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!
While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield.
As we all know–or y’all should know–St. Nicholas, an orthodox Christian saint, has as his special domain is Yuletide and that in particular he is 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 a 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. One night on the Jimmy Fallon Show, 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.
Blame it all on Dickens, I suppose, but I seem to have English spooks, spirits and Santa on my mind.
When it comes to English spooks and Gothic tales, one cannot do better than Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. While Heathcliff and Cathy get all the love (or whatever it was they had going on) few know that Emily Bronte herself is reputed to haunt the very same Yorkshire moors her two creepy lovers inhabit in her fiction.
Emily Bronte is perhaps the best known of that literary sorority, the Bronte Sisters, famous for her creepy Gothic romance, Wuthering Heights.
Although a classic of literature, for many years it was out of favor (at least with the male gender) but as supernatural romances are now back in vogue in a big way, this grandmother of all creepy romances has come into its own.
Only a morbidly romantic mind such as Emily Bronte’s could dream a tale like Wuthering Heights up, so it should not be so surprising that this nineteenth century authoress is also reputed to haunt the very landscape she wrote about.
Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights when she was only 27 years old. Set in the Yorkshire Moors she knew so well, it is a moody novel full of yearning and secrets–and did I say it again–creepiness?
Emily died only three years after writing her masterpiece, in the very same rural Yorkshire countryside that her masterpiece is set in. Like her novel, hers was a life full of unfulfilled Victorian desires.
Emily Bronte is said to walk in the gardens of her former home in the Yorkshire village of Haworth.
They say she only can be seen in Haworth there between December 19th and January 2, coinciding with Yuletide. Those who claim to have seen her aver that she seems to be deep in thought.
And what stroll across the Yorkshire Moors is complete without encountering a Devil Dog? This would be the “Gytrash” a phantom demon canine said to haunt Ponden Hall, where the Bronte sisters used to hang out. Ponden Hall has become a mecca for Wuthering Heights fans and followers of the Bronte sisters in general.
Legend has it that Emily wrote a book even greater than Wuthering Heights but that it mysteriously disappeared soon after her death.
Rumor has it that sad, lonely, Emily wanders the moors looking for that lost manuscript and that until it is found her literary spirit will find no rest.
People who have encountered her shade along the byways of the North Country claim that if one tries to approach her, she will vanish like a puff of smoke.
So this beautiful phantom of a young girl remains forever out of reach–even if your name be Heathcliff.
Next to Charles Dickens’ famed spectres, the most notorious of English ghosts has to be the beautiful but ill fated Ann Bolyn.
One of Henry the Eighth’s less fortunate ex’s, he had her beheaded, supposedly because of her infidelity. Ever since, she has been reported to wander the Tower of London, her beautiful visage relocated under her right arm.
In truth, however, there are a number of places in England where Ann Bolyn’s ghost has been sighted–in most cases still lacking a head on her shoulders. Ann has on occasion been sighted at Hever Castle, her childhood home; Blickling Hall, her alleged birthplace;
The Tower of London, where she was executed; Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle, where Anne and Henry resided during their marriage; Salle Church in Norfolk, where Anne’s body was allegedly moved after her original burial in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London and secretly buried under a black slab near the tombs of her Boleyn ancestors; and Marwell Hall in Hampshire, a residence of the Seymours between 1530-1638.
Wherever she may roam throughout the year, one thing is certain: at Christmastime she returns to her ancestral home of Hever Castle, in Kent.
Whether she haunts this castle, “with er ead tucked underneath er arms” is not certain; but we prefer to think not. She comes home to Hever for the holidays, so perhaps that is why she is on her best behavior here.
What is certain is that on Christmas Eve she can be seen walking across the bridge of the River Eden and onto the castle grounds. She has also been sighted under an ancient oak tree where she and Henry first courted. Perhaps for one night out of the year she may find a place to rest–her head still attached–in her ancestral home.
Before the Yuletide Season fades away, just bit about Christmas Spirits–I mean REAL spirits–apparitions, ghosts and assorted paranormal encounters associated with Christmas and the Solstice season.
First on the list? Why Santa Claus of course! He goes by many names: Americans know him as Santa Claus, but also goes by Father Christmas, Papai Noel, Sinter Klaas, Babbo Natale, Pere Noel and a whole slew more monikers around the world.
Foremost among the Spirits of Christmas is St. Nicholas himself.
I know: you don’t think of Jolly Old Saint Nick as a ghost. . While you may not think of him as a ghost per se, the truth is heisa spirit, and at one time was a living, breathing person who walked the earth.
So, to paraphrase the famous essay in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. That, after centuries he is overlain with rich myth and legend and his duties have grown exponentially, is understandable; but he is very real.
St. Nicholas was born in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem, in Patara, sometime around AD 270. He was at one time bishop of Myra, another town in Asia Minor and he is first and foremost the patron saint of children.
For those unversed in Orthodox beliefs and practices, Christian saints are generally referred to in the present tense, for although their physical form is no more, their spirit continues to dwell among as, much as any ghost or spirit may. they are known to appear at various times and perform miracles–it’s what they do, after all.
Another thing about saintly apparitions: they can appear at two places at the same time. Given that knack, visiting every home where children reside in one night if you have no physical form is not so difficult a trick .
Even in ancient times St. Nick was known for his generosity. One story told of him was that, on hearing that three maidens were too poor to afford a dowry and therefore couldn’t get married, he anonymously threw a bags of gold through the window into their home.
After first two girls were married their father became curious as to whom he mysterious benefactor was and tried to watch out for him; so when the third was due to wed, to prevent his identity being found out, St. Nicholas threw the bag of gold down the chimney.
So, girls, if you’re very, very good, perhaps jolly old Saint Nick will throw a bag of gold down your chimney–wouldn’t that be better than a Barbie?
Of course, like the Blessed Mother (more about her and the BVM phenomena another time), Saint Nicholas adapts his clothing and customs to the particular country he’s in.
Our vision of him borrows a lot from German notions about Christmas, and some of his iconic imagery has more to do with Norse Mythology than Christianity. In more recent years, sadly, the formerly slender Jolly Old Elf seems to have gained way too much weight and seems to be doing a lot of commercial appearances for large corporations.
Nevertheless, despite all the naysaying and negativity about him these days, Santa is as real as any other saint.
So to all those cynics out there who scoff at ghosts and such things and would have you doubt Saint Nicholas as well; may you all get lumps of coal this Christmas. Ho, ho ho!