Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas with the Witches by T. F. Thishlton Dyer 1882

CHRISTMAS WITH THE WITCHES by T. F. Thishlton Dyer 1882

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It was formerly supposed that the extraordinary powers possessed by witches were limited on Christmas night, when, as we are told in Hamlet, "they have no power to charm." Hence, at this season they were believed to be more or less subject to human influence, and specially liable to be worked upon by certain charms. Even at the present day various superstitious rites are practised on the Continent to detect the presence and secret workings of these mischievous individuals; and in Suabia it is said that if any one will take the trouble to make a small milking stool out of fir-wood, and on Christmas Eve to look through the three holes made for its legs into a church, he will be rewarded by seeing a host of witches sitting with inverted milk-pails on their heads. Another place where this class of beings congregate on Christmas night is at a cross road where a corpse has passed, when he who is fortunate enough to have on his person some fern-seed will be enabled to see them. Indeed, there are said to be numerous ways of discovering the haunts of witches at Christmas-time, which have an additional importance from only being available at this time. Thus, in North Germany, if a woman on Christmas Day boils green kale, takes the ladle with which it was stirred, and goes with it concealed under her apron to the church door, just as the priest is saying the Pater Noster, she will ascertain who are the witches of the neighbourhood, and this by their extraordinary, but otherwise invisible, head-gear. She must, however, take care to stay for a moment only, or else she will run the risk of being threatened and persecuted by the evil one.

Again, from time immemorial various charms have been practised at Christmas for counteracting the baneful influence of witches during the ensuing year; a popular one in our own country having been the preservation of a remnant of the Yule log. The custom still prevails extensively on the Continent. Thus, throughout Germany all flax must be spun before Twelfth Night, as any one who is rash enough to infringe this rule renders himself liable to be bewitched. This superstition extends also to agricultural operations; and we are informed that in Prussia Twelfth-tide brooms were formerly held potent against witchcraft. "One laid," says Mr. Conway, "on the threshold over which cattle are driven was supposed to keep them from evil possessions the year round." Another equally efficacious means of warding off the evil designs of witches consists in fetching on Christmas Day green kale from the garden of a neighbour three doors off, and in giving some of it to every beast in the stalls.

In Sweden the peasantry believe that at Christmas-time the witches bent on evil make special excursions, when it is highly dangerous to come across their path; and on this account many remain indoors on Christmas night. Among the charms resorted to for protection from witchcraft may be mentioned the Yule-straw, to which great virtue is attached. To the nests of the fowls and geese in which it is placed no witch dare direct her fiendish designs; and when strewn on the earth, it not only promotes the growth of fruits and corn, but equally preserves them against every kind of malignant influence.

Some of the legends and tales in which the witch element figures are amusing. Thus, in the Isle of Man it is related how a fiddler, having agreed with a stranger to play during the twelve days of Christmas to whatever company he should bring him, was astonished at seeing his new master vanish into the earth as soon as the bargain had been made. Terrified at the thought of having agreed to work for such a mysterious personage, he quickly resorted to the clergyman, who ordered him to fulfill his engagement, but to play nothing but psalms. Accordingly, as soon as Christmastide arrived, the weird stranger made his appearance, and beckoned the fiddler to a spot where the company were assembled. On reaching his destination, he at once struck up a psalm tune, which so enraged his audience that they instantly vanished, but not without so violently bruising him that it was with difficulty he reached home to tell this novel Christmas experience.

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