When it comes to apparitions, spectres and ghosts, the only thing that is predictable is their unpredictability. While creepy castles and gothic mansions make for suitably moody sets for Hollywood fiction, the truth is that paranormal encounters can happen almost anyplace and anytime. Sometimes it may be a one-time singular occurrence; at other times a ghost may make its presence known almost daily, like clockwork. Similarly, almost any place can be host to a haunting. Obviously, old buildings that have a long and dolorous history are likely candidates, but even a brand new home can be the site of a paranormal event or haunting.
Such was the case one Yuletide in the village of Monkton Heathfield, located outside the town of Taunton in Somerset, England. In was close to Christmas, 1923, when a certain Mr. Gardiner, a construction contractor was bedeviled by a series of unexplained incidents in his brand new home. Monkton is a small but venerable village, named after the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, whose estates the village once resided in.
The trouble began about a week before Christmas, when Gardiner heard a strange noise, quickly followed by a blow to the back of the head. The object which struck him was an orange, which moments before had been in a bowl on a nearby dresser. No one else was present to blame the assault on the contractor, which was peculiar, since oranges don’t have legs to move about with.
Soon other inanimate objects also started to become quite animated. A chair suddenly jumped from the floor onto a table. A watch-box sitting on a table in the kitchen rose into the air and came crashing down with a thud. Then a pair of boots emerged backwards from the cupboard where they were stored and several books flew from the bookshelf where they were lodged and flew across the room. Nor was mid-day supper exempt from such happenings; while seated for the repast Father and son saw their knives move from one end of the table to the other and the pepperbox did the cake-walk in front of them. The climax to these uncanny events occurred when, in front of a room full of witnesses, a lamp arose from the table and gracefully glide onto the kitchen floor.
The frequency and oddity of happenings inside the Gardener household became such that Mr. Gardener and his son were forced to move out of their household just before Christmas. Whatever spirit or entity was active in the new house was left in possession of the home for the holidays. Whether the Gardeners ever were able to reclaim their domicile from the unnamed poltergeist is not recorded.
It was the day after Christmas, which in England is referred to as Boxing Day, when the Acting Vicar of St. Mary’s, a stately old church in the small hamlet of East Rudham, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, had a most unusual encounter. It was so singular that the divine saw fit to report it to the local newspaper at the time.
The Rev R. Brock, was serving as Acting Vicar while the regular Vicar of the parish, the Reverend Dr. Astley, was away on a trip to Algeria with his wife. It was about tea-time and the Reverend Brock was relaxing in the vicarage, steeping in the holiday spirit, no doubt, when the housekeeper rushed in, all in a huff.
“Come and see Dr. Astley!” she said.
“See Dr. Astley?” he said.
“Yes, see Dr. Astley!” she replied.
The housekeeper, obviously disturbed, led the acing vicar into the study and bade him look out the window. Reverend Brock scanned the lawn without and saw nothing unusual, at which the housekeeper exclaimed,
“You are looking in the wrong direction! Look there,” pointing over to a wall outside which contained an alcove.
Gazing over in that direction, the acting vicar did indeed see something, although at first the full import of it did not strike him. He saw a “full presentment” of a clergyman with a Cuddesdon collar gleaming white in the gathering gloom. Reverend Brock turned about to look behind, remarking to the housekeeper, “it must be a reflection of myself,” but no sooner had he said so than he realized that that was impossible, since there was no manner in which his image could have been so reflected outside.
The vision from outside the study window was of a clergyman sitting at a table or desk with books before him. The acting vicar also observed that the person sitting there had a gold chain across his waistcoat—exactly how the Reverend Astley was known to wear his watch and chain. The young divine looked through the window several times, but the presentiment (for that’s what he took it to be) did not move. Then he went outside to get a better look at the figure against the wall. As he did so, the housekeeper informed him that that spot was where Reverend Astley was want to reside and read in the summertime. Both the Acting Vicar and the housekeeper knew that the apparition they were witnessing could not possibly be the vicar—since Dr. Astley and his wife had left for Algeria on December 10th and were still there, to the best of anyone’s knowledge.
The mysterious vision finally disappeared, but the mystery of its appearance that Yuletide afternoon only deepened when the parish community learned some time later that the Vicar and his wife died in a railroad accident in Algeria just about the same time as the vision.
These days the hamlet of East Rudham is even smaller than in the late vicar’s day, the railroad line having long since ceased its service to the village. If there is any answer to be found to the singular Vicar’s Presentiment of 1908, perhaps the village elders who hold court daily at the Cat and Fiddle near the village green may provide some solution. It would, at least, provide worthy conversation on a winter’s day. Merry Christmas all ye Christmas spirits!
The venerable village of Calverley sits midway between Leeds and Bradford in England, a quaint and thoroughly unremarkable community, whose main claim to lesser fame is Calverley Hall. The village also boasts an ancient church with adjacent burial ground, graced with equally old yew trees, whose branches cast strange shadows on moonlit nights, and with a forsaken looking wood visible nearby and the Yorkshire Moors not far beyond.
Calverly Hall was at one time the residence of Sir Hugh Calverley, a gentleman of some distinction during the reign of good King James until, that is, his wife and two children were found most horribly murdered. The motive for the murders has long been lost to history; but suspicion of the crime immediately fell on Sir Hugh and he was taken to York, there to extract a confession from him. He was locked up in York Castle and there the inquisitor sought to force him to admit his crime by pressing him. This manner of interrogation involved putting a board on one’s chest and then applying ever heavier stones on top, until the pain forced an admission of guilt. Sir Hugh never admitted to the crime and instead died under interrogation from the pressing.
Over the years since his execution, tales of sighting his ghost had come down to the folk of Calverley, but none had themselves seen his shade about the village in recent times. All thought the spectre of Sir Hugh was long put to rest. Until, that is, one night just before Christmas in 1904.
One Sunday night a man from the town of Horsforth was passing by the Calverley churchyard when he heard weird sounds coming from the direction of the church’s graveyard. Suddenly there was a flash of bright light, soon followed by a floating apparition, almost like a mist but having the distinct form of a man. It floated past the man and did him no harm; yet its mere sight was terrifying to behold. The man was on foot and had nowhere to run and stood frozen with shock. Then, as soon as it had begun, the apparition disappeared.
The next day the Horsforth man related his experience to a friend, who knew something of the lore of Calverley. It was only then that the man learned the tale of the ghost of Sir Hugh Calverley, whose shade could find no peace for the guilt of the crime laid on him.
Was Sir Hugh wandering with the load of his sins keeping him earthbound; or was he innocent after all of the horrible crime and seeking some living soul to exonerate him after all those centuries? We shall never know.
As all no doubt are aware, telling ghost stories at Yuletide is an ancient tradition which we have inherited from England. The fact is that ghosts seem oft to make their presence felt at Christmas. Some say it is because our thoughts harken back to loved ones no longer with us; others aver that it is because the holiday coincides with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year when the worlds of the living and the dead are closest. Or perhaps it is simply because, like old Uncle Scrooge, we all have had too much mince meat and hot toddies and our senses play tricks on us. Regardless, ghosts do seem to cluster close around the season—perhaps even more so than at Halloween.
For example the Queen’s residence at Sandringham House in Norfolk, England, has long known to experience poltergeist activity that begins activity from Christmas Eve, as well as other fey encounters. The estate has been occupied since the Elizabethan era, but it was in 1771 that architect Cornish Henley cleared the site to build Sandringham Hall. The hall was modified during the 19th century by Charles Spencer Cowper, a stepson of Lord Palmerston, who added an elaborate porch and conservatory. Today it is the private domain of Queen Elizabeth II and not considered public Crown property, as many royal residences are.
The spectral activity at Sandringham House manifests strongly in the servants quarters and the unseen spirits would seem to have a particular dislike for Christmas cards. The cards are frequently scattered, thrown and generally moved around. In addition, blankets are pulled off of beds and something very creepy breathes down the necks of the maids who serve the royal family.
There are old parts of the mansion, little used, that nobody wishes to go alone in. According to one account, Prince Charles and his valet once went exploring in an old wing of the palatial building in search of old prints. They suddenly both felt very cold and had the feeling that somebody—or something—was following them. Neither saw anything, but the experience was quite unnerving.
The library of the House is regarded as one of the most haunted rooms of the rambling manse. A napping servant was once awakened to the sight of books flying off the shelves. The hands on an old clock in the room often move by themselves as well.
The chamber maids believe that the most frightening spot in the house is the Sergeant Footman’s corridor on the second floor. They are so terrified of this part of the palace that they only clean that area of Sandringham in pairs or groups. According to reports, light switches are turned on and off, footsteps are heard walking down the corridor, and doors are heard opening and closing. They also report hearing a terrifying noise like a wheezing sound that, “resembles a huge, grotesque lung breathing in and out.”
With as long a history as Sandringham House has had, it is believed a number of ghosts haunt the building at Christmas. Members of the royal family died there in the nineteenth century and more recently one of Queen Elizabeth’s loyal retainers, Tony Jarred, the Queen’s favorite steward, died there in the cellar in 1996. Rumor has it that the Queen herself has seen Jarred at Sandringham, although as usual with the Royal Family, no one will speak publicly about it. Nor is Jarred the only ghost Her Majesty has seen in her long life.
The haunting of Sandringham is reported to begin on Christmas Eve and endures for about six to seven weeks, after which the spirits seem to become dormant until the next Yuletide. This year should be especially interesting, since Kate Middleton will be spending her first Christmas at Sandringham House. Bonny Kate has been duly informed about the Christmas ghosts there and also been advised to not make any jokes about ghosts to the Queen, who apparently takes her royal hauntings quite seriously.
While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield to relate the occult truth behind that most familiar seasonal icon—Santa Claus.
As we all know so well, the moniker Santa Klaus is really a nickname for the orthodox Christian saint, Saint Nicholas. For those who may mistake him as a mere marketing ploy for Coca Cola Corp, we must emphasize that St. Nicholas was—is—a real person. For our Protestant brethren (and sistern) for whom the system of saints may be a trifle strange or unfamiliar, one should bear in mind one salient fact about saints and St. Nicholas in particular: saints are generally referred to in the present tense. So, although they may not be visible or with us in the flesh, they are always present in the spirit. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
As we all know, St. Nicholas’ special domain is Yuletide and he is, among other things, the patron saint of children. How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.
The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith). That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Lycia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had already a pretty strong reputation for piety and good works. Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then). To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.
One day, news came of a terrible crime. Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M. Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.
Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found. The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking. Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected. He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.
According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:
The angel said:
“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”
The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:
“Garum, open the salting-tub!”
Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:
At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.
“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”
The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.
Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles. One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking. Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed. It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes. This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls. The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him. The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.
The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark. In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side. During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ. Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count. I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.
Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts. That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities. He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.
One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus. You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better. The other night on Jimmy Fallon, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him. The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result. This creature is seriously demented.
If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,” Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick. Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.
He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.
Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler. In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same. Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place. No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.” But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.” St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.
That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well. Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield? Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.
So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space. You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.