No time in all the Twelve Nights and Days of Christmas is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve.
A major reason for this appears to be the Church's willingness to hallow the night of December 24-25 above all others in the year. And yet, many of the beliefs associated with this night contain a large mixture of Christmas Eve Superstitions and paganism from earlier ages.
First, in Scandinavia, it is believed that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the power of speech. This superstition exists in various parts of Europe, and no one can hear the beasts talk with impunity. This has given rise to some curious and grim tales.
It may well have been the traditional association of the ox and ass with the Nativity that fixed this superstition to Christmas Eve, but the conception of the talking animals is probably pagan.
It is a widespread idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine. In other places the superstition is that the water in streams and wells turn into blood, and if you go to look you will die within the year.
Christmas Eve Superstitions
In Scandinavia simple folk had a vivid sense of the nearness of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. On Yule night no one should go out, for he may meet uncanny beings of all kinds. In Sweden the trolls are believed to celebrate Christmas Eve with dancing and revelry. "On the heaths witches and little Trolls ride, one on a wolf, another on a broom or a shovel, to their assemblies, where they dance under their stones . . . In the mount are then to be heard mirth and music, dancing and drinking. On Christmas morn, during the time between cock-crowing and daybreak, it is highly dangerous to be abroad."
In Christmas Eve Superstition must also be included Scandinavian folk-belief that Christmas Eve is the time when the dead visit their old homes. The living prepare for their coming with mingled dread and desire to make them welcome. When the Christmas Eve festivities are over, and everyone has gone to rest, the parlor is left tidy and adorned, with a great fire burning, candles lighted, the table covered with a festive cloth and plentifully spread with food, and a jug of Yule ale ready.
Sometimes, before going to bed, people wipe the chairs with a clean white towel; in the morning they are wiped again, and, if earth is found, some kinsman, fresh from the grave, has sat there.
Not always is it the dead for whom these preparations are made, sometimes they are said to be for the Trolls.
It is difficult to say how far the other supernatural beings – their name is legion – who in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland are believed to come out of their underground hiding places during the long, dark Christmas nights, were originally ghosts of the dead. Elves, trolls, dwarfs, witches and other uncanny folk, the beliefs are too many to go into here.
One could mention just one familiar figure of Scandinavian Yule, Tomte Gubbe, or simply Tomten. Tomten is a name in the Swedish language, in Norway and Denmark he would be named Nissen or Julenissen. He may perhaps be the spirit of the founder of the family. At all events on Christmas Eve Yule porridge and new milk are set out for him, sometimes with other things, such as clothes, spirits or even tobacco. Thus must his goodwill be won for the coming year.
In Norse folklore it is believed that on Christmas Eve, at rare intervals, the old Norse gods made war on Christians, coming down from the mountains with great blasts of wind and wild shouts, and carrying off any human being who might be about. To guard against them was used the sign of the cross, or most likely a remnant of the symbol of Tor's hammer, marked on doors and gates to ward off the spirit of darkness.