"In the Holiday Worlds of Old": Eerie Festive Traditions
Even with the holidays upon us, we’re in the middle of the most horrifying time of year for students – finals season! Putting (extremely) corny jokes aside, there are probably a few things that come to mind when putting ‘horror’ and ‘holiday’ in one sentence. Perhaps one is the seasonally ambiguous classic animated film A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a childhood staple set in the “worlds of old.” Another may be A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, in which a grouchy old man is convinced by three ghosts to change his ways. While we will return to both these influential pop culture moments, I must first set the supernatural scene.
This time of year has long been associated with the paranormal, long before the “magic of the season” came to mean all things wholesome, baking cookies, and watching cheesy movies. Unlike in the western Christian tradition, in Slavic countries and others in Eastern Europe, the 12 Days of Christmas – or from the 10th until the 19th of January (since Christmas is traditionally celebrated for three days) – are known as the “unbaptized days.'' It is thought that in this period, the “barrier between the two worlds has fallen and the boogeymen and other dangerous creatures – vampires, goblins, fairies roam through the human realm.” Even though many traditional beliefs associated with this time are no longer practiced, Christmas celebrations in these areas are still steeped with ritual, some of which are certainly creepy at first glance.
During the koleda (or kolianda) festival, the koledari or carollers – one of which is the “grandfather,” another the “bride,” and various animal-human demons or those in disguise – bring luck to a village’s households by ‘chasing out demons’. It is typically celebrated in the lead-up to Christmas or during the unbaptized days in countries such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Northern Macedonia, and Russia. Source
Other traditions of ‘Scary Christmas,’ include: spider decorations based on a Ukrainian folk tale, the custom of hiding brooms so that witches can’t use them in Norway, Krampus in Germany and Austria, and many more.
Now, the question you may be asking is where do museums factor into all of this? Should museums try to talk about this particular aspect of the holidays? Well, given that I have written this blog post, I’m sure my opinion is clear. This is a great opportunity for us to discuss some really cool concepts – including the practice of ethnography (i.e. how these seemingly static ancient folk beliefs were systematically collected) and religious syncretism. The great news is that some museums do already touch on Scary Christmas.
This topic has been taken up by Canadian museums such as Eldon House, which hosted an exhibition on the topic, the Dalnavert Museum, and the Oshawa Museum, which annually hosts a holiday event featuring the sharing of ghost stories. In pre-pandemic days, Lamplight was a truly magical event and it was always exciting to see the historical houses lit up at night; these days it takes the form of a whimsical short film. These museums all follow the Victorian tradition of the “witching time for Story-telling,” as Dickens put it in one of his many ghostly tales.
Knowing all of this, Tim Burton’s 1993 film seems all the more clever as a way for us to look closer at this apparent mixing of traditions, or, rather, the reimagining of old customs. It also makes me wish I could have seen this 2019-20 exhibit at Las Vegas’ Neon Museum or this one running through the new year at the Hilbert Museum in California – both featuring some of Burton’s artwork, including from The Nightmare Before Christmas! In any case, I think museums, where the past also meets the present, are the perfect places from which to consider these “unbaptized days” and other similar holiday traditions which see the blurring of our realm and that of the ‘otherworldly’ one. As the Dalnavert Museum summed up so beautifully, this season tends to capture “memories, customs, and traces of the past – our personal pasts, our cultural pasts, and our historical pasts, all of which fuse to form the traditions that mean Christmas to each of us.” No matter what you’re celebrating, even just the break from classes, I hope it’s holly, jolly, and… spooky.