Category Archives: Medieval

The Official Christmas Retro Recap and Review: Supernatural 3.08: A Very Supernatural Christmas [AUGMENTED]

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The archived page of the original Innsmouth Free Press version of this recap and review can be found here on Archive.org.

Tagline: The Brothers investigate a series of mysterious Christmastime disappearances where the victims appear to have been kidnapped from their beds and dragged up the chimney. Could it be…Santa?

Recap: No Then recap. None whatsoever. Nada. Instead, we get that spinning, multicoloured “Special” Presentation CBS intro from waaaaayyy back. Then we cut to an instrumental version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and a grandfather arriving at a house in Seattle, Washington a year ago. His beloved grandson asks Grandpa if he brought any presents and Grandpa says maybe Santa will bring some.

Later, Grandpa dresses up as Santa and mimes pulling presents out of a sack for his wide-eyed grandson, who is hiding on the stairs. But things go a bit awry when he hears something on the roof that starts to come down the chimney. The kid innocently thinks it’s Santa’s reindeer. When Grandpa goes to investigate, he is brutally yanked up the chimney and killed, right in front of his horrified grandson. As the boy says hesitantly, “Santa?” a bloody boot drops down the chimney.

Cue an exploding red-orange Christmas ornament and demon hands into some cool title cards that say, “A Very SUPERNATURAL Christmas” with the first two and last words in red, the “Supernatural” in blue, and a little red Santa hat on the first “A”, all with a frosty frame and a black background with falling snow. Not to mention the jingling bells in the background as the “Very” blinks and goes out.

Cut to Ypsilante, Michigan, present day. Dean, dressed in a suit and posing as an FBI agent, is interviewing a woman whose husband, Mike, is missing. Her pre-teen daughter stands, looking shocky, perfectly framed behind glass in the doorway. On the porch hangs a Nutcracker figure and a wreath with pinecones, a white bow and pretty white flowers. The mom says she and her daughter were asleep upstairs, while her husband was downstairs, getting presents ready. She heard a thump and scream from her husband, but then he just disappeared.

Sam comes out of the house, also in a suit, and thanks her for letting him use the facilities. Giving us a start to the episode’s timeline (that it’s now two days before Christmas), the woman asks Dean what he thinks is going on and whether her husband is still alive. Dean has no answers for her. Even grimmer, Sam just tells her, “We’re very sorry.”

As the Boys leave, Sam shows Dean what he found: a bloody tooth in the chimney. Dean points out that full-grown men can’t go up chimneys and Sam replies, “Not in one piece.” In other words, Mike is probably dead.

My God, those two look young. And poor. I first did this recap and review in 2009, but “A Very Supernatural Christmas” is even more relevant now in “Hard Candy Christmas” 2020.

Back at the motel, Sam is looking at illustrations of medieval demons with black faces and red, lolling tongues on his computer. Dean comes in from a food run and asks him how they’re doing. Dean mentions his theory about a “serial-killing chimney sweep” and Sam references Dick Van Dyke. Dean pretends to have no idea who Dick Van Dyke is. Clearly, he’s teasing Sam about Sam’s alleged Disney fetish. Dick Van Dyke about single-handedly introduced generations of children to the concept of Victorian and Edwardian era chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins (1964). There’s no way Dean wouldn’t know about him.

My mom took me to see Mary Poppins when I was very little (maybe three or four) during a revival when Disney put it back out in theaters. I liked it. My mom, not so much. Still not sure why, but the negative portrayal of the suffragette mom in the film might have had a hand in it (My mom was hugely into feminism from before I was born). Then, when I was seven, my dad took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the theater, with his mistress-of-the-hour, not long before Christmas. Yeah, my childhood relationship to Disney is a little, uh, different.

Anyhoo, Dean (backed by a lovely sepia-toned mural of a winter landscape while taking off John’s jacket) has done some interviewing around town. It turns out that the missing person they were just investigating (last name “Walsh”) was the second to disappear out of his house that month. No one saw him go up the chimney, but they did “hear a thump on the roof.”

Sam says he has a theory, but Dean may think it’s crazy – he thinks it’s “Evil Santa.” Dean allows that this sounds crazy. Sam says that there’s “some version of “Anti-Claus in every culture” and that this might be “Santa’s shady brother.” (No, there is no legend I’ve found about Santa’s evil brother, but there are definitely legends about Bad Santas, albeit only in cultures with a strong Christian base.) He references Belsnickel, Krampus and Black Peter as figures who “went rogue” (They’re actually working for St. Nick, not against him) and showed up to “punish the wicked” instead of leaving presents. Dean points out that this theory can’t be true because there is no Santa Claus and Sam retorts that he knows – Dean was the one who told him.

This is said with a bit of a whine (Sam blaming Dean for John’s terrible parenting for the millionth time), but then Sam admits he could be wrong (spoiler alert: He is). Dean says, “Maybe not.” He did some research of his own on the victims. It turns out that they went to the same place right before they disappeared.

Cut to a dispirited guy dressed in a furry reindeer costume as he heads out (presumably on break) under a battered Santa sign past a mom and some enthusiastic kids running in, the Brothers Winchester, and some wooden stand-ups of three Wise Men and a sheep. He says hi to the other teen dressed as an equally shabby elf, who’s manning the entrance. “All Because of Mr. Santa Claus” by Hal David and John Cacavas, from the rockin’ album In the Christmas Swing, blares on the loudspeaker throughout the scene. There is no snow anywhere, which makes the place look much worse.

The Brothers are going to one of those ugly and depressing Christmas Villages, arguing on the way whether they should celebrate Christmas or not. They don’t notice (and I don’t think they care, either) that Elf Kid is staring after them and having a discussion (presumably about two grown men walking around a place for kids) about them. Dean wants to do it up right this year (with Boston Market, no less) because it’s his last Christmas before his deal comes due and he goes to Hell. Sam doesn’t want to do it because he’s depressed for the same reason – next year, Dean won’t be there.

Also, Sam remembers that they had horrible Christmases during their childhood and doesn’t want to repeat the experience. Annoyed and perhaps a bit hurt, Dean calls him a Grinch and walks away. Sam stares at a cross-eyed plastic reindeer and we’re cued into a flashback of the Boys as kids in a truly nasty motel, alone, in Broken Bow, NB in 1991 on Christmas Eve. They’re watching the end of The Year without a Santa Claus, and “Jingle Bells” is on the soundtrack (though on the original soundtrack, it was “Here Comes Santa Claus”).

Young Sam is wrapping a present. When Dean asks him who it’s for and where he got the money (“Did you steal it?”), Sam says it’s something “special” that he got from Bobby for their father, John. Dean shrugs and throws himself down on the couch next to Sam, pulling out a Hot Rod magazine that he briefly reads before tossing it aside. He’s clearly restless.

Every wonder what kind of hunt would have John neglecting his kids on Christmas?

After Dean reassures him that John will be home from “business” (Dean claims he’s a traveling salesman) in time for Christmas, Sam keeps asking Dean questions about why they have to move around all the time, what their father John does for a living, whether John will be home for Christmas, how their mom died. Dean loses his temper and yells at Sam never to mention their mother again. Then he goes out for a while to cool down.

When Dean comes back, he’s brought Sam dinner (junk food and soda). Sam prods him some more about John, noting that Dean sleeps with a gun under his pillow (Keep in mind that Dean is all of 12 in this flashback). Dean gets mad about Sam snooping through his things, but he really gets upset when Sam (all pissy and self-righteous) pulls out John’s journal, which he managed to steal from his father. Dean (rightly) points out that John is not going to be pleased when he finds out.

Sam demands to get The Talk, so, after some reluctance and a clumsy, failed attempt at gaslighting, Dean gives it to him straight (while threatening to “end you” if Sam ever tells John Dean told him). He tries to explain to Sam about monsters and that John is a “superhero” and so on. Santa isn’t real, but most everything else is.

This only depresses Sam even more because he disappears up his own backside “that they could get us. They could get me!” He becomes convinced that the monsters will get John the way he read they got their mother Mary. Despite Dean’s reassurances, Sam goes to bed in tears (Well, kid, you did insist). Dean mournfully assures him that everything will be better when he wakes up.

Back in the present, Dean yanks Sam out of his reverie by complaining that it cost them $10 to get into the place. He then asks Sam again what they’re looking for (Obvious infodump dialogue is obvious, Show). Sam says that “the lore says” their target “will walk with a limp and smell like sweets.” Calling this “Pimp Santa,” Dean asks why and Sam says it’s to attract the kids. That really grosses Dean out (and probably half the audience).

The Boys spot a guy who seems to fit the criteria. He’s the Santa at the Christmas Village, he’s clearly an old lecher, he “smells like sweets” (though Sam thinks it’s Ripple wine), and he limps. We see a young boy on his lap who looks pretty weirded out until his mom rescues him.

A young woman dressed as an elf welcomes the Brothers “to Santa’s Court” and asks them about escorting their “child to Santa.” After Dean says that it’s been Sam’s “lifelong dream” to sit on Santa’s lap, she, very disconcerted, says that the age limit is 12 and under. Sam makes the mistake of saying “We’re just here to watch” and when the elf girl backs away, looking extremely creeped out, an amused Dean throws him under the bus by playing along with her image of Sam as a pedophile, to Sam’s discomfort.

The Brothers snap right to business, though, when Santa goes on break. As he limps past them, they argue over whether he smells like “sweets” or cheap booze, but Dean points out, “Are you willing to take that chance?” (There’s a really funny bit on the Season 3 blooper reel from this exchange.)

Later that night, they stake out his trailer, which has MERRY CHRISTMAS in huge letters on top, a sad string of lights along the edge of the roof, and three wooden stand-ups of singing polar bears out front. Dean asks Sam why he’s “the Boy Who Hates Christmas.” After citing their lousy childhood again (Dean allows they “had a few bumpy holidays”), Sam grumps that he doesn’t care if Dean has Christmas by himself. Dean grumps that it’s hardly Christmas if he’s “making cranberry molds” alone.

Long after the Brothers’ coffee runs out, Santa (dubbed “St. Nicotine” by Dean) furtively peers out and pulls the curtains. Then they hear a woman scream enthusiastically, “OH, MY GOOOOD!” That’s the Boys’ cue to sneak up to the door. Sam makes a crack that Dean may have to waste Santa, which Dean doesn’t appreciate, then they bust in.

It’s not what they think. The guy has a fifth of booze and an enormous bong, as well as a Christmas-themed porno on the TV; he’s not up to anything remotely supernatural. Caught flat-footed, the Boys don’t know what to do until Dean starts awkwardly to sing “Silent Night” and get Sam to join in. Dean’s a pretty terrible singer; Sam’s even worse (According to Jensen Ackles, Kripke actually wrote him a note reminding him that Dean was a bad singer). And neither of them knows the words past the first couple of lines. Fortunately, the guy is stoned enough to think it’s funny and they make a hasty exit.

Cut to a house later that night, where a kid is waiting for Santa while an angelic boy’s choir sings “Silent Night” on the sountrack (Man, that tree is huge). When the blonde, curly-haired tot hears thumping on the roof, he naturally thinks it’s reindeer, but what comes growling down the chimney is huge, dressed in bloody, red leather (human skin?), and terrifying.

It goes upstairs, knocks out the kid’s mother when she screams, and drags his father down in a sack. When the father struggles too much, “Santa” kills him with one crunching blow. It then pressed the terrified child back … but all it wants is a cookie from the plate set out for Santa.

The next day, Sam and Dean are doing the FBI rounds again at the victim’s house and get the kid’s story from the shellshocked mom. Sam notices a strange wreath that looks like one that was at the other victim’s house, with pine cones, a white bow, and white flowers. Both Dean (who has been expressing sympathy toward her) and the mom are nonplussed, and a tad offended when he asks where she got it. Sam explains it afterward as if Dean is stupid (that both houses has the same wreath). Dean claims to have just been “testing” him.

Some more research (and a call to Bobby) establishes that A. Bobby thinks they’re morons and B. they aren’t dealing with the Anti-Claus. Instead, they’re dealing with pagan gods – hence, why the weather has been so mild and lacking in snow, in Michigan, in December. Sam believes the god involved is “Hold Nickar,” a Teutonic sea god (which naturally would explain why he’s looking at Celtic images of the Green Man in this scene [rolls eyes]), which Sam identifies as the “God of the Winter Solstice.”

The wreath that Sam noted in one of the victims’ houses was made of meadowsweet, which is supposedly ultrapagan (no more so than holly, ivy, and mistletoe, the latter given to some of the bog people before they were killed, but whatever) and rare (also nope). Sam says it has a pleasant odor that is “like chum for their gods” in Germanic pagan lore. Anywhere you set it up, it will attract these carnivorous gods, who will then eat any human in the vicinity.

Dean logically wonders why anyone would make a wreath from such a thing. Sam pedantically goes off on a tangent that most (almost all, really) Christmas lore is originally pagan. Dean comments that “Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.” Sam “corrects” him, saying that Jesus was more likely born in fall and Christmas is the Winter Solstice festival.

Neither is true. We don’t really know what month (or even year) Jesus was born. Some biblical scholars speculate that Jesus was born in the spring (because that was when shepherds would be out with their flocks at night, guarding the newborn lambs). The Roman Winter Solstice festival is different from Christmas (and celebrated on December 21 as Brumalia (“bruma” meaning “short day”), when the Solstice actually occurs). Part of the confusion derives from Julius Caesar’s calendar “moving” the Solstice date to December 25 when it reorganized the Roman year.

Christmas was coopted from the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), which was on December 25 and marked the birth date of at least two Eastern-influenced Roman solar gods, Sol Invictus and the Persian soldier god Mithras, as well as the Greek Dionysius, Demeter, and Cronus (who probably influenced the idea of the old year being portrayed on New Year’s Eve as an old man). The Greeks and Romans were wont to create different versions of their major deities to reflect their different place origins or functions, by giving them a follow-up adjective for a second name. So, for example, Sol Invictus came out of the original Roman agrarian deity Sol Indiges when the former began to incorporate foreign and more bellicose influences as the Roman Empire moved its focus eastward in the third century CE.

There is no big mystery why the Christians adopted this festival for Jesus. Jesus is associated with light and the Sun. In ancient mythologies going back to Egypt, the Sun is believed to “die” (either every night or every year) and be reborn in the morning. There are rituals, particularly in the north, to help the Sun return. The parallels with Jesus (even without lines like the one in “Silent Night” that goes “Son of God loves pure light”), and his death and resurrection, are pretty obvious. Because this was a festival that has been set on the Solstice rather than actually being the celebration of the Solstice, further reorganization of the calendar moved the date of the Solstice apart from the date of Sol Invictus/Christmas without much apparent concern.

So, basically, Sam’s wrong.

Incidentally, we had this year a major conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn known in the media as the Christmas Star. This very rare conjunction only happens about every four centuries (but hasn’t been visible since 1226 CE) and even more rarely on the Winter Solstice. One theory about the Star of Bethlehem that, according to the Bible, led the Magi to the Christ child in the manger, is that it was either a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn (a fall birth) or a similar conjunction between Jupiter and Venus (a summer birth).

So, the Winchester theory here is that when people hang the meadowsweet wreaths on their doors, it’s an invitation for the pagan god to come in and eat them. The question now is whether this is accidental (modern humans ignorant of what it means) or deliberate.

Bobby also speculates that pine stakes can kill these pagan gods (If they’re really gods, how can they be killed, eh?), but he doesn’t tell the Brothers until later. The Brothers go to the local Christmas shop (The Cosy Crafts? Something like that) where the wreaths were bought and talk to the owner, with a slow-tempo and rather extemporaneous version of “Deck the Halls” playing in the shop. He thinks they’re a gay couple, which Dean plays into (much to Sam’s annoyance), but still gives them the name of the woman (Madge Carrigan) who made the wreaths. She gave them to him for free (the Brothers suspect this is not quite accurate). He, of course, didn’t sell them for free. There is no evidence he is otherwise involved in what’s going on.

Back at the motel that night (so, Christmas Eve, maybe?), the Brothers speculate how much a meadowsweet wreath would cost, with Sam guessing maybe “a couple hundred dollars.” As they sit on separate twin beds, Dean then reminiscences about a wreath of beer cans John once brought home for Christmas, that he had stolen from a liquor store. Sam doesn’t remember it quite so fondly and is confused why Dean is so obsessed with Christmas now, when he hasn’t “spoken about it in years.”

Dean points out the obvious – that this is his last year. Sam says he knows that and that’s why he can’t celebrate with Dean, knowing Dean will be dead the following Christmas. On the one hand, Sam is so focused on losing Dean in less than a year that he’s not appreciating his brother right now, nor the stories Dean is telling. On the other hand, boy, John sure was a piece of work, wasn’t he?

Off they go to Madge’s house and, what do you know? It’s a Christmas extravaganza. Every possible light, do-dad and plastic deer (but no creches), with Christmas carols blasted to the outside air (It’s an instrumental with lots of flute that I suspect comes from an animated TV special, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one. Help me out, Dear Readers). Dean bets they even have a plastic-covered couch (after scoping out the interior while Sam engages the Carrigans in conversation). Madge and her pipe-smoking husband, Edward, seem friendly (entirely too friendly, really) and offer the boys some peanut brittle (which Dean starts to go for before Sam slaps his hand down).

The Brothers establish that Madge only made two meadowsweet wreaths and thinks they smell divine. That’s enough for them to decide to come back later that night, much later, not least when Sam finds out the Carrigans moved from Seattle (remember the grandfather from the teaser?) the previous January, after two abductions around Christmas (including Doomed Teaser Santa). From their visual check of the inside of the house, Sam establishes that the Carrigans had vervain and mint in the house, rather than the traditional holly (It’s all pagan, anyway, Sam). Neither brother can figure out how the Carrigans are involved, with their current theory being that they’re worshipers of the god, but they need to find out. But first, they carve the pine stakes Bobby told them would kill this particular god.

As the Brothers arrive at the house that night, “O Come All Ye Faithful” is blasting out on a loudspeaker over the neighborhood. At first, I was puzzled because that’s a very Christian song, but then I appreciated the delicious irony of a couple of pagan devotees (or are they?) using a traditional Christian hymn to welcome other pagans.

After picking the lock and arriving in the living room (where the carol turns into a quieter instrumental), Dean quietly comments to Sam on the Carrigans having a plastic-covered couch, as he’d predicted. Inside is just as Christmasfied as outside, with Dean checking out some very Germanic Santas on the mantle and Sam walking past a Santa with an accordion, what looks like a Christmas penguin, and various other holiday bric-a-brac. Dean also finds snow globes and a large gingerbread house, while Sam finds an entire table of gingerbread cookies in the kitchen.

(Probably related – there’s a theory that gingerbread men started as a baked-bread substitution for actual human sacrifices. Hence why I once wrote a story called “The Gingerbread Man” about a minor pagan god from the Mesolithic who is sacrificed by Neolithic invaders as a bog body over and over again for thousands of years – until the day he escapes. FYI, if you’re wondering if my story “Zombieville” (which includes a zombie giraffe) predates the Resident Evil inspiration for the zombie baboons Andrew Dabb was so in a hurry to botch this show’s ending in order to, uh, bring to life – you’re right.)

The Brothers sneak around and eventually find a cellar door. Downstairs they go and – holy crap – it’s a completely different story. Dark, dungeon-y, blood and body parts all over the place. Lots of bones still stuck in various shop tools. Sam looks ready to throw up, while Dean is more clinical (and less fascinated than Sam).

Sam goes up to one of the red-leather sacks we saw before and touches it. Suddenly, the person inside starts thrashing around. This is a rather large plothole. The story has already established that everyone in the sacks is dead by the time they leave their houses and…well…there are too many body parts lying around for either of the two victims we know got taken to have survived. Plus, we never see or hear about this victim again, so maybe it was just a lure?

As Sam jumps back, Madge grabs him and pins him to a wall. Dean shouts Sam’s name and comes rushing to the rescue, but Edward appears out of nowhere, grabs Dean, and slams him head-first into a wall. Dean goes down like a sack of grain (Jensen Ackles does the same sexy stuntfall he does in “Scarecrow.” Not that I’m complaining).

As Madge and Edward stare up at Sam, his flashlight moves across their faces as he struggles in Madge’s grip, showing monster faces underneath. Madge is all sweetness and light as she smacks the back of Sam’s head into the wall and knocks him out cold. She then looks perkily at her husband, who sticks his pipe in his mouth.

As a clarinet-heavy instrumental version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays on the house loudspeaker, both boys wake up tied to chairs upstairs (Looks like the dining room, though it’s next to the table where Sam found the gingerbread cookies, so maybe the kitchen), back to back. After asking Dean if he’s okay (Dean took a really hard blow to the head in this one), and Dean says he thinks so, Sam guesses the obvious – that Madge and Edward, far from being mad worshipers, are really “Mr. and Mrs. God. Nice to know.”

Madge and Edward come in, all cheerful, and get started with the “ritual.” Edward calls them out. “You’re Hunters,” he says, indicating they’ve taken down a few Hunters in their past, as well. Dean calls them out right back as pagan gods and suggests they let him and Sam go, and “call it a day.” Edward, unsurprisingly to anyone, demurs, saying they’d “just come back with more Hunters and kill us.” Sam suggests they “should have thought of that before you went snacking on Humans,” while Dean mocks their attempts to minimize their killings by calling them “the Cunninghams” (from 1970s show Happy Days).

This precipitates a rant from Edward about how disrespectful humans are these days.

Edward: You, mister, better show us a little respect!

Sam: Or what? You’ll eat us?

Edward: Not so fast. There’s rituals to be followed, first.

Madge: Oh, we’re just sticklers for rituals.

The sickly smile, all shiny teeth, that she gives Sam is downright creepy.

As they get cracking (so to speak), Madge complains that they used to get a hundred sacrifices a year and now they only take two or three. Edward says that Sam and Dean (“Hardy Boys”) bring this year’s count up to five (which indicates a victim we and the Brothers never heard about). The gods complain that “this Jesus character” ruined their fun long ago.

Edward and Madge’s arrogance seems well-earned at this juncture (even if they’re being total hypocrites about the reason). By their own admission, they’ve killed and eaten over 4,000 humans in the past 2,000 years alone and probably hundreds of thousands before that. Granted, the timeline’s a little fuzzy. If Jesus (and not, say, pagan Roman emperors getting rid of a rival local pagan Germanic cult) is responsible for their downfall, then they’ve been out in the cold a good bit less than the two millennia Madge whines about. Northern Europe wasn’t fully Christianized until around the 11th century or so (Think Vikings. In Iceland. This will come up in the review). But even so, that would only raise their body count. So, there’s no reason for them to perceive the Brothers as threats, now that they’re tied up. Ha.

Dean tries to joke that the gods can’t get started on their rituals without meadowsweet and Madge promptly comes in with two dried wreaths of it to hang around their necks (Dean actually cringes). Edward comments that they now look “good enough to eat.” And he smacks his lips.

They slice the Brothers’ arms for blood and Edward yanks a fingernail off Sam’s right hand, commenting that young men used to “come from miles around to be sitting where you are now” (These gods seem to go only for adult men, not women or kids). When Dean yells at Edward to leave Sam alone and calls him a “son of a bitch,” this precipitates another rant from Edward (Madge chiming in) about how no one respects the gods, anymore. Once enthusiasm for “this Jesus character” came into their culture, their “altars were burned down” and they were “hunted like common monsters.” They cheerfully chatter on about how they “assimilated.” They “got jobs, a mortgage,” and “play bridge on Saturdays.” Dean tells Madge, “You’re not blending in as smooth as you think, lady!”

With unctuous glee, Madge slices Dean’s arm, causing him to call her a “bitch.” Madge schools him on using the “swear jar” and the term “fudge,” instead. Dean says, panting in agony, “I’ll try to keep that in mind!” then uses it the very next time she cuts him. Madge purrs, “Very good, dear!”

Just as Edward’s about to extract one of Dean’s molars as the final part of this first (yes, first) ritual, the doorbell rings (and Dean, still defiant, suggests that they “really should get that”). It’s an overly-nogged neighbour with a fruitcake, wanting the couple to go caroling.

In the kitchen, a hurting Dean tells a hurting Sam, “Merry Christmas, Sammy!”

Madge and Edward beg off (Edward complaining about his back) and eagerly return to their holiday meal with a roll of their eyes at the neighbor, stepping on the fruitcake on their way back to the kitchen. Unfortunately for them, said double-meat feast has got free of the chairs, fled to the living room, and locked them in the kitchen. At this point, Madge and Edward dispense with the assimilation and turn full monster.

I like the soundtrack music in this scene, which manages both to be festive and evoke rising action. Violent action. Nice job.

Dean is able to pull out a drawer from a cabinet and block his door. He goes over to help Sam, who suggests they pull out a cabinet to block that one. Dean wonders where they’re going to get more pine stakes to kill the monsters and Sam suggests the tree (another pagan lore loan). Just as they’re knocking the tree down and pulling it apart, the monsters come roaring out and grab them, Madge Sam and her husband Dean. Edward actually attacks Dean first (He sees him as the bigger threat? I dunno).

“Merry Christmas,” Sam echoes Dean immediately afterward (to Dean’s exasperation).

Madge is especially salty about what the Brothers did to her tree. After she knocks him across the room, Sam kills Madge first, twisting the stake in good, which helps Dean get the drop on a shocked and furious Edward with a branch to the face. Dean brutally stabs Mr. Grendel a couple of times and that’s it for our pagan gods. They lie side by side next to their fallen tree, equally formidable and now equally dead.

I’ve always wondered what the neighbors and the police made of Madge and Edward’s crime scene afterward. Granted, the Brothers’ blood was all over the kitchen, so they might have been tied to the killings of the Carrigans. But the carnage down cellar would have been much harder to pin on Sam and Dean, and you’ve got things like Sam’s fingernail, too. Imagine realizing that nice middle-aged couple next door were brutal, serial-killing cultists. They might have even been traced to Seattle, or further back from there.

In the flashback, it’s snowing hard outside. Young Dean wakes Young Sam up and tells him John came, but Sam slept through it. Dean has presents for Sam, but Sam quickly finds out they’re for a girl (a Barbie and a baton), prompting Dean to make a joke about John thinking Sam is girly, that has not aged well. Turns out Dean pilfered them from a house up the street that looked wealthy. On the one hand, it sucks when someone steals your Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve and I sure hope Dean brought those back. On the other, I kinda have to admire Young Dean’s willingness to trudge through the snow to the house up the street in the first place.

Sam decides that John is not worthy of his gift and his devotion. He gives John’s present to Dean, instead. This gift turns out to be Dean’s famous amulet (which we now know is a Grail object). Dean is humbled and awed at the gift and puts it on, promising never to part with it. We get a brief instrumental refrain of “Jingle Bells” on the soundtrack.

Fade to Adult Dean and his amulet coming in the door to the Brothers’ motel to find that Sam has made him Christmas after all, to a modern version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that actually has the original lyrics from the film. Thank God.

(A brief aside about that song: As you may have noticed from my IFP article on Solstice carols back in the day, I’m a big fan of Christmas carols and have strict standards for what I like. I’m a firm believer in the original “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” line over that insipid “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” line, especially in this “Hard Candy Christmas” year, and the original is far more appropriate for this episode and show, anyway. I also think the “woke” version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (by John Legend and Kelly Clarkson) and that revolutionary elves song (the Barenaked Ladies’ “Elf’s Lament”) are hilarious. Yes, I’ve been listening to Christmas music since before Thanksgiving. It’s 2020. Don’t judge.)

Dean asks Sam what changed his mind. At a loss for words, Sam hands him some eggnog, instead. When Dean tries it, he coughs in surprise, realizing Sam spiked it heavily with rum. Dean then surprises Sam by giving him two presents. Sam surprises Dean by giving him two back. It turns out they shopped at the same place: “the gas mart down the road.”

As in the flashback, Dean is impressed and touched. Yeah, the tree is tiny and kinda pathetic-looking. Yes, the booze-laced ‘nog is nasty (Jensen Ackles insists his reaction was genuine when Dean makes a face because Jared Padalecki pranked him by spiking the eggnog with real rum – lots of real rum). Yes, the beef jerky and motor oil from the gas station down the road are a little basic (Dean got Sam “skin mags and shaving cream”). But Dean has still gotten Sam some gifts in return and is touched by Sam’s effort (He doesn’t even make fun of it, as he might have in Season 1). Dean wishes Sam a Merry Christmas and Sam returns it. He tries to add something, but can’t. After almost saying deep things to each other, the Brothers awkwardly decide to watch a game, instead. Outside, it starts to snow on the Impala (their motel door number being 12, of course), the pagan-god spell broken at last.

Credits

Review: Watching the Closer Look interview of Eric Kripke on the Season 3 DVD for this one, I probably should have not liked this episode. Kripke merrily states that he set out to smash up every single Christmas tradition he could find. As my articles on Christmas fantasy, paranormal romance, and horror show, he’s a bit late to that game, but I suppose he still had to go there. Ironically, Kripke also seems to love Christmas. I think the clincher is his story about what he went through to get that spinning “Special” intro at the beginning of the episode. A scrooge would have hated that, not remembered it fondly as a part of childhood and gone to great lengths to track it down.

That said, holy batshorts, is this one bloody, gory episode. I’m not sure if it’s the goriest, considering there are so many candidates from the show, but my God, was that R-level gore. It’s gotta be in the top five. And it’s prosecuted with such taboo-shattering enthusiasm. Kindly, Santa-clad granddads are dragged up chimneys to their deaths. Women proposition Santas in porn flicks. A pervy old Santa gets stoned and drunk after his work day is done. Sam and Dean kill two pagan gods with a Christmas tree. And then there’s that dark, grotty, chaotic cellar of horrors literally underneath the safe, sanitized, suburban festival of hearth and home.

Wow.

I hadn’t noticed this before, but the different MOTW-vs.-Doomed Redshirts (literally, here) scenes have what appear to be intentionally different tones. Originally, I thought the acting by the kid in the teaser was a bit broad, but now I think he was directed to do that. The teaser is brutally jocular satire of the kind of Very Special Christmas episode programming that usually came after that “Special” intro and that you can see in all its glory here on YouTube. The scene immediately after is much sadder and gives a more “Face on the Milk Box” feel.

The next scene where the MOTW strikes and kills the father right in front of the terrified little tyke goes right for terror along the lines of “…And All Through the House” from Tales from the Crypt (the 1972 movie and the 1989 TV episode, both of which came from the original comic, which some credit with inspiring Santa-themed slasher horror). The final battle between the Brothers and the pagan gods comes off very much like the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. So, the tonal switches are broad-ranging and striking.

Dang it. I just remembered that Dr. Seuss’ Grinch is basically Grendel made cute for the kids, right down to his motivation for trashing Whoville.

It might seem strange for there to be an actual entire genre of Christmas horror (Christmas slashers, especially), but it’s a well-established tradition. There’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course, and other 19th century antiquarian ghost stories (such as those by M.R. James) were often set or told around Christmastime. But Christmas horror goes back even further than that.

Icelandic folklore is often cited regarding a giant Christmas cat, the Yule Cat Jólakötturinn, who first appears in Icelandic records in the 19th century. He eats anyone who isn’t wearing a new piece of clothing come Christmastime. But even more terrifying is his much-older owner, the troll mother Grýla, who eats “naughty children” (because of course she does) and is part of a group of “Bad Santa” types known as the Yule Lads that goes back to the 13th century. Icelandic lore can get seriously weird, with its emphasis on the island being populated by “hidden people” (elves, basically, but not the Santa kind) who looked just like ordinary humans (and could even take a specific human’s shape to make mischief), but who had magic powers and a generally capricious nature.

There is, for example, an entire group of stories of house maids being visited by elves on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, while they’re guarding the house (sod houses that were basically like living underground) and the rest of the family is off to church mass. The elves play tricks on these young girls, trying to get them to come dancing with them. Medieval and Early Modern Icelandic authorities were highly suspicious of dancing, since it led to, uh, other things, especially for women.

If the girl remains virtuous and resolute in tending to her sewing or other household duties, she is often rewarded. If she gives in to temptation and runs off the howl at the moon with the elves, the family may find her the next morning (“morning” being a relative term in the month-long nights of Icelandic winters), lying across the threshold with her head cut off.

There is also, in Norway, a Yule Goat. These troll characters reflected a time not so long ago when life in Iceland was nasty, brutish and short, and very, very dark in winter.

Let’s talk a bit about the Krampus type of Bad Santa, with includes (but is not limited to) the group known as the Companions of St. Nicholas. These don’t include the Icelandic Yule Lads, who appear to work independently, within their own lore, or the Swedish St. Lucia. The latter is based on both the fourth century martyr and possibly a demon/minor Diana-like Nordic deity named Lussi, or even Adam’s naughty first wife Lilith.

The Rhineland and Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel, the Alpine Krampus, and the Dutch Zwarte Piet (yes, that means “Black Pete”), among similar beings in Western (especially Germanic) Europe, are, according to legend, demons who were enslaved by St. Nicholas to do good on his behalf. These are the figures Sam is looking at near the beginning of the episode (right after the title credits) and mentions in passing, with Krampus, by far, being currently the best-known.

As the example “Black Pete” makes clear, these characters have some pretty messy backstory. Black Pete is a caricature of a Moor (a Spanish or North African Muslim), from whence we get the not-so-nice term “blackamore.” The people who dress up as Black Pete during Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands do so, at absolute best, in blackface.

In medieval times, people in the Mediterranean region of Europe had a lot of contact with non-Christians, both Muslims and Jews. Jews also lived in northern Europe and Muslims lived as far north as the Pyrenees in southern France, but these communities were much rarer and more isolated. While living and working next to Abrahamic non-Christians was pretty common in someplace like Spain or southern Italy, a lot fewer people in Northern Europe were likely to encounter them. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, those regions had much larger populations of Celtic and Germanic pagans. Hence, Yule Cat.

As such, the study of monsters in the Middle Ages (a thriving field, believe me) is full of representations from that part of Europe of Muslims and Jews as inhuman, pagan, even demonic. So, you have antisemitic figures like Krampus (who looks like a Jewish caricature) and the above-mentioned Black Pete (with some color racism for added squirm). It doesn’t help that the current versions we have date to nostalgic medieval revivals from the 19th century. Yes, they represent a dark side to the St. Nicholas legend (the punishment part), but they also represent something so, so much worse. You can see why the show took a hard left outta there after a few cracks about “Evil Santa” and went straight for the “evil pagan god vibe” deal, instead.

I want to take issue with the whole “When do we tell the kids Santa doesn’t exist” thing that gets played with. According to his legend, the original St. Nicholas left presents for the poor in his community, while hiding his identity. This was a way of fulfilling the biblical injunction to take care of the widow, orphan and stranger during times of the year that were especially tough (St. Nicholas was himself an orphan, albeit a rich one).

Part of the legend is that others began to imitate him, in his name, including a bunch of medieval charitable guilds. The idea that there are different representatives of Santa around the world and that at some point, you recruit the next generation into participating, is really part of the original legend. It’s not some feel-good modernization. Becoming a better community by collectively becoming a bunch of Santas for each other is the whole point.

So, when Dean tells Sam that Santa isn’t real, but that the supernatural world is, he’s basically doing a Supernatural version of the above. That’s what The Talk is about. It’s bringing people into a world and a group that protects humans from darker forces. Hunters are basically year-round versions of Santa. With saltguns.

I know that the weeChester stuff is important and it does have some useful information for future reference, but Lord, are those flashbacks incredibly depressing, or what? How could anybody think of John as anything but a card-carrying douchebag of a father after that? I also am not sure that they do Sam any favors. Sure, Colin Ford as Young Sam is as cute as a button, but I don’t think it helps Sam to show him as a whiny, self-absorbed kid and a whiny, self-absorbed adult relearning a lesson he supposedly learned nearly two decades before, all in the same episode.

Yeah, Sam, we get it. You’re going to be alone next Christmas, so get your act together and make this Christmas happy for the person who will be in Hell next year. Life is not worse than Hell. Yes, Sam does figure it out in time (on both occasions) to make Dean’s Christmas, but having the lesson shown us twice does make him look like kind of a selfish idiot for most of the episode.

Ironically, much of the rest of “A Very Supernatural Christmas” presents us with old-style Long-Suffering Genius Sam having to put up with Dumb Hick Dean, as if the writers didn’t notice how Sam was coming across. But then, these are the folks that gave us Ruby and it can be hard to see that kind of thing ahead of time.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the end because both times, Sam goes against his own self-pity and puts himself out for Dean. Sam may need to make the journey twice, but he gets to the same destination each time. That’s rather hopeful, considering the events of Season 4 and early Season 5: No matter how far off the reservation Sam wanders, he always seems to find his way back to his one great compass in life – Dean. (Ah, how young and optimistic I was when I wrote this in 2009.)

I’ve heard fans complain about Ridge Canipe and how his version of Young Dean isn’t very “sympathetic.” Well, I’d say the reason why Canipe comes across as edgy and brittle is because he’s supposed to. We’re seeing Dean under the incredible pressure of a burden that should never have been dumped on his shoulders in the first place (Daddy couldn’t be home for Christmas, my ass), trying to explain the unforgivable to his younger brother a good decade before he mastered how to internalize it. The one thing Canipe didn’t use from Ackles’ older version was Dean’s sense of humor, but one could easily argue that this pre-teen Dean version was before he fully developed that defense mechanism. He does use humor, but it’s bitter and sarcastic, not as light as he later makes it seem.

What I find rather unfortunate, in retrospect, is how this entire storyline is really Dean’s, yet Kripke seemed so determined to make Dean’s story, his personal character conflict (that he’s going to Hell in less than a year), All About Sam’s grief over it (and even though Jeremy Carver wrote this episode, Kripke was clearly in charge of the finished product). The main inspiration for it, I suspect, is Ebenezer Scrooge and his sister in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You can find two excellent versions of this that came out this year, one for free (by some local friends of mine who do it every year) and one for a nominal fee (by a cast of ghost tour guides from York in England).

In the book, Scrooge has his beloved younger sister, Fan. She acts as an emotional mediator between him and his father, who dislikes him for unknown reasons. But then his father sends him off to boarding school. His sister dies in childbirth and he comes to resent his nephew for taking her away from him (and for resembling her too much). This is when Scrooge begins to turn into the bitter misanthrope we see in the present in the book.

Obviously, Dean is supposed to be an analogue for Fan and Sam for Scrooge. And since Scrooge is the protagonist of the book, so is Sam for the episode. But that doesn’t fit particularly comfortably with the season mytharc. Scrooge’s sister must have gone to Heaven. Dean is very much not heading that way.

I’m not sure how I feel about the amulet at this point. I know I don’t like calling it the “Samulet.” There turned out to be a lot more to it than a visible representation of Dean’s devotion to Sam. On the other hand, what it did turn out to be (which was really cool up to the end of Season 14 – thanks so much for that, Andrew Dabb, jackass) was a Grail object.

Considering how things turned out with God, I can’t help wondering if the way it “just happened” to end up with Dean instead of John was intentional. And not in a good way. More like belling the cat. The amulet was supposed to be a way of locating God. But what if it was being used at this point in the story as a way of keeping tabs on Dean? That’s kind of creepy, that God may have been stalking Dean even this early on. In fact, probably was stalking Dean this early on.

This is also one of the earliest (is the earliest, maybe?) mentions of Jesus in the show. The two gods speak of him as a real person, though it doesn’t appear they ever met him. They really resent him, too. Jesus comes across as a sort of Super Hunter. So powerful was his influence that he marked a transition from a period of literal darkness, when humans were at the mercy of pagan gods and monsters, and even enslaved by them, to a period of light, when humans were able to fight back and kill the monsters as equals and even superiors.

Jesus may not be the first Hunter in the SPNverse, but he certainly appears to have been the most successful. It’s therefore notable (in light of how Dean’s story goes later on) that the Brothers kill two pagan gods responsible for at least 4,000 human deaths over the past two millennia (and who knows how many before that), and that this is a fairly ordinary hunt for them.

Back to the mythology (I discussed this as part of an article on the pagan origins of Christmas in 2009, as well as an article that discusses Sam-as-Scrooge, for Fantasy Magazine the previous year). The pagan gods in this one don’t make a lot of sense. Okay, so they kill people (who have no clue what those wreaths mean) and then they give warm weather in return. It seems to me that the only difference between Mr. and Mrs. God and your garden-variety MOTW is that they eat people and assuage any guilt or responsibility for the murders by giving their community unseasonably warm weather.

Again, the point of human sacrifice is made utterly meaningless, as in “Scarecrow.” However, unlike “Scarecrow,” those making it meaningless are the gods themselves, which doesn’t make much sense. Gods, of whatever system, represent divine principles and I’m not seeing what divine principle these two represent. Yes, their ritual is (sort of) modeled on the Swedish ritual of Midvinterblot, but Madge and Edward bear more resemblance to Saxon(ish) monsters Grendel and his mother than to Odin or Freyja, gods propitiated at the Midvinterblot. Possibly, the writers intended to echo the myth of Norse god Baldur’s death, but Baldur is killed by mistletoe, not pine, and is a gentle precursor to Jesus. And we’ll find out later these gods definitely weren’t Baldur, anyway.

The alleged connection to Hold Nickar (mentioned once and then never again) also makes little sense. Hold Nickar was a sea god who appears to have given some of his traditions to our current Santa Claus, namely: his tendency to ride through the sky at the Winter Solstice and toss down favors to his worshipers in a version of the Ancient European Wild Hunt. How this translates into a male and female god, both equally dangerous but only one of whom rides to a house to grab a victim, I don’t know. And how a Teutonic sea god is vulnerable to pine stakes is also never explained.

I suspect what really happened was that the writers watched William Friedkin’s The Guardian a few times too often and that’s why we get all of this Celtic herbal mythology of the Green Man mixed up with Scandinavian and German traditions (Those nasty druids, they really got around, ya know – she said sarcastically). Then Kripke got it into his head that the Brothers should whack an MOTW with a Christmas tree (He actually has said this), and Mr. and Mrs. God were born. Though I’m especially confused by that after reading visual effects supervisor Ivan Hayden’s interview in Supernatural Magazine. How do you use a tree to kill a tree god? Some kind of like-kills-like sympathetic magic?

Concerning the Anti-Claus, he’s not Santa’s evil brother. He’s a collection of demons in Dutch folklore enslaved by St. Nicholas to do his bidding. Maybe the writers tried too strenuously not to show that they were ripping off Santa’s Slay. Maybe they quickly realised how intrinsically racist and antisemitic those traditions are (which is why they’re being phased out). But there’s shaping the lore to your story and there’s making it mean things it’s not meant to mean, and I think they crossed a line with this one. Roared right over a few, in fact.

So, why don’t I give a crap? Because, you know what? I don’t. Sam-worship, pagan-bashing and mythology-mastication that irritated the hell out of me in the Halloween ep, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester,” just make me giggle, shrug and turn the gain up so I can hear the mayhem better on “A Very Supernatural Christmas.” I think it’s because, underneath it all, this is a wickedly-funny shaggy-dog story intended to show us the True Meaning of Christmas, which is that Christmas magic is real and you can feel it even under the worst circumstances.

There’s a terrible moment in that dining room when the Brothers are hurting bad and Dean turns to Sam and says, “Merry Christmas, Sam!” And means it. This may have originally come out in 2007, but “A Very Supernatural Christmas” is the Christmas Special sendoff 2020 thoroughly deserves.

Also, the Christmas jokes, when it comes right down to it, are in-jokes and not mean, and episode writer Jeremy Carver has fun with the lore, while director J. Miller Tobin has a lot of fun with the Christmas décor. You can tell Jensen Ackles, a self-professed lover of the holiday, is having a blast as Christmas-crazy Dean. Poor Padalecki gets stuck playing the Boy Who Hates Christmas, which is a much-harder job, though he does get some great lines as a consolation.

I was also surprised to find the Christmas music for the episode, both original and soundtrack, much richer and more enjoyable than I’d remembered. I’d never paid much attention to it on watches (many, many watches) before. I hadn’t expected to find much that was new on this rewatch, so that in particular was a pleasant surprise.

Madge and Edward, with their obsessively “secular” Christmasfied home, are hysterical. Of course pagan gods would hide out under the trappings of plastic decorations and blinking lights. We all knew that in our hearts, in the same weird, secret place that still knows damned-well there’s a monster under the bed, no matter what anybody says.

And the actors they got in were perfect for the roles, especially Merrilyn Gann and Spencer Garrett as Madge and Edward Carrigan. Great job, both of them, alone together and with Padalecki and Ackles (I love the cat-and-mouse back-and-forth, where you’re not sure who’s hunting whom). Also of note are Douglas Newell as the cynical shop owner and Brandy Kopp as the horrified elf girl. See, the CW? See what you’re missing by insisting that actors on your show all be under 30 and anorexic?

Merry Christmas, Everyone!


Fun lines:

Dean [to Sam]: So, what did you find [in the victim’s house]?
Sam: Stockings, mistletoe…this.
Dean: A tooth?! Where was this?
Sam: In the chimney.
Dean: The chimney?! No way a man fits up the chimney. It’s too narrow.
Sam: No way he fits up in one piece.
Dean: All right, so if Dad went up the chimney…
Sam: …we need to find what dragged him up there.

Dean [after hearing that Christmas isn’t really Jesus’ birthday]: Next, you’ll be telling me the Easter Bunny’s Jewish!

Sam [about watching the Santa talk to kids]: We just came here to watch.

Dean: Hey, Sam, why are you the boy who hates Christmas?

Sam [to Dean before they bust into “Santa’s” trailer]: Mr. Gung-Ho Christmas might have to blow away Santa.

Guy in Santa suit on porno [to girl coming onto him in a bar]: Look, I’m just not in the mood, okay?
Girl: Mistle my toe. Roast my chestnut? You know…jingle my bell?

Store Owner: Can I help you boys?
Dean: Yeah, we were playing Jenga over at the Walshes and…well, he hasn’t shut up about this wreath. [to Sam] I don’t know. You tell him.
Sam [stiffly]: Sure. [to Store Owner] It was yummy.
Store Owner[to Sam]: I sell a lot of wreaths, guys.
Sam: Right, right, but you see, this one would have been really special. It had green leaves, white buds on it. Might have been made out of meadowsweet?
Store Owner: Well, aren’t you the fussy one?

Dean: Did you sell [the wreaths] for free?
Store Owner: Hell, no. It’s Christmas. People pay a buttload for this crap.
Dean: That’s the spirit!

Dean [looking at Madge and Edward’s christmasfied house]: So, this is where Mrs. Wreath lives, huh? Boy, can’t you just feel the Evil Pagan Vibe?

Dean [to Madge after she cuts him]: If you fudging touch me again, I’ll fudging kill ya!

Edward: Fingernail…blood. Sweet Peter on a Popsicle Stick – I forgot the tooth!

Madge [to Sam]: You little thing. [head spins disturbingly] I loved that tree.

(Original) Next Week: Houses of the Holy: Sam and Dean investigate when unlikely vigilantes kill secretly-bad people and claim an angel incited them to do it.

(Original) In the New Year (January 21): Sam, Interrupted: The Brothers check themselves into a psych hospital to investigate mysterious doings there, then can’t check back out when the MOTW starts to drive them crazy.

(Actual) Next week: Ask Jeeves: We’re back to Season 10 with an episode where Sam and Dean are called to a moldy old pile for the reading of a will and the solving of a murder.

The Kripke Years

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Season 5

The Gamble Years

Season 6 (with Kripke)

Season 7

The Carver Years

Season 8

Season 9

Season 10

Season 11

The Dabb Years

Season 12

Season 13

Season 14

Season 15

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Witchcraft in North Carolina (1919)


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Cross, Tom Peete. “Witchcraft in North Carolina.” Studies in Philology, 16:3 (Jul. 1919): 217-287. Reprinted Forgotten Books, 2018.


This is the second-oldest of the books that I’m reviewing this month and it, too, is technically an article. But it is a very important article that is nearly as long as a book in pages, and easily packs enough for any three regular ghost story collections. It is dense. It is arcane. It is well-researched. Though obviously dated (having come out in 1919), it has footnote sections that are two-thirds the length of the page. But in those footnotes, you will find some stories that may well make you want to read with all the lights on.

“Witchcraft in North Carolina” is a very comprehensive study of its subject. Also, unlike many academic articles, it firmly places its regional topic within the larger subject of witchcraft with a brief history and overview of that subject up to that point in time (99 years ago). This is quite useful, for Virginian folklorist and Celtic scholar Tom Peete Cross (1879-1951) holds to the theory that all witchcraft is based on the concept of maleficium – that some people have the power to do magic that can both help and harm others. The ones who do harm are called “witches,” though the line can be very blurred between helpers and harmers.

Stuart McDonald, Canadian author of The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710 (2002), would argue there is also an element in which political and religious elites use witchcraft charges to root out and eliminate “heretical” dissent. Hence why I reviewed this article today. Today is the 711th anniversary of the arrest (for heresy) of the Knights Templar in France. Their subsequent multi-year trial became an exemplar for later trials during the witchcrazes, even though the Templars had been tried as heretics (and the results were ultimately and officially inconclusive). The witch accusation evolved out of the heresy accusation.

There was certainly this “heresy” element in the Salem Trials (and previous Puritan witch trials) of 1692. However, North Carolina was a very different area. North Carolinians were notoriously irreligious early on and had a different mix of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans than New England. From what I’ve seen in my research, the more humble maleficium was pretty much what you got in NC.

That doesn’t mean that witches were treated better than in Puritan New England, but “conjurers,” were perhaps tolerated more. One really intriguing element is how Cross notes that the distinction between “witch” and “ghost” is fairly meaningless in North Carolina. In NC folklore, witches are not human, but are spirits or demons, already.

So, a story like “The Witch Cat” can have versions where a house is haunted variously by witches (in the form of a black cat) or ghosts, and the ghosts are usually a headless man. The Headless Man in Celtic folklore is actually a fairy (themselves often conflated with the unbaptized dead) called a Dullahan, a very dark member of the Unseelie Court whose appearance invariably signals death – except when the story is mixed up with a dead man’s ghost who is seeking to give away his hidden treasure to a worthy person. Yeah, folklore mutates like that.

Witches in NC folklore are also adept shapeshifters, usually appearing as a black cat or a sow or a black dog. Black dogs (also known as “black shucks“) have their whole own sinister folklore from the British Isles that connects them to fairies, as well, but they can be found all over the world. The measures traditionally used against a witch indicate a cringe-worthy and grim history of extreme animal abuse, especially against black cats. But curiously, there are also traditions where cats shouldn’t be harmed, especially if they are black.

Overall, while this is definitely an academic article and it’s definitely aged, “Witchcraft in North Carolina” is worth a read if you are looking for material for your own stories or want to find out more about NC folklore and its origins. I’ve included a link to it, but there are other, free versions available around the internet, since it’s now well out of copyright.


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Weird Middle Ages: Templars and the Origins of Friday the 13th


By Paula R. Stiles


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On this day in October 1307 (and yes, it was a Friday), almost every member in France of the military religious order the Knights Templar was arrested in a pre-dawn raid by agents of King Philippe IV, known as “Le Bel” (“The Fair,” mostly because he was blonde). Philippe claimed that the arrests had been motivated on the spur of the moment by distressing allegations that the Templars were devil-worshiping heretics. As the confessions piled up to include weird things like ritual kisses on the buttocks, spitting on the cross, and denying Christ, it appeared he was right.

Of course, all was not as it seemed. In fact, the raid had been carefully planned and the charges written up in detail a month before the arrests by Philippe’s sinister head minister and Keeper of the Keys, Guillaume de Nogaret. Guillaume was already pretty notorious for having beaten up a pope (the Templars’ boss) a few years before and had used the same charges with great success in 1306 against Jews and Lombard bankers, resulting in a mass expulsion of both groups and a general crash of the French economy.

At the same time he was trying the Templars, Nogaret was busy suppressing a harmless group of poor mendicants known as the Beguines and the Beghards, led by a woman whom the King had burned at the stake for heresy. Nogaret was also notorious for suing his poorer neighbors and (reputedly) engaging in a bit of black magic, himself. He was a thorough scoundrel.

All of this skullduggery was intended to gain the perpetually cash-strapped Philippe some money. Philippe was a stern, autocratic, unpopular fanatic, obsessed with power and avid for ready cash to fill the coffers depleted by his sainted grandfather Louis IX’s crusade. Though he was eventually able to force his new, hand-picked pope to suppress the Order in 1312, the landed property eventually went to the Templars’ sister order, the Hospitallers. It also turned out that the Templars themselves were cash poor.

Fate had not yet had the last laugh on Philippe. Months after having the last Grand Master of the Order burned as a relapsed heretic in 1314 (and in the middle of an adultery scandal centered on his daughters-in-law, no less), Philippe died, suddenly and in his prime, as did the Pope. Nogaret had mysteriously died the year before.

Philippe left three strong sons, but by 1328, after three centuries of an unbroken line of male succession in the French royal family, all three had died with no heirs. The royal Capetian line was extinct. Rumors abounded that the parties involved had been cursed by God, root and branch.

Philippe did have one grandson, who claimed the throne through his mother, Philippe’s daughter. Problem was, that grandson was already King of England. The scandalized French nobility decided to give the crown to Philippe’s brothers rather than become subjects of their traditional enemy across the Channel. The King of England objected. This resulted in the Hundred Years War, which devastated the French nobility and nearly destroyed France.

To add posthumous insult to fatal injury, in his famous Divine Comedy, Dante put Philippe in Hell for his crimes against the Templar Order and even stuck Philip’s ancestor Hugh Capet in Purgatory just for having been his forefather.

Moral of the story: Don’t be a royal creep on Friday the 13th.

Philippe_le_Bel_famille


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Templars Are to Blame: Dating the Shroud of Turin


By Paula R. Stiles


Today is the 709th anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar in France in a pre-dawn raid. Let’s explore one of the artifacts and legends that have been connected to them after that date.

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Shroud of Turin. I’m a medievalist and most medievalists find the period of the Black Death (starting with the latter half of the 14th century) compelling in a ghoulish sort of way. It was a huge world-wide demographic change, the best-recorded example of one of Nature’s rare attempts to wipe us humans completely out.

It’s therefore equally intriguing that in the middle of this huge societal eruption, one of the most unique, strange and controversial relics of the Middle Ages appears — a piece of linen almost fifteen feet long and over three feet wide with an image of a naked dead man superimposed on it, front and back. In other words, a shroud. Since the late 14th century, this shroud has been linked to Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting to note that the first confirmed record of the Shroud is a report to the Pope in 1390 stating that it was a fake relic and the creator of it had confessed. Since then, the provenance (also known as “chain of custody”) of the Shroud has been remarkably solid. “Provenance” is the documentary history of where an object has been and what’s happened to it. For example, we know that the Shroud was in the middle of a church fire in 1532 that burned so hot it melted holes in the silver reliquary, singing holes right through the folded-up Shroud in a line down each side. Subsequently, a small and dedicated group of nuns patched these holes with new cloth.

The trail grows a lot more iffy prior to 1390. We have some documentation of it in either 1353 or 1357 related to the display of the Shroud by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight who died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Geoffroi has been more tentatively linked to a possible uncle, Geoffroi de Charney, the last Grand Marshal of the Order of the Knights Templar, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1314. Even more tentatively, some have speculated that the Shroud fell into Templar hands after it was pillaged from a famous Byzantine collection of crucifixion relics during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This theory was put forth by popular Templar historian Ian Wilson in The Turin Shroud in 1978. Academic Templar historian Malcolm Barber thoroughly examined these claims in a 1982 article, “The Templars and the Turin Shroud,” and came up with a verdict of inconclusive.

The Pray Codex
The Pray Codex

The Byzantine relic, known as the Mandylion (or the Image of Edessa) was a cloth upon which Christ’s face had miraculously appeared. It was part of a collection of crucifixion relics such as wood and nails from the Holy Cross. The record trail for it goes back to the sixth century and a tradition goes back to the early fourth century. After that, even the spottiest provenance goes cold.

The Mandylion is also related to an acheiropoieta (icons or other holy images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary not made by human hands) tradition in which a pious woman known as St Veronica wiped the face of Jesus while he was carrying the cross to Golgotha. His image was then impressed on the cloth by miraculous means. Images related to this tradition began to appear in the 14th century. The Shroud is unique in that it is a full-body acheiropoieton image rather than just a head and appears to reflect older traditions such as that in the late-12th century Pray Codex from Hungary.

The main problem with the Shroud of Turin is that even though it has excellent provenance back to the Middle Ages, its origin point (known as its “provenience”) remains unknown. All we know is when it was first displayed and even that’s in the murk before 1390. The Pray Codex and the St Veronica tradition give us some hints, but again, don’t really date it. And that’s important because if it does date to the early 1350s (or earlier), the story of the forger’s confession starts to fall apart. It’s unlikely that person had survived to 1390.

And that brings us to the iffy science. Numerous tests have been done on the Shroud, giving it a date ranging all the way back to two thousand years ago. The most famous one, of course, is the carbon dating of sampling from 1988 that dated the Shroud to between 1260 and 1390. Much ink has been spilled and shouting done over the test. Its proponents (who were basically debunkers and people anxious to promote carbon dating, which was then still rather a young science) insisted it was the best possible way to date the Shroud and everyone else doing other tests was biased. Its critics complained that the science was faulty, the sample too small, the Shroud was contaminated by extra carbon (remember that fire?), the sample had been taken from a smaller patch, and so on.

The basic science, all things considered, was pretty solid, but the other criticisms have validity. It was only one test done 28 years ago. Carbon dating has moved on and that one test did not account for things like the fact the Shroud has been handled a great deal over the past six hundred years, and that yes, there have been patches, as well as that it has been subjected to a major fire. And there is one other major issue.

Now, I want to say that while I lean toward the romance of the Shroud really going back to ancient times, I don’t think it can ever be anything but a matter of faith whether it was the shroud of Jesus Christ. Even if we could date it to the first century CE, let alone from Palestine, there’s no real way to prove that it was wrapped around the Son of God.

But it would be good to know a fairly solid origin point so we could get that provenience and establish some other things about the Shroud’s origins, especially the alleged Templar connection. I mean, we’re still trying to figure out how it was made (assuming you don’t buy the acheiropoieton theory). Was an actual bleeding dead body involved (and how chilling is that idea, especially if it was created in 1353, during the first wave of the Black Death)? Was it a standard shroud or was someone killed to make it? Or was it very cleverly painted, which would make it an amazing masterpiece of medieval art?

Also, what about the story of the Widow de Charny? While early medieval women had a pretty strong influence on Church cultic practice, this was largely frowned upon by the 14th century. A secular woman, especially an unmarried/widowed one, creating a cult center involving a major relic (or icon, as the Church officially terms the Shroud), especially during the initial period of the Black Death, was highly unusual.

The carbon dating doesn’t answer any of these questions. In fact, despite their claims of having no bias, the proponents of the carbon dating test knew perfectly well that any dating post-1390 would have no legitimacy in light of the very strong documentary provenance from that point, and even the more-iffy dating to the middle of the 14th century. It’s not just the issues with the possibility of contamination from other sources. These could be resolved (albeit the Church is not thrilled by the idea of allowing testers to rip up the Shroud, especially in order to debunk it as an ancient relic) by more testing. The problem is that the century the 1988 test gave is precisely the century that requires the most clarification in the Shroud’s history. If testing makes it older than the 14th century, and especially the 13th century, that gives some solidity to the proposed chain of evidence involving the Charnys and the Templars. But by just saying it’s somewhere in the 14th or late 13th century, the carbon dating test gave us absolutely no new information. Thanks to the provenance, we already knew that.

Unfortunately, those engaged in the carbon dating project didn’t care. They wanted to “prove” that the Shroud was no older than its documentary provenance. They wanted to debunk, to shut down the debate. They most certainly had a bias there. The problem was that they didn’t prove anything (the dating range went back 130 years before the confirmed documentary trail) and they didn’t help with confirming any of the previous stories. And they certainly didn’t shut down the debate. Even if the carbon dating was accurate, it wasn’t accurate enough.

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Unusual History: Urraca, Badass Queen of Castile


By Paula R. Stiles


Even a cursory delve into the Middle Ages brings up queenly badassery along the lines of a Daenerys Stormborn and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but some of these tough medieval queens are less well-known than others. Urraca (c.1079-1226), first ruling queen of Castile, León, Galicia, and Portugal in Spain, is one of them.

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                              Queen Urraca

Urraca’s reign of badassery didn’t start out in roaring form. Her father Alfonso, seeking more northern alliances than his ancestors, married her off to a French adventurer named Raymond de Bourgogne (c.1065-1107) when she was about eight. By age fourteen (when she had her first miscarriage), the marriage had been consummated. Her husband was either nine or fourteen years older than she. Urraca then found herself engaged in a grueling series of pregnancies that resulted in her standing at her husband’s bier in 1107, not yet 30, with a daughter Sancha and a son Alfonso.

Daddy Dearest betrothed her to his main rival Alfonso el Batallador (the Battler), King of Aragon, a year later. Yes, Spain had a lot of Alfonsos in power during the Middle Ages.

Her father’s decision was prompted by the death of his illegitimate son (by a Muslim noblewoman) and designated heir, Sancho, in 1108, and by the demands of at least some of his nobles. As with the first marriage of Urraca’s younger and more famous contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine, Urraca’s father and his nobles apparently felt his daughter couldn’t handle the job as a reigning queen, despite her already edging into the medieval version of early middle age and having a legitimate and healthy heir in her own son, who was a toddler. And as with Eleanor’s marriage, Daddy Dearest’s attempt to bolster his daughter’s position via bringing a man in to do the job just created extra problems for the realm and the female ruler who was quite capable of running it on her own.

It’s a first sign of greatness in a woman who, to that point, had been little more than a broodmare that Urraca decided to go ahead with the marriage, even after her father died suddenly in 1109. She did this, despite voicing repeated misgivings to her father, because she apparently agreed that the marriage was a political necessity to keep her older and ambitiously scheming, illegitimate half-sister Teresa and Teresa’s husband Henry, left in charge of Portugal, from seeking independence. Unfortunately, her misgivings turned out to be right and Urraca’s life soon began to resemble a particularly juicy medieval telenovela.

Though he looked great on paper – and great on the battlefield – El Batallador (c.1073-1134) was severely lacking as a husband. He reportedly disliked women and greatly preferred the company of men. Though he was six years older than Urraca, it was his first (and only) marriage. He had no mistresses and later Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir (1166-1234) remarked that he didn’t even sleep with female war captives (a very common practice of the time). No mention is made of his dallying with any young boys either, so there’s that, but whether he was gay, asexual or sterile, he had no known children of any kind.

It’s often stated how important bearing children was to a queen’s security and power base, but having an heir was equally important to a king. Establishing your dynasty was a crucial part of cementing your reign. My friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who has a strong interest in the history of Tudor England, has often remarked that Henry VIII’s queens were no passive victims. They had their own power bases, hence why noble families vied to profer the next woman in line and so many of these candidates were strong and smart (with the young and unready Catherine Howard a disastrously instructive exception). How much more so a queen ruling suo jure, by blood not marriage, like Urraca, who also not only had a son but a daughter who could rule after her. Indeed, as Urraca’s son ruled over the State part of his mother’s realm, her daughter Sancha came to rule over the Church portion as a very powerful, unmarried infanta. Even her illegitimate children married well.

During a monarch’s lifetime, even minor (underage) heirs, like Urraca’s son, Alfonso Raimundez, had power bases formed around them, full of court intrigue, long before they came of age. For example, Eleanor’s restless sons all rebelled against their father, Henry II of England, at some point. Eleanor herself was imprisoned for years because she fomented the revolt against their father as part of her ongoing conflict over Henry’s tyrannical attempts to coopt her realm of Aquitaine into his own. She ended up choosing her own heir, Richard, who also eventually became Henry’s heir due to a process of attrition over the years. She also ended up outliving Henry.

In Alfonso Raimundez’s case, the main court intriguer was the oily Bishop Diego Gelmirez of Santiago de Compostela, who eventually grew so wealthy and ambitious that the Pope himself slapped him down in 1124. Whoever controlled the child heir controlled the current monarch, though Urraca would soon close this loophole quite firmly. Urraca’s heir and her second husband’s lack of one showed her strength versus his weakness.

Alfonso Batallador also seemed to lack any tact whatsoever. What he gained on the battlefield he quickly lost to his soon-to-be-ex-wife because she was every bit as skilled a diplomat as he was a warrior. In the short term, the marriage itself had the opposite effect intended, since Alfonso Batallador made his intentions to dominate Urraca’s realm of Castile, León and Galicia in favor of his home kingdom of Aragon very clear. That just gave Teresa and her husband the excuse to break away for real.

Theresa of Portugal
              Teresa of Portugal

Later historians have lamented the “chance” lost during Urraca’s reign to unite Spain under one realm, but those historians lived four or five centuries later, in a period after Spanish kings had brutally united the various kingdoms through force and considerable bloodshed. Urraca and Alfonso lived during a time when the united Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus had just broken up into numerous — though still-powerful — taifa kingdoms, and the previously tiny Christian kingdoms were rapidly expanding by picking them off. Urraca’s own grandfather had followed the Carolingian custom of dividing his kingdom among his children. It was only the death of her uncle, the elder son, that had given her father the chance to put the recently conquered Christian realms of her grandfather under one heir. So, it seems likely that uniting into a new Christian version of Al-Andalus was actually the last thing Urraca’s subjects had in mind, especially if they weren’t the ones in charge of it.

Alfonso Batallador may have been the only one shocked when the marriage broke down in 1110. Even so, Urraca next did some very surprising things for a medieval queen. For one, when she sought a divorce (technically, an annulment based on consanguinity) from the Pope, she did so partly based on the accusation that her new husband was beating her. At this time, it was perfectly acceptable for husbands to beat their wives and even ruling queens were expected to obey their husbands as their lords. Urraca’s accusation was startling in the assumption that her husband had no right to beat her, to the point that this was grounds for divorce. What was even more startling was that she was able to persuade the Pope to give her the divorce that same year. Popes were pretty accommodating about royal annulments in the 11th and early 12th centuries, but even so, that may have been a speed record.

And then, on top of that, she took a lover, Gómez González. While still legally married to Alfonso. And had a son with him.

Alfonso remained in denial for four more years, deciding in the meantime to take back “his” kingdom by force. There were several things in his favor. He was arguably the greatest Christian warrior of his generation and easily beat Urraca’s forces on the battlefield, even once putting her under siege at Astorga, León in 1112. Meanwhile, her lover was killed in the Battle of Candespina against her husband and her brother-in-law in 1111 (she promptly took another, his cousin Pedro González de Lara, and had at least two children out of wedlock with him). The Leonese nobility also was split into four factions. One was with the Queen. One was with her son, but sought to usurp her as his regent. One was with the King of Aragon. And one was helping Teresa and her husband break off to become the first Countess and Count of Portugal.

Urraca was able to fend off her older half-sister (who began to style herself Queen after being widowed in 1112), then defeated and forced her to re-swear fealty in 1121, temporarily reuniting all of their patrimony until after her death. Also, when the opportunity presented itself after Bishop Gelmírez fled the Battle of Viadangos in 1111 with young Alfonso Raimundez, seeking refuge with the boy’s mother, Urraca got full custody over her son. She retained control over young Alfonso (who was 20 before he became King) until her death, even staving off any possible rebellions such as the one Teresa’s son later employed to depose his mother in 1128. Meanwhile, she gained back in diplomacy what her ex had won in battle. Eventually, in 1114, Alfonso Batallador was forced to concede defeat and withdraw. Urraca spent the rest of her reign consolidating her kingdom against all comers Christian and Muslim, in preparation for turning it over to her son, before she died suddenly, probably in childbirth, at the age of 45.

The contemporary chronicle Historia Compostelana acknowledges Urraca’s intelligence and prudence, while sourly criticizing her as a “Jezebel” for her lovers and taking potshots at her fitness to rule solely due to her gender. Early Modern writers like Jerónimo Zurita y Castro (1512-1580) and Enrique Flórez (1701-1773) were more vicious, referring to her as Urraca the Reckless (la Temeraria) and writing lurid scenes (which may never have occurred) in which she was attacked and half-stripped during a negotiation-gone-wrong and a peasant revolt. It’s more likely that the peasants, for the most part, quite liked her, since she brought them peace and independence from Aragon. In addition, she had a greater reputation for showing mercy than her ex-husband, stemming from an incident early in their marriage when Alfonso Batallador executed some rebels Urraca wished to pardon.

In light of her many pregnancies and political use of sexual liaisons, there seems little doubt Urraca liked sex quite a bit. It also seems that she saw no reason not to use sex and sexual alliances as a weapon, just like her father, seeing as how Daddy Dearest was married five times and had at least two mistresses. She appears to have simply taken the same prerogatives that any king of her time would have done.

What’s interesting (and an indication of how powerful and skillful a ruler she truly must have been) is that she was able to do this, just like a king, to strengthen her rule, rather than be forced to live in celibate widowhood to avoid harming her and her son’s power base. For example, her two known lovers were both unsuccessful suitors for her hand before her father betrothed her to Alfonso Batallador. In addition, they were rivals against him along the border with Aragon, so she was able to exploit their natural animosity toward her second husband in her favor. It’s not just that Urraca didn’t care what a few cranky old monks and priests said about her. It’s that she was able to turn that scarlet reputation into a political advantage and make strong allies out of it. Having children with these men only cemented those alliances further.

It’s also interesting that the attraction she held for men probably had nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with her being Queen. We have no surviving description of her appearance and when she was married off the first time, she was very young. The one near-contemporary (a century later) portrait of her from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela very interestingly portrays her with medium-brown skin (or even slate gray in another photograph). Urraca’s father and son are also portrayed in the same illuminated document as dark-skinned. This supports the idea that her father’s marrying her to Raymond counteracted centuries of marrying locally (and his liaison with a Muslim princess that resulted in a male heir), which could well have also meant marrying into Andalusian nobility.

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                                          Eleanor of Aquitaine

 

Still, it is a surprise in medieval iconography, where female nobility to the north in this period were portrayed as very pale (even Teresa gets this treatment in a surviving illumination). Younger contemporary Eleanor is also portrayed in effigy on her tomb as having medium-brown skin, as well as being tall and wide-hipped. Possibly, this was an artistic convention of the time applied to women from Southwestern Europe, even though noblewomen in general were not expected to go out in the sun and pale skin was prized in other parts of the region.

It’s one more way in which Urraca stands out as nothing like the traditional 19th century image of the dippy, passive Gibson-haired girl who just can’t rule without a strong knight by her side. Urraca didn’t need any man to dominate her and she spent most of the latter half of her life ensuring that no man ever would again.


Further Reading

Pallares Méndez, María del Carmen and Portela, Ermelindo. La Reina Urraca. Nerea, 2006.

Reilly, Bernard F. The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109-1126. Princeton University Press, 1982.


Interested in more Spanish medieval history? Check out my book, Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia.