Sarah Chavez (interviewed previously) is a museum curator and historian who writes and recreates historical and cultural recipes for her blog, Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion, and society. She is also co-founder of Death & the Maiden, which explores the relationship between women and death by sharing ideas and creating a platform for discussion and feminist narratives. She is the executive director of The Order of the Good Death and serves as the Social Media Editor for Death Salon.
To continue our monthly installment of Ten Things, and just in time for our full moon, 2018 winter solstice, Sarah is here to share her Top Ten reasons as to why she loves the holiday season! There are eerie and wonderful and delights to be found here, indeed; I suggest you grab a cup of something steaming and fragrant, dim the lights, curl into your favorite seat, and tuck right in!
During this time of darkness, when one year ends and another begins, people have practiced rituals to honor and appease the dead. Similar to Halloween this threshold between the old and the new allows the dead, (along with demons, spirits, and witches), passage between our worlds.
We leave offerings of food on our tables and doorsteps for otherworldly beings, eat beans for good luck (which were once believed to be vessels that held the souls of the dead), and make noise (fireworks, gunshots, cheering) at midnight on New Year’s Eve to scare away unwanted spirits who wish to do us harm or bring misfortune.
Indeed, this is a magical time of year…but not for the reasons you might think.
1. Ghost Stories
“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
Ghosts? On Christmas?
Ghost stories on Christmas were once an important part of holiday traditions –
“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote Jermome K Jerome in 1891.
This year, gather around a fire, or a pizza, to share ghost stories with your loved ones, or track down episodes of the BBC series Ghost Stories For Christmas and revive this wonderful, forgotten tradition.
For me, the holidays season officially begins with St. Andrew’s Eve on the night of November 29th, when the vampires arrive. According to Romanian folklore, not only do spirits of the dead roam the earth this night but so do the undead. Be sure to rub garlic on your windows and your pets!
3. Holiday Movies
If Hallmark Christmas movie marathons, and reruns of Miracle on 34th Street are not your thing (because they definitely aren’t mine), here are some alternative seasonal favorites that pair just as well with some popcorn and hot chocolate by the fire.
Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) – There’s witchcraft, a cat, and a secret nightclub for witches set against a Christmas in New York City backdrop.
Fanny and Alexander (1982) – Ingmar Bergen has a way of beautifully and painfully exposing the best and worst of human beings. In this lavish, visually stunning film he takes viewers inside the Ekdhal family’s Victorian era Christmas to explore the pain and joys of family.
The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Intended as a sequel to Cat People (1942), this gem features the main players of the horror classic, but that’s where the ties end. In it, an alienated little girl makes friends with a ghost, and an elderly, reclusive actress. Critic Leonard Maltin’s descriptives of the film as “wonderful atmosphere [and] fine, moody fantasy” are spot on.
Night of the Hunter (1955) – I saved the best for last – Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece. This is essentially a fairy tale, both terrifying and achingly beautiful. If you’ve never seen it, here – this is my holiday gift to you.
4. Christmas Monsters
You are all probably already familiar with Krampus, but the holiday landscape is full of terrors, making it even more festive! Here are a few you may not be familiar with:
The Tomten are creatures that live in Scandanavia, and bear a strong resemblance to the Expedia Gnome. They reside among the dead in the burial mounds surrounding nearby homes where they act as caretakers, protectors and helpers of the household. But beware for they are easily offended and have quite the temper. The Tomten are known to act out their anger by killing livestock and playing nasty ticks on the home’s inhabitants, breaking things around the house, hiding important objects, (where did my car keys go?!), curdling the milk and tying the cows’ tails together. No cows? Your shoelaces will suffice.
There are even some stories of Tomten driving people insane with their tricks or even biting them. Their bites, being poisonous, typically lead to death.
You would be well advised to leave a gift of food out on Christmas Eve for this fellow.
The Karakoncolos is a version of bigfoot who can be found in Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. He appears during the Christmas holidays and lurks in the shadows on street corners awaiting the arrival of passerby. When someone crosses The Karakoncolos’ path, he asks them a riddle. If the word “black” is not incorporated into the answer, the unfortunate person receives a death blow from the monster.
Each year on New Year’s Eve the Japanese village of Oga carries out an elaborate ritual involving demonic-like ogre figures, the Namahage. During the grand annual festival fifteen Namahage march down from the mountain where they are said to live and descend upon the village. The demons hand out sticky rice cakes to the citizens of Oga, believed to ward off disaster in the coming year, which sounds pretty nice right? However, once that is done the demons visit every household in the village where they berate the women and children and then threaten to kidnap them. The family offer the Namahage some sake and do their best to convince them not to take anyone away this year. This usually does the trick.
5. Christmas Music
A hallmark of Christmas is the music of the season. We are all too familiar with the thematic elements of the overly cute, romantic, sentimental and of course, sacred songs of the holiday season.
When you think about it, it isn’t terribly difficult to find curiously macabre songs and carols among the pack. After all, even by Christian standards, this is the celebration of a figure who has always been linked to death.
The Holly and the Ivy
One of the most popular Christmas songs, The Holly and the Ivy may be burdened with the stamp of Christianity, but still manages to maintain its pagan fertility imagery – so obvious, there is no need to explain. It’s Christmas Sexy-Time!
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower…
We Three Kings
Another popular Christmas song we all know, that little kids sing at school, and frequently plays over the speakers at the grocery store.
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Composer Peter Warlock was experiencing financial difficulties. He had recently befriended poet and party boy Bruce Blunt. The first account of their mutual company was from a press report detailing their arrests for being “drunk and disorderly.” Lack of funds to fuel their party life prompted their collaboration on Bethlehem Down, which, in turn, won them the Daily Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol writing contest. The prize money funded an “immoral carouse” on Christmas Eve in 1927.
When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
The Coventry Carol
You may not recognize it from the name, but you know it. This carol was originally contained within a mystery play, retelling the story of Christmas. This song is sung by the mothers of the little boys under the age of two, who are destined to be brutally murdered by King Herod’s men. In the last lines, they say goodbye to their children. A truly haunting and heartbreaking piece.
In many parts of Europe, witches are a common and popular figure of the Christmas season. Prior to the Christian church taking over January 6th as Epiphany or Three Kings night, this was the holy night of Berchta, goddess of winter, witchcraft and animals.
Many countries have adapted Berchta to their own cultures and she goes by many different names and personas, from the kindly La Befana who leaves Italian children small gifts, to the sinister Perchta who punishes the idle and greedy by ripping out their intestines and replacing them with straw, rocks, and garbage.
By now it should be no surprise that many of our traditional Christmas foods are also attached to some dark folklore. For example, fat from the Christmas Goose would be left outside as an offering for witches who would use it to make flying ointment.
For me and many other Latinx’s, holiday season equals, tamale, pozole, and ponche season. Pozole is a soup that has been around for centuries, originating in Mexico prior to colonization. It was a common dish, made with a combination of herbs, peppers, corn and meat. When the pozole was served in conjunction with festival days, or as a part of sacred rituals, the meat in some cases was from the bodies of those who were sacrificed.
Nowadays we use pork and chicken, but making pozole is another way our traditions link us to our family, culture, ancestors, and the dead.
8. Visits From the Dead
As I mentioned previously, this is a time when the veil between the world of the living and the dead thins. Many different cultures welcome their ancestors with gifts of food, or even save them a place at the table.
On Christmas Eve in Finland families all journey to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles. An area is set aside for visitors who do not have family interred locally. Here, they are invited to light a candle for their own loved ones who have passed on. The scene is reverent and magical.
9. Gifting aka Treating Yourself
Not only do you deserve it, you probably need it. Holidays are hard and always cause some measure of stress – family, loss, changes, and a new year bring on all sorts of anxiety.
Do things that nourish and delight. Lavish yourself with love and care and gifts. Mind you, a gift doesn’t have to be a thing you spend money on – it can be time (which, imo, is the most valuable thing). These, compounded by living in a society that is suffering from feelings of loneliness and isolation, we are desperate to find connection and meaning in our lives and with each other.
Here are three of my essentials right now:
Teamotions Tea is not only delicious, using adaptogens to provide much needed emotional support. Created by a bereaved mother and her sister to help provide support through almost unbearable grief, their Have Hope blend will help you in the worst of times. My favorite, Seek Peace is a coconut chai that helps to “release pent-up emotions, especially anger and frustration.”
Yes! Liberation is an elixir for “healing, strength, protection and support in the face of racism, neocolonialism and oppression. Heals our broken hearts and helps us recover from trauma.” For most of us, this year has been rough. I started using this in September, and for the first time this year I felt like I could actually breathe.
Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast, Season 2 this Korean reality show, available to watch on Netflix, isn’t your normal U.S. reality TV fare full of tears, drama, and people being generally horrible to each other.
The series, which follows a celebrity Korean couple that reside on magical Jeju Island, who, (with their many adorable rescued pets), open their home to guests for the winter.
Watching this show is like a soothing balm as it leads viewers through every day tasks of cooking and cleaning, mixed with fun outings like sledding, and exploring the island. The hosts meet interesting people, have meaningful and hilarious conversations, and you get to see the delightful, healthy relationship between the celebrity hosts. This show so pure, and it just makes me happy.
10. Creating Meaningful Rituals
Ritual is what elevates an ordinary event to a special one. It forges connection to culture, nature, community, and those we love.
During this time of year we are often burdened with doing things because of “tradition,” and these are so often traditions that fail to evoke joy or meaning to us as individuals. I want to encourage you to let go of what does not serve you, and to create rituals imbued with intention and meaning unique to you. Honor yourself, and the dead – there’s your New Year’s resolution. Blessings on your way.