People say that long ago the dead held a service on the night before Christmas. Once a woman arrived too early for Christmas service. When she entered the church she found it lit up and full of dead people, singing:
Here we sing, our bones all bleached,
Here we sing with beautiful voice,
When shall the day of judgment come,
What yet have you to say?
The story continues on as the woman recognizes her dead sister among the congregation. Warned by her sister that she must flee, for the dead will take her life, the woman escapes, dropping her shawl behind her to confuse her cadaverous pursuers. When the churchwarden arrives on Christmas morning and puts the lights on, he spies the shawl in the empty chapel, torn almost beyond recognition.
This tale is widely spread in Europe and is extremely old, having been set in Autun, Burgandy, by Gregory of Tours in his De Gloria Confessorum. See below for an illustrated version of the best-known Scandinavian variant of this migratory legend, “The Midnight Mass of the Dead” from Asbørnsen’s “En gammelgags juleaften” (“An Old Fashioned Christmas Eve”). These wonderfully evocative images, full of dim shades, grim shadows and midwinter’s eerie light, were created by brilliant artist Chris Van Allsburg (Jumangi, The Polar Express) and can be found in “Ghosts” volume from the Time Life Enchanted World series. These scans are from my personal collection; higher-resolution, more detailed versions can be found here.
Wishing you peace and light in this dark, dying time of the year, and may you not be without your shawl or other talisman this winter holiday when the dead are afoot and hungry for your company.