Winter legends and lore are very appropriate in the holiday season. Chad Lewis shares some of the most chilling on this all new interview.
You can find his new book on the subject, Winter Legends and Lore, at Amazon: https://amzn.to/3hGPHml
On part two, we look back to a classic interview with the great Michelle Belanger on the origins of yule!
You can find her many books at Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3G95aoT
Thanks Chad and Michelle!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
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JIM HAROLD: It is our Paranormal Podcast Holiday Special with special guests Chad Lewis and Michelle Belanger. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!
This is the Paranormal Podcast with Jim Harold.
JIM HAROLD: Welcome to the Paranormal Podcast. I am Jim Harold, and so glad to be with you once again. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone listening!
We’ve got a great show for you today. What I tend to like to do on these holiday/Christmas specials is feature one new interview and one classic interview. So, in keeping with tradition, today we’ve got a brand new interview with Chad Lewis talking about winter lore, and then we follow it up with a great interview that we did last year with Michelle Belanger about the origins of Yuletide.
I hope that you will enjoy the program, and very much I wish you and yours all the best, a happy holiday season. Whether you celebrate Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, I really want to thank everybody for everything you’ve done to keep the shows going and help the shows grow over the years, and this year in particular. I just really wish you a great holiday time with your family and just hope you’re doing well. Thank you so much for all of your support.
So let’s get right to it. We start off with the great Chad Lewis.
Feel that chill in the air? That means that we are firmly in winter and the holiday time, and there is a perfect book for that out just recently: Winter Legends and Lore. Our guest is Chad Lewis, the author. And if you’ve listened to the shows, you know Chad; he’s written many books on strangeness and cryptids, Paranormal Minnesota and the like, and we’re so glad to have him back to talk about winter legends and lore. Chad, welcome to the show. Congratulations on the book.
CHAD LEWIS: Happy winter to you and everyone else.
JIM HAROLD: Yes indeed, indeed. It’s a special time of year. I know a lot of people are like, “Ooh, the winter, I don’t like it,” but I enjoy it to a point. When we get to March, I’m like – because I live in northern Ohio. Not quite as cold as you are up there in the Upper Midwest, but still pretty cold, and by about March I’m ready for those flowers. But I enjoy December and this time of the year. It’s kind of cool. It’s a neat thing, so I’m so glad you decided to do this book.
When you talk about winter legends, one of the biggest winter legends, I suppose, would be that of Krampus. Since we’re generally in that season, tell us about Krampus and maybe a little bit more than we typically hear or know about Krampus.
CHAD LEWIS: Of course, here in the United States, we forgot about Krampus altogether. In Europe, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus over there, would go around on the Eve of St. Nicholas evening and hand out candy to the kids. Kids that would leave out their shoes for St. Nicholas, he would give them coins, fruits, chocolates, and the like. It was his job to, obviously, reward the children that had been well-behaved.
But it was Krampus’s job – and Krampus looks like some half-goat, half-demon creature. Huge horns, long tail, shows up with a switch. It’s his job to punish the ill-behaved children. Here in America, if you’re ill-behaved, the worst that would happen is you’d get coal in your stocking – which back in the old days would’ve been great. You could’ve heated your home with the coal. But in Europe, they weren’t playing around. Krampus would show up and start whipping naughty children with his switch, his stick. And if they were terribly ill-behaved, he would put them in his bucket and take them off to hell, and they’d never be seen or heard from again.
But what I love and what’s endearing to me about this tradition is that in Europe, all the way through modern times, people send one another Krampus cards, holiday greeting cards that usually depict Krampus abusing a child, and then it’ll have a saying, “Greetings from Krampus.” The scarier and more terrifying the card was, the more popular it was for people to send to one another, and it’s a tradition I continue to this day. I continue to send out Krampus cards to all my friends and family as well.
JIM HAROLD: Yeah, it really seems to have struck a nerve here. Krampus has certainly made a great comeback here in the States, for sure, Chad. My question to you is, why? Why do you think that Krampus is on everybody’s lips in December in the United States now, where as 20-25 years ago, people were basically unaware of that legend?
CHAD LEWIS: I think the popularity of Krampus in the United States, which has flourished and exploded, really gives us that balance. On the one hand, we have the wonderful, loving, caring St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle. On the other side, to balance it out, we have the Krampus. I think many people are looking for the legends and the lore, the history, to add a little more meaning to the season. As more and more people get disgruntled and say, “This holiday season’s about spending as much money as you can on people. We’ve lost the spirit of it,” in a weird way, Krampus being this demon, punishing monster is bringing back that goodwill and that faith in community that St. Nick’s job was relying on for so many years.
JIM HAROLD: I’ll give a little backstage secret here. We’re recording this a little bit early, before it will come out, and there’s upcoming a Krampus Photo Session in the area. I’m thinking about attending it. Now, by the time this airs, we will know if I did it or not, but I saw that, and it was for a charity, which I thought was fantastic. I thought, I really need to go to that and get my picture taken with Krampus.
CHAD LEWIS: There are so many Krampus festivals on the evening – usually December 5th into December 6th is when we celebrate St. Nicholas night and Krampus night, and that’s the night where, around America, hundreds of cities have these festivals where people dress up as Krampus and have parades. You can go there and get hit with his switch and see him. It’s a fun festival, and I think people really enjoy the creepiness of it, almost as an extension of Halloween.
JIM HAROLD: I would agree with that. I think that it does have kind of a Halloween spirit to it. Very, very true indeed. But it isn’t just Krampus you talk about in this book; you really have a wide range of winter lore and winter legends. Talk to us about the breadth of this book and why you decided to take this project on.
CHAD LEWIS: I love winter. Growing up in the Midwest, it’s just something you can’t escape. You have to deal with it. You have to make your peace with it, or life is going to be terrible for five months or more out of the year. So I love the legends of winter. Many people, I think wrongly, believe that Halloween season is the time for spooky and scary stories, but traditionally, winter was that season when all the ghouls and monsters would be out, mainly because it was the darkest days of the year. In the dark is where evil spirits and supernatural beings would congregate and come after you. They preyed on the darkness.
I really wanted to put a book together because I didn’t see anything out there that had my interests. There are a lot of books on Christmas and winter monsters, from Krampus and La Befana and many others. There are many books on the history of Christmas and Santa Claus, several books on winter legends, but none of them combined everything I loved about winter, from predicting if you’re going to have a hard winter or how kids can help bring about a snow day from school, and why we burn the Yule log, why we decorate our trees, why we go caroling. There wasn’t something that combined all these things together. So, like always, I said, “I’ll just do it myself.”
JIM HAROLD: You talked about Krampus and the flip side being Santa Claus, of course. As I understand, you have some old tales of Santa Claus in this book, no?
CHAD LEWIS: Yes. Santa is one of my favorite character studies. Even if you don’t celebrate the holiday of Christmas, you’re probably aware of Santa Claus, the most iconic portion of Santa. But a lot of people don’t know the history of Santa Claus. There are several books on this, but all of them are 400+ pages. I’ve got many of them. Most people are interested in the history, but not that interested. They’re not going to become a scholar on it.
So I wanted to put a condensed version of Santa into the book. When he started here in America, he was seen more as a jolly little elf, smaller in size, with eight tiny reindeer. In the old days, Santa would often dress in furs. He was seen as more of a wild man of the woods that could commune and talk with animals. Sometimes he was wearing blue. He was often adorned in green. But today we think of him as wearing the red and white. In the old days, Santa would always have a pipe with him. Always in the depictions and the drawings and the paintings of Santa, he’d be smoking a pipe, even with children on his lap or near him. But today, like many of us, Santa has made better health decisions. You can no longer see him with his pipe. He gave that up. But the red and white seems to have stuck. I think wrongly, many people believe that’s because of Coca Cola.
JIM HAROLD: That’s what I was going to ask you.
CHAD LEWIS: Yes, many people believe that’s why he’s red and white, but Santa was wearing red long before Coca Cola was even a company. Coca Cola couldn’t care less. They only wanted one color: green. Money. Which is why Coca Cola, in the 1930s, hired a graphic designer to help increase their sales because throughout the country, after summer’s warmth died down, sales of Coca Cola plummeted. No one was buying pop in the winter. So they hired a designer in the 1930s to come up with some advertisement campaigns. He happened to realize the similarities between Santa’s red and white and the brand colors of Coca Cola, and the two have been linked ever since, with many people believing Coca Cola gave Santa his colors.
JIM HAROLD: Yeah, really, they are one and the same, and I think most people listening to this – when you said that campaign, they can picture that very picture of Santa Claus in their mind. It’s kind of the prototypical Santa Claus. I know right now, in my mind, I see that picture of that Santa Claus. It was so well done and so iconic that they really latched on to it. And it was great because there were no royalties to pay. It was in the public domain. One of the most brilliant advertising campaigns ever. Some people hate that kind of thing; being someone who came from an advertising background, I can tip my hat to it and say, boy, that was genius. But I see both sides of it. [laughs]
CHAD LEWIS: I see both sides, and I actually love it, although I joke about how Coca Cola was just trying to increase their profits. But that’s what a business does.
JIM HAROLD: That’s true. That’s exactly right.
CHAD LEWIS: And they depicted Santa in such a loving manner of this wholesome, jolly old man. You’re right, Jim; when you think of Coca Cola and Santa, everybody has that picture. And why not tie yourself to one of the most beloved things in the world? Brilliant on Coca Cola. I love it, and I hope they continue it.
JIM HAROLD: When we think of the Christmas holiday, which is in this December timeframe, it used to be, I think particularly in Britain, a big part of the season was telling spooky stories. In fact, that famous song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams – you may not be old enough to know who that is, but you know the song if you’ve heard it. It’s been used on Target commercials and all kinds of things, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” There’s a line in there about “spooky ghost stories.” In terms of spooky ghost stories for Christmas, when were they a big part? How were they a big part? I know everybody knows A Christmas Carol. But talk to us more about that. Why did that even go out of vogue? Because I would’ve said, “Let’s keep that part.”
CHAD LEWIS: We have Halloween to blame for why people don’t tell ghost stories by the fire around Christmas and the winter season. Halloween came up and it was this big younger brother or sister that really exploded and took all the celebration out of that season. But traditionally, it was thought that winter was when you told stories of ghosts and creepy things by the fire. Especially on Christmas Eve, because Christmas Eve was the one night where it was thought that spirits could not come back and harm you, so you were free to talk about them as much as you wanted.
And remember, this was at a time when entertainment, your possibilities were very limited. You were in a one-room cabin with your family for the entire winter. No running water, no heat, no electricity. It was all by the fire, so the only thing you could do was tell stories.
One of the weirdest legends of telling stories – I stumbled across this old piece of folklore that tells that when families were sitting around telling ghost stories by the fire, it was said that if your shadow cast upon the wall did not have its head, you would not survive the next 12 months. You’d be dead. I can just imagine families scrambling to make sure everybody’s shadow had its head on it. But that was one of the legends, this gruesome legend that you wouldn’t survive.
I’m happy to say that the idea of telling Victorian ghost stories has made a huge resurgence during Christmas. There are numerous books right now that are small, one-story books from Victorian era that are ghost stories from that era that are meant to be read on Christmas Eve within 15-20 minutes for the family. So a lot of people are keeping that tradition going to this very day.
JIM HAROLD: I think that is very, very neat indeed. Well, Chad, when we get back, we’re going to talk about more things – stories of little people, New Year’s Eve rituals, the Wendigo, and more, right after this on the Paranormal Podcast.
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Merry Christmas and happy holidays from the Spooky Studio! Now, back to the Paranormal Podcast.
JIM HAROLD: We’re back on the Paranormal Podcast. Happy winter to everybody. Winter Legends and Lore – that’s the topic of today’s show. Our guest is Chad Lewis. And actually, I should say this: the book was illustrated by a friend of the show, Morgan Knudsen. I didn’t even realize she was an illustrator. That is so neat, Chad.
CHAD LEWIS: We all think of Morgan, my good friend and colleague, as this expert in the paranormal and supernatural and parapsychology, but she is a fantastic artist. When I started talking to her about this book of how I wanted the illustrations to be like they popped off the page in a 1900s newspaper, she knew exactly what I meant and drew up all these wonderful illustrations that I have no doubt will be the favorite part for many people.
JIM HAROLD: I think that is awesome. Just absolutely awesome. I love when you see good people who are very knowledgeable and are great at their work collaborate. I think that’s so cool. When I saw it, I’m like, “Whoa, that is cool!”
One that got my interest here is this idea of strange weather predictions. Anybody who lives in the snowy parts of the world like Chad does, and I do to a lesser extent, we’re full of weather predictions with our maps and computers and all that, but weather predictions go way back. I think of the Farmer’s Almanac, and even way before that. So tell us about some of these strange weather predictions, Chad.
CHAD LEWIS: You’re absolutely right that today it’s easy just to google it and see what the weather prediction is going to be, but in the old days that wasn’t available. And remember, throughout most of the history of America, the overwhelming majority of people lived on farms. Farming was their livelihood, and knowing the weather would be a big benefit to those farmers trying to keep their family alive and keep their crops going the next season.
If you believe all the old folklore of winter, there were numerous things that would point to whether or not you were going to have a hard winter. They were things you’d need a keen eye for, like if you noticed caterpillars were all of a sudden extra bushy, it meant they were preparing for a hard winter. The same as with squirrel tails. If the tail of your squirrel was extra bushy, it meant a hard season. Or the hair on the cow’s face, if it was extra thick, or the husk of corn, if you noticed that was extra thick. It all foretold of a horrible winter coming your way.
For us today, I always joke that most of us, when we look out the back window of our yard and see a squirrel, we don’t know if that tail is extra bushy or not.
JIM HAROLD: [laughs] I don’t.
CHAD LEWIS: I don’t, but there are some easier signs. One of my favorites was that if you see two woodpeckers in the same tree, it meant a horrible winter was on its way. Most of these signs and symbols that you could pick up on were meaning of a harshness coming, because of course, that sold more Farmer’s Almanacs and it was a lot easier to predict than a terrific winter because if you predict a terrific winter and it doesn’t come, people are upset. But if it’s vice versa, there’s no harm in that. So there were all these little things that you could pick up on.
JIM HAROLD: Clickbait.
CHAD LEWIS: Yeah, it really was. And people would gobble these up because again, the Farmer’s Almanac, which dates back to the mid-1800s in print, was your only source for these kinds of things. They would give the most accurate predictions they could, and there would be all kinds of folklore around weather and soil and plants because that knowledge is what people needed. Today we’re filling our heads with all of our various passwords; people of the old days filled it with weather folklore and legends because that was key to their survival. For many of them, it was a life-or-death scenario.
JIM HAROLD: That’s very important. There’s – I guess it’s a caterpillar or something we have here in northeast Ohio, and I know they have them in other places – woolly bears. And I know that something about the stripe of the woolly bear, the size of the stripe or something, could help tell you what the winter was going to be like. That’s a popular thing here because we had a weather forecaster in Cleveland by the name of Dick Goddard who was on the air for basically 60 years. Every market has one, one person who is the legend in their market. He created this whole Woolly Bear Festival, which is a huge thing every year, and there’s more about that. So that’s what I always think about. Shame on me, being from Cleveland – I can’t remember exactly what the lore is. But that’s always what I think about.
CHAD LEWIS: It’s funny you bring that up because my colleague Kevin Nelson just sent me this morning a text from his backyard saying that they saw their woolly bears out there and that it’s a sign it’s going to be a mild winter because it has more brown stripes than normal.
JIM HAROLD: I knew it was something. I couldn’t remember what it was. I hope they’re right. I like a little bit of snow through Christmas; I think it’s nice, it adds to the seasonality. And then I’m good. [laughs] But sometimes snow can be fun, for sure.
Now, you have something here – stories of little people? What were these stories of little people?
CHAD LEWIS: Throughout the world, little people, whether you would call them gnomes, elves, fairies, sprites, the hidden people, the good folk, whatever – these little people would often be accompanying farms. Think of little gnomes. If you treated them well on the farm, they were thought to be master caretakers of livestock. They could talk with animals and hear many of their ailments. They would help with all of your crops succeeding. They would clean up around the farm. Mostly they were invisible or unseen to human eyes.
During the winter months is the time in which they would come in and congregate around your hearth, your fireplace for the warmth, the heat, the light. It was thought that you needed to respect these little people by leaving them gifts and offerings, whether it was some baked goods, some sweets, some candies, tobacco, some spirits. Leave it out so the little people will help you run your farm in an efficient and profitable manner. And if you didn’t, bad luck would befall you. All of a sudden, your crops would fail. Your animals might go lame. All of a sudden you’re starting to trip more and have accidents. You’re clumsy because the little people aren’t helping you out around the farm.
I always advise people that when they’re baking some cookies for Santa, they bring a few more out for the little people in the winter season so they’ll continue to help you with your chores. The big debate today is that now that more and more people have moved to cities and towns, what happens to the little people? Do they stay out in the farmland, which they are thought to be ancient caretakers of? Or do they come with the people and live in harmony with us?
And around the world, we’re not the only ones to believe in them. In Scandinavia, they have the nisse, the tomten, and all kinds of other supernatural beings that will come into your homestead and help you survive the winter months.
JIM HAROLD: That brings about an interesting point. I was thinking about this. I think so many times, when we think of winter, we think of things like drabness and death and all of these things. But really, in a way, I think a lot of this is about keeping the light alive, keeping that flame burning even through the coldest time of the year. Is that really part of it, Chad?
CHAD LEWIS: You hit it right on the head. In the old days, bonfires were huge parts of winter. It’s also one of the reasons why we decorate our evergreens inside, our Christmas trees, with lights, because it’s a symbol that light will overcome darkness. Not only will light keep all the evil at bay, but it’s bringing hope because the evergreen never dies. It means that spring will eventually come, winter will recede, and life will continue.
That was the big symbolism, whether you were having Winter Solstice fires or New Year’s Eve fires to burn away the previous year. Fire not only was meant, again, to keep evil at bay, but also that symbolism, that hope. And that was something people needed, which is why we have so many festivals and rituals during the winter season. People needed something to look forward to because winter was a harsh and terrible time in the old days. As I mentioned, people didn’t have running water, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, they didn’t have heat, electricity. Many of them didn’t have enough food for the season. It was a harsh time. A little bit different than today, where most of us, if we’re fortunate enough, have those things.
Times were tough, so any symbol of light conquering darkness was very important. And believe it or not, the earliest lights on Christmas trees were candles, live candles. Which I don’t advise today. [laughs] Certainly I’d rather you not burn your house down during the winter months. But they actually did it in those days with live candles.
JIM HAROLD: What is one of your favorite things about the winter legends or lore that most people aren’t – and maybe we’ve already talked about it, but is there one we haven’t talked about that most people aren’t aware of and you think is particularly noteworthy or cool?
CHAD LEWIS: I think two. One is a New Year’s Eve ritual. On New Year’s Eve, people used to have bonfires where they would burn the previous year. They’d fire weapons at it to kill it, literally try to kill the old year so the new year could come in. But one tradition that’s been lost because of people going out so much and kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the bars and taverns is that on New Year’s, it was thought that at midnight, you had to open a door or window at your home, not only to allow the new year in so you’ll have a more profitable and healthy and more productive new year, but more importantly, to allow the negativity of the previous year to exit. And if it didn’t, it would be stuck with you the entire year, if you did not crack a door or window.
I always thought that was an interesting thing because allowing the past to escape – move on. We don’t have time to dwell on the old. We have to prepare for the new. I love that tradition of letting out the bad parts of the previous year, and being that the last couple years have been very trying for a lot of people, I think it’s more important than ever to allow that negativity out of your home.
JIM HAROLD: I agree. We could use some letting out of that negativity, for sure. What we’re going to talk about when we get back is one of the most frightening. We’ve talked about it on some of our Halloween specials you’ve been on: that of the Wendigo. I know that’s a favorite of yours from the standpoint of it’s one of the most striking, but also one of the most terrifying. We’ll be back shortly with Chad Lewis, talking about Winter Legends and Lore.
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Follow Jim on Twitter and Instagram @TheJimHarold and join our Virtual Campfire Facebook group at VirtualCampfireGroup.com. Now, back to the Paranormal Podcast.
JIM HAROLD: We’re back on the Paranormal Podcast. Our guest is Chad Lewis. The book is Winter Legends and Lore, and we’re so glad to have him with us.
Chad, I don’t know that we talked about this on the Paranormal Podcast, but we have on these Halloween livestreams that we do every year, and you’ve become an annual guest – and thank you for that. People really enjoy your appearances on that. But the Wendigo, can you talk to us about the Wendigo? Because it is very chilling, and it really is something that sticks with you once you hear about it.
CHAD LEWIS: This is one of those legends you might not want to know about. It’s certainly one you don’t want to say its name because many cultures believe that merely saying the name of this thing is enough to put you on its radar. When you go looking for the weird, the weird will come looking for you.
The Wendigo is this monster from Indigenous lore. Hundreds of years ago, the First Nation people of Canada believed in a creature called the Wendigo, and it quickly spread to the Great Lakes region and Eastern U.S. as well. This thing was this horrible, gigantic creature, eight feet tall or as big as it wanted to be. Very thin, skeletal, looking like a ghoul. Sometimes it was missing its own mouth and lips because it had an insatiable hunger for human flesh, and when no humans were around, it would consume its own body.
It would show up during winter, mostly, when times were tough, people were starving, resorting to cannibalism, and it would either devour you and kill you, or worse yet, it would possess you and slowly turn you into a Wendigo. We have dozens and dozens of cases of people killing one another because they thought that that person was turning into a Wendigo, and if they didn’t kill them, the entire town, village, or tribe would’ve been wiped out.
JIM HAROLD: That is absolutely terrifying. I think those legends, it’s interesting to hear what these ancient peoples had to say about these things because sometimes there’s parallels with our own lore of more modern times or certain themes that are incredibly fascinating indeed.
So what is your wish for winter? What do you hope for winter, and what we all learn about winter?
CHAD LEWIS: Great question. For me, I hope what people take from this book is that they take comfort and solace in knowing the traditions, why we perform them, why they’re significant, and why they’re so important. As I mentioned, you and I talked earlier about how people get in this melancholy during the winter months around the holiday season, believing that the season’s nothing more than greed and consumerism. And I agree, it can be that.
But I think knowing these legends and that people have been doing these customs for thousands of years really adds more significance. It adds more importance to the season that on New Year’s Eve, when I’m opening up that window to allow the new year in, it’s great to think people have been doing this since the beginning of buildings, and that I’m following in the same footsteps. For me, it just makes this season much more special and meaningful than previous years when I didn’t know all these legends and lore.
JIM HAROLD: That’s important. People say, “Why do we study these?” Why do you study lore and these ancient legends? Why are they important to you?
CHAD LEWIS: I think on a greater level, they bring us together as a species. These legends are out there; they don’t care your race, your religion, your language that you speak, none of that. They’re there in a greater context of what it means to be living on this planet, especially for those of us who live in winter climates. They’re for everybody. They bring people together, much like going caroling during this season is meant to do as well.
I think that’s the importance, that tying us together. Maybe we feel alone during this season, but knowing that we’re part of this humanity that has been here for thousands of years, and you can go out and stare at the stars knowing that people were doing it thousands of years ago – for me, that’s just a treasure. That’s one of the reasons why I love all these customs, even though there are so many of them that you could never possibly adhere to all of them. But just knowing that they’re there and that people still believe them is very comforting for me.
JIM HAROLD: Chad, always a pleasure to speak with you. Always great. Where can people find this book and all of your other work?
CHAD LEWIS: Sure. The easiest way to get a hold of me is my website, chadlewisresearch.com.
JIM HAROLD: Very good. I know the book is on Amazon and they can find it there as well, and we’ll have a link at the website as well. Chad Lewis, thank you for joining us on the show. Always a pleasure. You always have such passion for these topics, always such great insight and information. I look forward to doing it again soon.
CHAD LEWIS: Keep an eye out!
JIM HAROLD: Always great to talk with Chad. I kind of consider him the “King of Cryptid Folklore,” and a great time of year to look at the subject of winter legends and lore and monsters, and I hope that you do check out his book at Amazon. Again, thank Chad for being on the show.
Next up, we’re going to get into the time machine and visit with Michelle Belanger while we talk about the origins of Yuletide.
Oh, we have a great show today and we have a great guest with us, the great Michelle Belanger. Michelle has written I think over two dozen books and counting at this point. Of course, you may know her as television’s personality on Paranormal State. Today we’re going to talk about maybe some of the origins of what we know as Christmas and predating Christmas, and things of that nature. We’re so glad to have her with us once again. Michelle, welcome to the program.
MICHELLE BELANGER: Hello. Thank you for having me. I’ve got my festive – as festive as I get for the holidays. [laughs]
JIM HAROLD: I’ve got my “Get Lit.” You can’t really see it, but it is blinking with all the lights. You can’t really see it. I like it. That is a very, very nice hat. Very nice. Thank you for sharing.
MICHELLE BELANGER: That is my Christmas hat. The end. [laughs]
JIM HAROLD: I like it, I like it. Just enough seasonality. So I think many people think that Christmas started as a Christian concept and that’s it, but the idea of this winter festival really predates that, and I thought we should do a show on that, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to ask than you. I think you’d be the perfect person who can take us back and explain some of these origins. With that, tell us a little bit about the history of Christmas before Christmas.
MICHELLE BELANGER: It’s complicated because religion has never not been politicized. There was a decision to set Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, on the date that it was, that was influenced by a number of other things. Current biblical scholarship leans toward the theory that the birthday was actually in the spring.
Now, why would they want to move it? There’s a couple of reasons, probably the biggest one being a fellow named Constantine, who was an emperor of Rome. Kind of famously went from being a pagan Roman emperor to being a converted Christian emperor. But he was, like many people in charge at the time and infamous Roman emperors, a bit full of himself. [laughs] One of the gods that he worshipped before he converted to Christianity was Sol Invictus, the Triumphant Sun. The holiday for that, for the great triumph of the sun over the darkness, was the Winter Solstice. It by some accounts also happened to coincide with Constantine’s birthday, so he had a vested interest in trying to make this a fancy thing for him.
When Constantine had everybody sit down for the Nicene Creed and to basically come up with a more Orthodox Christianity – because Romans loved their lists. If they were around now, it would all be spreadsheets and bureaucracy, because it totally was back then, too. One of the things that Christianity was lacking prior to that was it was very heterodox. There were lots of different takes on things. Not everybody agreed on what dates were important, what holidays and festivals were important. They didn’t even agree on things like, is reincarnation real, is it not real?
So it becomes official that Christmas is celebrated around the Winter Solstice, but the Winter Solstice has a significance not only for Sol Invictus and the triumph of the sun over the darkness, but it’s something that you find in multiple cultures that definitely predate Christianity.
A lot of ink is spilled, and plenty of memes these days – I mean, we probably all saw the Fox News Christmas thing catch on fire, or saw the aftermath, and everybody was really upset how this Christmas tree is a sign of Christmas, and it’s a big thing. Anybody who has any background in folklore and mythology and paganism was quick to point out that Christmas trees don’t have much to do with Jesus at all. The evergreen tree that is covered in lights is a remnant of the Festival of Lights that was typically the Winter Solstice for most pagan societies.
Now, why is it so completely wedded to a Christian celebration? That has a lot to do with how Christianity spread, especially through Europe, and not merely Europe. Partly because of the way it got woven in with Roman culture, early Christianity really adopted a lot of Roman tactics, and one of the ways that Romans spread their empire and ensured as much control over all of these disparate societies as possible was they would go in, they would acquaint themselves with the local traditions, they would decide what they might be able to stamp out, and they would sort of make a compromise with the things that they couldn’t get rid of. They would integrate them into what looked like more Roman society.
So if there was a god that kind of was like Jupiter, they would just be like, “This is Jupiter, only in his form up here. So you’re still worshipping a Roman god, and we’re all Roman, and here’s how you do it. And yeah, sure, he was actually your god before this, but no really, he’s Jupiter. He was all along.” It’s got a lot to do with propagandizing and finding ways to change the message and to synchronize these disparate cultures. And that’s what they did with Christianity.
So this winter festival of evergreen trees and decorating your homes with evergreen boughs to remind yourself that at the end of winter, when all the food is scarce and when it’s grown cold and when the snow is on the ground and when the earth has become this barren, unforgiving thing, that there’s still green. That there will still be a rebirth, that there will still be hope for food and life and new life. That became a part of what we see now as the celebration of Christmas. Holly boughs, Christmas trees.
Also, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. They didn’t know to call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, but certainly there is a dreariness for most people that hits during this time of year as the nights just get longer and longer and the days get shorter. Creating a festival that goes back millennia, where people would gather around a fire, where they would gather as much light around them as possible, as affordable, to remind themselves on that longest night of the year that the light would triumph – Sol Invictus, that the light would be born again – not merely from a Roman thing. You would see this in culture after culture after culture because in a lot of ways, it was a very natural method that people would react to this phenomenon of the seasons.
JIM HAROLD: Interesting. I was going to say on the Fox thing, when I saw that somebody lit a Christmas tree on fire, regardless of politics, I thought that was pretty reprehensible. I’d say the same thing if it were MSNBC’s tree. I don’t know where we got in this country where we have to set things on fire when we disagree with someone on either side. I just don’t get it.
MICHELLE BELANGER: At first I was like, “Oh, the Christmas tree’s on fire.” The fire hazard goes up because especially that whole light festival, all of the LEDs and lights, the way in which trees would just catch on fire –
JIM HAROLD: Oddly, I was just telling my daughter this. When I was a little kid – I don’t know if you remember the big C9 bulbs, the big ones. We had an artificial Christmas tree. I guess I was like two years old, and they were on there, and I knocked over the Christmas tree – which turned out to be fortuitous because the branches were starting to burn. [laughs] That was a lucky accident, I guess.
Now, I am fascinated by this idea of rebirth in the sense that the days are the shortest, the 21st or so, and then they start to get longer. That kind of plays into the message of Christ as well, so even though it seems like there are a lot of maybe nefarious reasons that it was done, it actually fits really well in many ways, I would think, because of birth and so forth. I don’t want to make this a Christian thing, though – how does it fit today for other faiths, like pagans and so forth?
MICHELLE BELANGER: First thing, to talk to the nefarious aspect of it, the Romans were just really good at marketing, and some of it it’s nefarious, but some of it is really just horse sense when it comes to finding ways to sell a message to people. So I just want to say it wasn’t some grand conspiracy. It was knowing how to pitch a message and get a bunch of people on board with it.
JIM HAROLD: And make it fit, yeah.
MICHELLE BELANGER: Yeah. So, what is this winter holiday for especially pagans? Modern pagans – the myth of an unbroken lineage that has been passed along through mother to daughter or father to son over millennia for any pagan practice, it is a myth. There’s little bits and things that survive, but it’s not like there’s any single pagan tradition that looks now like it looked as it was practiced hundreds or a thousand years ago. So in a lot of ways, modern paganism is an attempt to recreate and reconstruct what a pre-Christian religion looked like. We don’t have the most ideal resources for that. A lot of these cultures were oral traditions, like things were passed along through stories and through songs and through mystery traditions and initiatory experiences, and a lot of things were not committed to print. So we have to guess in many ways.
We know that the Winter Solstice was important. We know that many of the originally pagan societies would celebrate things that followed an astronomical progression of the year, that followed this shift in the calendar that either was lunar or solar, and sometimes a combination of the two. The solstices and the equinoxes, in most societies, were very observable and ended up being tentpoles for the celebrations throughout the year.
Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere has a couple of notable things that inspire how the ritual was celebrated. Again, longest night of the year, so it’s about reflecting on the dark times, but also finding the light in the darkness. There is an implication there of rebirth, as you observed, and also of immortality, however you may interpret that.
In Celtic paganism and in some of the other loosely recreated ones, they’ll practice Yule, which is sort of seen as the Northern precursor to what got wedded to the Christian Christmas. Again, you’re going to have a Yule log, you’re going to have a tree. The tree is the symbol of the rebirth and the survival. It’s usually an evergreen tree for a reason. They were seen as things that didn’t die because they didn’t lose their leaves. They didn’t go through that traditional shedding in the autumn that so many other trees do. All sorts of evergreens became symbols of an enduring spirit, hope even in the face of death and barrenness and infertility.
My own group – one of the things about modern religions is you have the freedom to interpret things the way you want to, and if you do that consciously, after studying folklore and mythology and why we do religious ceremony in the first place – usually it’s a psychosocial event. It is an event that is supposed to speak to the social group engaging with it and to hit them in the feels, have certain psychological either triggers, experiences, things that speak deeply to people on a mythic and personal level.
So when creating our own, I made our ritual for the Winter Solstice, the Festival of Lights, except we’re the lights. The unending, the undying spirit, that spark that can’t be extinguished in the darkness, that’s us. So each of us holds a candle in our little circle, and we turn off all the other lights and we reflect on that candle and how we are the light in the darkness for others in those darkest hours, and how that can be challenging sometimes, but as long as one, just one, spark remains, it’s possible to reignite the whole from that one spark. So it’s about enduring through the hard times, too.
JIM HAROLD: I love the idea of different people taking from it what works for them. For example, for me, I am of the Christian faith. I’m not a big churchgoer or anything, but to me a significant part of it is the birth of Christ. For me. The other things – I love the tacky TV specials, and you can see the sometimes over-the-top decorations. I love all that stuff. If people want to take part of that and leave other parts to the side because they don’t fit with their faith tradition or anything, I’m totally cool with it. I actually love to see it because it’s one of the few things in our society, I think, these days that people can still have fun with together and enjoy.
On the other hand, is there over-commercialization? Of course there is. It kind of goes back to Stan Freberg, if you remember “Green Christmas” many, many years ago. He was a famous comedian back in the early ’60s, and later did the Dell commercials, if you remember those. But the point being, is it perfect? No. Is anything perfect? No. But there is a lot of good in it, and I think there’s a lot of shared experience. And when people, as I said, with different faith traditions can still have fun with it and the parts that speak to them, I think that’s very cool.
Now, in terms of the symbols, you talked about the Christmas tree. Are there any other symbols that come to mind that were borrowed from other faith traditions or other traditions that we, part and parcel, see as part of Christmas today?
MICHELLE BELANGER: It depends on how you celebrate, because there was another Roman festival that happened around about the same time called Saturnalia, which was a decadent, days-long festival of debauchery and feasting. We do integrate a little bit of that into pretty much our winter holidays. It sort of makes sense. You are reminded of privation, so you gather together among one another and celebrate what you have.
The gift-giving is something that you’ll find from place to place, but honestly I don’t know one specific place where that started. I would argue that there is a secular ritual that we now call Christmas that has grown out of this fusion of multiple systems, including Christianty, including the various pagan influences, honestly including non-Christian folks who are just celebrating a holiday about family and friends.
You see people trying to retool that as “Giftmas” and “Friendsmas” and however you want to do that, and I think one of the things that’s fascinating about any of this, trying to track down what came from where, is rituals, religion, and all these practices are things that are constantly evolving based on how we as people, as cultures, interact with one another. Tracking down who did it first sometimes it less important than what it means to us now.
JIM HAROLD: Good point. I’ve got to ask you about this because two things come to mind. One that’s become very popular: Krampus. Why do you think that the darker aspects of Christmas appeal to us beyond just Scrooge? Krampus certainly is a pretty popular guy over the last decade or so.
MICHELLE BELANGER: For one, all of us who like spooky things really only get one holiday a year, and it’s just not enough. [laughs]
JIM HAROLD: That’s right.
MICHELLE BELANGER: But also, I think as we move forward and really deconstruct the parts about our society and culture and our traditions that do have a dark side – in the vein of why those sort of lords of misrule and almost dark figures like Krampus existed in their villages in the first place, we need to play with that darkness. We need to project it outside of ourselves. We need to find some way to engage with it in a way that’s not actually threatening.
So making it a part of play, even if it is terrifying, like it’s horned and a long tongue and there are so many aspects to that that’s very demonic – and it’s all in good fun. We’re looking at our dark side, we’re pulling it out, we’re confronting it, but mostly we’re confronting it by both playing along with it and making fun of it. Which is where things like Krampus come from in the first place. It’s why you would have these little village rituals where folks would dress up in scary costumes, which was not exclusive to Halloween by any means – and was pretty typical across Europe in the winter holidays, again, because people were scared about things. There were lots of things to be terrified about with this time of year. So bringing those fears out, embodying them, giving us a chance to confront them.
I’m going to mispronounce it, but there is a tradition in the UK, Wales particularly, the Mari Lwyd – again, I’m certain I am mispronouncing it – it is a horse skull that is all dressed up that goes parading through the town and sings, door to door to door, and you have to sing back to it. Otherwise it comes in, and the person who is underneath this costume is enabled to rifle through your pantry and grab food and whatnot.
JIM HAROLD: Right, I’ve heard this. Drink your liquor. [laughs]
MICHELLE BELANGER: We think of – we’ve got our Christmas trees and we’ve got holly wreaths and all of this stuff that it’s like, “Oh, I can see how we adopted that,” and then you’ve got a horse skull that’s dressed up and goes singing around town. That is very weird. But it’s also probably a remnant of a horse religious cult, where it was – I don’t want to say totemic because that’s more what we would think of as Native American, but this was an animal that was very significant and its cycles of life may be reflected in this. And again, because so few things were written down, it’s really hard to know for sure.
Our Santa Claus is another one who’s a holdover, and he’s not always been a jolly, potbellied elf in every situation where he shows up. The being who chooses who’s good and who’s bad, the being who rewards the good kids and then punishes the bad kids – in some ways, Santa is a nicely marketed and dressed up version of a couple of different figures, honestly Krampus not excluded.
JIM HAROLD: Well, Santa Claus certainly had an image makeover from Coca Cola, as we know. We’ll say no more, but hopefully everybody’s been good and Santa will come, and bring them only good things.
MICHELLE BELANGER: One thing our society learned from the Romans is marketing. We are so good at it.
JIM HAROLD: That’s right. Where can people find all the information on you? Because I know you do so much, and there’s so much we could mention. I don’t want to leave anything out, so I highly recommend people go to your website. Where would they go?
MICHELLE BELANGER: I always forget, too. There’s so much. The website is probably the best place. If folks are most interested in my psychic stuff or just sitting down and having conversations with me, I have got a vibrant community on Patreon, which is the easiest thing to remember. My Patreon is patreon.com/haunted.
JIM HAROLD: Hey! [laughs]
MICHELLE BELANGER: Yeah. If you pop in there, that’s where I’m doing all my classes, that’s where I’m doing all the virtual work. I’ve somehow managed to be a consistent human being, which was never the case before COVID, and I do weekly chats with people. It’s just been so sustaining, for me and for the people who are there. Those are the two places I would say. Pop over to the website for all the books and things; check out the Patreon and see if that’s something that you want to do. Become part of a community and just hang out, learn things, share.
JIM HAROLD: That sounds great. Well, thank you once again. It’s always a pleasure to catch up, and happy holidays to you.
MICHELLE BELANGER: To you as well.
JIM HAROLD: Always great to catch up with Michelle. Make sure to follow all of her current projects over at michellebelanger.com.
And we thank you very much for taking time out of your holiday season to spend some time with us. As I said at the beginning, I wish you and yours the happiest of holiday seasons, the best of Christmases, the best of New Years, and I hope that Santa puts something very good in your stocking. In all seriousness, regardless of what faith tradition or holiday tradition you observe – or maybe you don’t observe any – but whatever it might be, I hope that it is a very, very good time for you. You’ve been so good to me and my family, so I just want to say thank you.
We’ll talk to you next time. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and stay spooky. Bye-bye, everybody.
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