in the universe where magic is still untamed, unchained by gematria, free from Qabalah and cosmology and unshaped by letter. It just is, ancient and wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. In my wildest moments I dream of being reborn in this world, walking here away from the trappings of civilisation and just free to explore eternity as myself.

This "darker" underside to Christmas is unexpected but strangely wholly appropriate. After all wonderland wouldn’t be so without the danger. I think this bleak, wilder elemental nature is the key to what might be linked to the ancient forces behind the Yule. Are the older woodland, elemental references pointers to ancient, primeval fairy lore which I feel but cannot yet prove underpins Christmas?

My mother always used to tell me that if you leave decorations up after the 6th of January goblins would come. This seems to be pure fairy mythology with the idea that upsetting the natural order of things angers the fey and thus causes disruption. I always used to hide a decoration in the hope of attracting a goblin or two in the New Year, but sadly none ever showed up I think this year I might leave a bit of tinsel around to see what happens however

When one touches this elemental wild magic it is intoxicating and mad. This virtue in it persists to the present day, and everyone touched by the seasonal spirit without its commercial trappings is enflamed with prayer, not to the western god of the day, but rather to the ancient world, the wild magic and power which penetrates our houses at this time, full of Sami spirit walkers granting gifts, snow queens in their icy palaces and the ancient beautiful forest Goddess walking the wilds with her train of flying reindeer.

I hope with this short piece that I have tried to capture some of what the season means to me, and hopefully this will encourage others to either pick up on these points or say what the season means to them.
I would like to leave you all with my favourite recipe for mulled wine. It one to make and drink on a cold snowy evening, listening to the wind in the trees whilst contemplating the remarkable spirits with which we share the world.

Mulled Wine
1 bottle of Red Wine (A shiraz wine works well, as does a bottle of Elderberry wine)
1 Lemon
1 Orange
1 8 inch Cinnamon stick
9 Juniper Berries
2 Bay leaves
Demera Sugar to taste (about 200-250gms works well)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or a pod)

1) Pour the wine in a saucepad
2) Zest the citrus fruit and add the zest and the juice to the pot
3) Add the rest of the ingredients
4) Heat gently (we dont want the alcohol is evaporate) when steaming close the lid and leave for 5-10 mins
5) Then reheat gently and serve hot

Enjoy :)