PI once knew a man – I’ll call him Gavin – who was the life and soul of the party. Well, the life anyway. When I knew him, soul didn’t come into it.
One Xmas, he was asked to stay at a huge country mansion. He knew he’d been invited because he was entertaining, not because he was ‘one of them’. But that didn’t bother him. He felt this meant he was winning in some way.
So that Christmas eve he enthralled the other guests by telling them all about the spooky origins of some of our cosiest Yuletide traditions.
He told them that Santa’s merry sleigh was really the terrifying Wild Hunt in disguise. All northern countries have ancient legends about a spectral hunt that crosses the sky. It’s led by one of the gods – Odin in Scandinavia and Gwyn Ab Nyd in Britain. The cute Christmas reindeers of today began life as the ghostly red-eyed hunting hounds of the gods. The hunt is for human souls to capture and consume. Anyone who looks up and sees the Wild Hunt is in great danger. Anyone who dares to mock or laugh at it is doomed. So on mid-winter nights people made sure they stayed indoors.
They also put offerings of food and drink outside their front doors. It was to appease the Wild Hunt so that it would pass them by. This is why children still put out mince pies and milk for Santa Claus.
Back then, the offering would have been something meatier than a mince pie. At the darkest time of the year, ancient blood sacrifices were done to bring the sun back to life. This is why red has always been a traditional Christmas colour.
Gavin also relished talking about the sinister side of mistletoe. An elixir made of mistletoe was medieval date rape potion. A drop or two in a girl’s drink made it very easy to seduce her. This is where the custom of having to kiss someone under the mistletoe comes from.
He then threw in a few spooky stories of his own. As the fire died down by the end of the evening, he was pleased with the wide eyes and goose bumps he’d given his audience.
He got up out of bed and went and stood in front of the full-length mirror on the wardrobe. Looking back at him from the mirror was the leader of the Wild Hunt.
He was terrified, but felt paralysed and rooted to the spot. Then the figure spoke. It said ‘I seek your soul’. It stared steadily into Gavin’s eyes for a long time, Eventually it faded away.
When he woke up next morning, delicious smells of cooking wafted up from the kitchen. Children were playing with their new toys, and the merriment of Christmas day filled the house.
(Mural by Yuri Leitch of Glastonbury)
But Gavin was unusually thoughtful. He stayed in his room for a long time to think over what had happened. He said what struck him the most was the sadness that he’d felt coming from the strange figure in the mirror. He realised the message ‘I seek your soul’ was really about trying to find it – as if it was lost.
As he thought this over, Gavin began to see that this way of life wasn’t really winning him anything. He was singing for his supper. It was demeaning.
He remembered how it had begun. He’d actually been quite shy as a child. So when he was invited to his first party, he hid that by showing off how clever he was. He found that this was rewarding. The other kids looked up to him. He was asked to all their parties, and he could fool himself that he wasn’t really shy at all.
It was nearly lunchtime when he finally emerged from his room to join the others. For the rest of his visit he deliberately made no attempt to entertain. He felt sure this would mean no more invitations – but said he didn’t care. He wanted to start again in a more authentic way. Even if that meant being rejected.
Soon after that I left London to move to Glastonbury, so we lost touch for a while. The next time I heard from Gavin was when I had a card from him the following Christmas. He’d drawn over Santa’s reindeers to turn them into a joky Wild Hunt. In the sleigh he’d put a cartoon of himself looking happy and saying ‘I’m meeeeeee!!! And I’m freeeeeee!!’
I took that as a good sign. Like a modern Christmas Carol story, the ghost of Christmas past really had come to him that night. And it helped him find his soul again.
Whatever your beliefs, the mid-winter solstice time has its own magic. Do you have any insights or tales to share about it? If so, please do – I’d love to hear from you!
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