I mentioned in my previous entry on Jamaican Rosemary that December 20th was a time in Britain and other parts of northern Europe when spirits were believed to roam the earthly realm. In the Christian calendar it is the eve of the day dedicated to the apostle, St Thomas, who has his own associations with the spirit world (see below).
So this month’s blog post is slightly off topic as it outlines some of the spirit lore associated with December 20th and St Thomas’s Eve. I say “off topic” as a) Martha Beckwith doesn’t mention lore surrounding this date and b) I haven’t been able to find out (as yet) if similar beliefs are held in Jamaica. However, having just broken my New Year’s resolution to cut down on sugar by consuming the best part of a pack of jelly beans, I’m feeling rebellious. So here we go….
In Britain, there was a tradition that from December 20thuntil Christmas Eve, ghosts could walk the earth. That spirits were active at this time also appears in European folklore. In a book of Christmas traditions Clement Miles recorded that St Thomas himself would appear in some Bohemian cemeteries at midnight in a chariot of fire. All the men named Thomas who were buried in the churchyards would rise from their graves and accompany the saint to the churchyard cross, which glowed red with “supernatural radiance”. There St. Thomas would kneel and pray. Then he would bless the risen corpses before vanishing beneath the cross and each of his namesakes would return to their respective graves.
Was the idea of the ghosts rising from their graves to greet St Thomas the origins of the notion that this period before Christmas was a time when spirits were more likely to wander the earth? Or did that belief exist before the story of St Thomas’s nocturnal visits to graveyards. Unfortunately I have no date for either belief. Miles was recording European folklore in the early 20th century but the examples he was given may have older provenance.
Another theory as to why St Thomas’s Eve may be a time for ghostly visitations is that in the northern hemisphere the winter solstice usually falls around the 21st/22nd December. This means that the days are at their shortest and darkest. Therefore the general gloom and early nightfall could have led to an increased nervousness about wandering spirits – ghostly activity often being reported as occurring after dark.
To make this post a teensy bit less tenuous, there is a connection between the use of Jamaican Rosemary to prevent unwanted visitations and purification rituals practised in northern Europe in the run up to Christmas:
Just as burning Jamaican rosemary was believed to cleanse a house of spirts, the purifying effects of smoke were also used in parts of Austria on St. Thomas’s Eve. Smoke from burning incense, along with holy water, was used to sanctify houses and farm-buildings.
Picture credit: stained glass of St Thomas probing the risen Christ’s wounds in St Walpurga’s church, Alsace by Ralph Hamman, 2015 (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.)
All European folklore examples from Clement Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition (London: T.F. Unwin, 1912), p. 225.
More about duppies: their abodes and what they like to eat…