No time is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve. This is no doubt connected with the church having hallowed December 24-5 above all other days - and moving the pagan yule traditions to those dates. And yet the majority of the beliefs associated with the Christmas night show a large mixture of paganism.
First, there is the idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals have the power of speech. The superstition exists in various parts of Europe, though no one can hear the beasts talk with impunity.
Then there is a widespread idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine.
In Scandinavian countries the simple folk had a vivid sense of the nearness of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. Yule night no one should go out, for he might meet uncanny beings of all kinds. In Sweden there is a tradition that says 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 the stones… In the mount are to be heard mirth and music, dancing and drinking. On Christmas morn, between cock-crow and daybreak, it is highly dangerous to be abroad.”
Christmas Eve is also the time when the dead revisit their old homes, according to Scandinavian folk beliefs. The living prepared for their coming with mingled dread and desire to make them welcome. When the Christmas Eve festivities were over, and everyone had gone to rest, the parlor was left tidy and adorned, with a great fire burning, candles lighted, the table covered with a festive cloth and plenty-fully spread with food, and a jug of Yule ale ready. Sometimes there was a mixture of beliefs; it could be that they expected the Trolls or the folk from the netherworld.
It is difficult to say whether 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. These beliefs change over time. The tendency is now strongly against the derivation of all supernatural beings from ancestor-worship. Elves, trolls, dwarfs, witches, and other uncanny folk – the beliefs about their Christmas doings are many – shrouded in the mist of time.
In one part of Norway it used to be 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. In one place the memory of such a visitation was recounted in the nineteenth century. The people were preparing for their festivities, and then suddenly from the mountains came warning sounds. “In a second the air became black, peals of thunder echoed among the hills, lightning danced about the buildings, and the inhabitants in the darkened rooms heard the clatter of hoofs and the weird shrieks of the hosts of the gods.”
The Scandinavian countries, Protestant though they are, have retained many of the outward forms of Catholicism, and the sign of the cross is often used as a protection against uncanny visitors. The cross – perhaps it was originally Thor’s hammer – is marked with chalk or tar or fire upon doors and gates, is formed of straw or other material and put in stables and cow houses, or is smeared with the remains of the Yule candle – it is in fact displayed at every point open to attack by the spirit of darkness.