One of my favorite Christmas stories has always been Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”. The haunting backdrop of silence as Ebenezer Scrooge is awakened from his sleep by the sounds of chains and the ghostly voice of his former business partner always sends a chill up my spine. It was even more thrilling with the ghost warning him of three spirits who would visit for the purpose of showing Scrooge the error of his ways.
It seems a bit odd that a ghost story would be a popular tale for this particular holiday, but it actually goes along with the traditions that began what we now celebrate as Christmas. Observance of the Winter Solstice has been a Celtic tradition for many years before the birth of Jesus, and it includes the Druidic festival of Alban Arthan,or ‘light of Winter’. It was believed since ancient times that the beginning period of the Winter Solstice was a time that respect and reverence was shown for the circle of death and rebirth. Thus stories and legends of spirits being able to cross over during this time became part of traditional Celtic folklore. Many of the experiences relayed included visits from ancestors and loved ones who had passed.
The Germanic pagan festival of Yule is another that has been incorporated into the Christmas holiday. It is another tradition that honors death and rebirth, which has led to Yuletide tales of spirits and celestial beings. This festival was celebrated between the last weeks of December and the first weeks in January. This festival was also observed in many other countries as the Nordic people spread across Europe, bringing their customs and traditions with them. The stories of the Celtic and Germanic winter festivals were often intertwined with similar messages.
One of these stories has been passed on and incorporated into the Christian celebration of Christmas known as “The Wandering Stranger” or “The Mysterious Guest”. In this scenario, a family is interrupted from their dinner by a knock at the door. Upon answering, they discover someone in need of food and shelter. The stranger asks the family to please oblige some food and a place to sleep out of the cold. Putting aside concerns, the family allows the stranger into their home, giving both food and a warm bed for the night.
In other versions of the story, it is someone along the side of the road or possibly a person in ill health who needs assistance. The point of the story is that the person who is the ‘stranger’ is actually a representative of the spirit world, someone sent to test the good will of humankind. Another version of the story involves dreaming of someone that comes to you in need of something. Some believe that this dream is a sign to re-evaluate priorities and help others more often. It has been adapted into Christmas tales as well, joining the ranks of other stories which make the season of the Winter Solstice one of the most mysterious and beautiful times of the year.
I have a tale of my own that goes along with this. One year, we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas Eve with family and friends. Outside, there was a dog, shivering from the cold who just sat in front of the house. He didn’t beg, just simply sat staring. As a dog lover, there was no way I was going to let this poor animal stay outside. We let him in (after bargaining with the cat), and gave him some food and water. He slept there with us that night, and after the presents were opened, we relaxed to enjoy a Christmas morning.
There was a knock at the door..which was expected, since it was a holiday. A man was standing there with a little girl who I assumed was his daughter. He told me they had just moved in about a block away and their dog had gotten loose. As the man held out the flier, I saw that it was indeed the little lost dog we had taken in the night before.
The look on the little girl’s face as her dog came running to her is something I will never forget. Those neighbors ended up being good friends and for as long as I lived in that neighborhood, we had a good rapport, and there were many instances in that time period where we had opportunities to help each other again.
It has been years since I lived in that area, and I haven’t seen that family in a very long time. But that morning, something very real about the Christmas season came home for me–that helping someone in need makes a person part of something bigger than themselves. We step out of our day to day lives and become a part of someone else’s. Kind of nice to think of how the world would be if everyone did one random act of kindness every day–but even if it is just for a day, it makes all the difference.
May everyone have a blessed holiday season!