The Christmas Service of the Dead

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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  (JumangiThe 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.

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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.

-S. Elizabeth

Sources: Swedish Legends and Folktales by John Lindow

9 Comments on The Christmas Service of the Dead

  1. Maika
    December 24, 2014 at 5:47 pm (5 years ago)

    Oh my, thank you for sharing this wonderfully haunted holiday tale. It’s entirely new to me and I love it.

    Reply
  2. lau
    December 26, 2014 at 3:44 pm (5 years ago)

    amazing!

    Reply
  3. Maika
    December 25, 2015 at 1:59 am (4 years ago)

    One year later and I still love this tale as well as your tradition of sharing it. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Anya
    December 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm (3 years ago)

    Notice that with each passing page, the portrait becomes more skeletal. Bruuuutaaaaal.

    Reply
  5. Tamara
    January 7, 2017 at 2:41 pm (3 years ago)

    It reminds me of those times we lost power and kids would come over to read spooky tales to the light of the oil lamps.

    Reply

1Pingbacks & Trackbacks on The Christmas Service of the Dead

  1. […] S. Elizabeth: I initially wrote the following on Christmas eve, over a decade ago, but have since made an annual tradition of trotting out the creepy old chestnut to share with friends and kindred spirits. I cannot envision a more like-minded bunch with which to share a ghostly Christmas tale than my Haute Macabre family, so please read on, and I hope you enjoy its eerie delights as much as I do. (As originally posted at Unquiet Things.) […]

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