Although Chanukah is known as the festival of light,  Christmas celebrations rival or surpass it in wattage. Public buildings, stores, and homes sparkle with lights and tinsel. Warmth, jolly music, and the appetizing odors of spices pour through opened doors into the crisp night air. What could tales of ghosts and demons have to do with such a festive scene?
For readers who doubt the connection, consider that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a story about ghosts. It was very popular with the English, who often entertained one another at Christmas with tales of spirits. The actual title of Dickens’ book is A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Northern Europeans of the ninth to fourteenth centuries endured the nights near the winter solstice in a spirit far removed from the Christmas cheer of today. With planning and luck, supplies of food and firewood would carry families through the barren months. Fire in the fireplace, crackling and swaying, brought light and comfort to humble cottages. Since fuel had to be conserved, in early evening it was time to bank the fire and forgo the companionship of the flames until morning. The silence and utter blackness of the long nights brought disturbing notions to the minds of people.
When winds outside moaned, folk would whisper, “The Wild Hunt is coming!” People imagined that specters darted through the night sky, seeking souls to torment. In Scandinavian lore, Odin led an uncountable horde of gods and spirits on furious rides to the home of the gods. In Norwegian tales, spirits of those who had passed away during the year trooped through the heavens, sounds of their whoops and cries rising with the wind. It was common to talk to someone in the neighborhood who claimed their soul had been abducted as a participant in the Wild Hunt. Survivors of such incidents often described riding a ghostly horse at a headlong pace after spectral hounds, surrounded by thousands of ghastly companions.
In parts of Germany, the Wild Hunt was believed to be led by the goddess Berchta. She was accompanied in her travels by animals and the souls of deceased children. Despite her witch-like features, it was believed that Berchta was a friend of women and would reward diligent housewives with good luck.
Superstitions are odd, since they acknowledge man’s inability to control nature while suggesting at the same time that there is a way to overcome this. Absurd stories about the nature of the world may provide a sense  of self-sufficiency when confronting the mysteries of existence. If the gods are selfish, perhaps a selfish man can manipulate them with magic. Unfortunately, man must grant the gods their power through superstitious beliefs before he can hope to profit, and their power can appear fearsome indeed at three a.m. on a winter night.
The people of northern Europe brought Christian ideas into their winter solstice observances. Some folk adopted the Christian attitude of hope and charity, leaving fear of demons behind for good. Others probably saw Christianity as a potent form of magic: a new way of attaining their selfish goals. Sad to say, even some church leaders exploited the fears and superstitions of common people to build their own power.
The people of Scandinavia were attracted to an Italian saint, St. Lucy, because she was associated with vision and light. St. Lucy was honored on the winter solstice by folk eager to enjoy the lengthening daylight of spring. Experts in folklore think St. Lucy’s Day may  be a descendant of pagan festivals honoring the goddess Freya and her brother Frey. The people lit bonfires and played music. They hoped light and noise would please Freya and scare off the crowd of fiends that they believed were on the prowl.
Because of changes in the calendar, St. Lucy’s Day is now held on December 13. In Sweden, young women become St. Lucy for a day. They dress in white gowns and place wreaths of ligonberry branches on their heads. The wreathes also hold lit candles as a reminder that St. Lucy was a bearer of light. The young ladies serve a breakfast of coffee and rolls to their families, and some go into the streets to give home-baked treats to passersby and people at work.
In Europe today, saints’ days are celebrated with increasingly elaborate festivals while belief in the saints and in God has faded considerably. Swedish towns have added contests in recent years to crown a St. Lucy’s Day queen. Unlike other Nobel laureates, the newly-named winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature each year is expected to perform a duty: he or she crowns the queen of Stockholm’s St. Lucy’s Day observance.
As we celebrate the holiday season, it is good to remember that Christmas lights, good food, and music are gifts from our human traditions — but as belief dwindles, will fear return? Our personal values ultimately make the holidays either a time of hope or a time of fear. For those who seek hope, the winter solstice and Christmas represent renewal of life and a fresh start.

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