In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 will be the year’s day of least sunlight, when the sun takes its lowest, shortest path across the sky. North of the Arctic Circle, it will be the midpoint of the period of darkness, when even twilight doesn’t reach the horizon. This December we asked our Native friends to share traditions they’ve heard about the winter solstice. Their answers highlight winter as a time for storytelling.
Like many events in American Indian culture there is a proper time and place for all activities. Traditional storytelling is reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical choice given the fact that during the other season’s, people were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It was in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories was a way to entertain and teach the children. Another reason is that many traditional stories contain animal characters. To be respectful, people waited until the winter when animals hibernate or become less active so they cannot hear themselves being talked about.
To have a storyteller tell you a story is like receiving a gift. To be respectful, a gift of tobacco is offered to the storyteller before the story begins. The storyteller will often take the tobacco outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits of the story.
San Carlos Apache (Arizona): This reminds me when I was young. My grandfather would ask a really older man to come visit. We would eat dinner; they would visit, smoke. Then my grandpa would put a bundle at his feet. Soon he would start telling stories most of the night.
Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin: We have to wait for the Winter Moon, and there has to be snow on Mother Earth for those stories.
Blackfoot (Calgary, Alberta): Blackfoots are the same with the snow and stories.
Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico): The winter solstice marks our New Year in Acoma. We mark the time with ceremonies not privy to the public.
It’s also the time of haamaaha, storytelling of the coyote, stories of heroes, stories of the animals, sharing of knowledge. My parents said that when you call haamaaha, people will arrive with piñon nuts gathered in the fall that are roasted and shared.
Passamaquoddy (New England): In traditional calendars in the Northeast, the solstice is always marked. For my folks it’s a sign that the frost giants will be returning to the North.
Assiniboine/Sioux (South Dakota): Waniyetu [winter]—time for gathering can’sa’sa [red willow bark] while the Thunder is gone.
Syilx (Washington State & British Columbia): What I know is that it marks the point in time when our Winter Ceremonies can be held. My grandmother sometimes held her first ceremony of the winter at this powerful time. We have winter dance ceremonies; prayers for the new year to come, for the berries, roots, four-leggeds, and fish—the four Food Chiefs; prayers for our families and ourselves. There are songs, dancing, feasting, and a give-away. This is held during the evening and can go all night, depending on the number of sacred singers who come to share. The ceremonies are called winter dances. Or my grandfather also called them Chinook dances. In our territory to the south in Washington State around Nespelem, my grandfather told me of one dance ceremony lasting ten nights in a row!
Spooky Christmas Storytelling Traditions:
One of the reasons we love holidays is because of the traditions associated with them. The winter holidays are no exception, and we thought we’d share a few spooky ones with you to adopt for your own celebrations!
A visit from Krampus
Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon being whose story originated in Austria and spread to other central European countries like Czech, Slovenia and Hungary, to name a few. If Saint Nicholas was Europe’s jolly good-doer of a saint rewarding well-behaved children…Krampus was his total and complete opposite – he was the holiday season’s devil.
The story goes that on December 5, the night before Saint Nicholas arrives (better known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night), Krampus would troll the villages for bad little boys and girls. Each one he caught would either be beaten with the birch branch he carries, taken back to his lair and tortured, drowned in a nearby river or, worst of all, taken straight to hell for the devil himself to deal with.
Keep things clean for Perchta
Haven’t heard of Perchta before? If Krampus is the holiday season’s devil, then Perchta is the Christmas witch. Her legend comes from southern Germany and Austria: on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany or Twelfth Night, she would roam the countryside and visit houses along the way.
Much like Krampus and good ol’ Saint Nicholas, she would know whether children had been naughty or nice during the year. She would also check to see if the girls of the house had completed their spinning of flax or wool as well as the cleanliness of the house. If she was unhappy with any, she’d take the knife she carries out from under her skit, slit the stomachs of those she was displeased with and replace their guts with pebbles and straw. So, uh, moral of the story? Go clean your room.
Hide brooms on Christmas Eve
At one time, Christmas Eve was thought of much like Halloween – a time when the veil between the spirit or supernatural world was at its thinnest, and many traditions spoke to this belief. In Norway, it was believed that witches and evil spirits would descend on homes on Christmas Eve. If brooms were left out, these beings would swipe them to make their travels more efficient, so many Norwegians hid them.
Welcome the Christmas Spider
The legend comes from eastern Europe, namely Ukraine. One summer day a pine cone found its way into the house of a poor widow with several children. The pine cone took root in the dirt floor, and a tree began to grow. The children cared for the tree, excited to have their very own Christmas tree despite their hardships.
The tree grew, but the family couldn’t afford to decorate it. On Christmas morning, the children and widow woke to discover the tree covered in spider webs, and when they opened the windows and the sunlight hit the webs it instantly turned to silver and gold. The family never lived in poverty again.
These days some decorate their trees with spider and spider web ornaments, as they are said to bring good luck.
Ask for new clothes to avoid Yule Cat
Here’s one for all you cat lovers who name sounds a lot nicer than the legend. In Icelandic folklore, the Yule Cat was a monster who traveled the countryside on Christmas Eve devouring anyone who had not received new clothing for the holiday. This tale was often used by farmers to incentivize their workers to finish spinning wool collected in autumn.
Moral of this story? Never complain about that new sweater from Grandma again, no matter how much it itches…
Tell a ghost story or two
Through the Victorian era, Christmas wasn’t terribly different from Halloween because many believed it was a time the veil between the natural and spirit worlds was at its thinnest. And because the days were long and cold, it was a time of year for families to gather around the fire and, inevitably, tell stories. Ghost stories.
While the time of year (i.e. the abundance darkness and season of death in the natural world) certainly speaks to telling ghost stories, historians also cite the celebrations of Yule and the Winter Solstice as reasons English society, in particular, took on the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It’s a tradition celebrated in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
Not many of us may tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve these days, but it’s a fun tradition to resurrect and celebrate with your friends and family!
What spooky Christmas tradition do you celebrate?
Adapted from a post by Myranda.