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Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Midnight Mass of the Dead

There once was a woman from Stausland in the county of Vest-Agder, who was to attend the sermon on Christmas morning. In the middle of the night she woke up, and saw a light coming from inside the church. Not a single churchgoer was in sight.
Believing that she had overslept, she rushed out of bed, threw on her best coat, and hurried down to the church.
Once inside, the church was full of people as she had anticipated, but she wondered why she did not know any of those who were there. When the priest had stepped up to the pulpit, she cast a glance at the old woman who was sitting beside her. Rather bewildered, she saw that it was a neighbor of hers, who had passed away some time ago. “Get on your coat,” said the old hag, “and get out before the priest has finished his sermon. For this is the Mass of the dead, and they will kill you if they catch you here!”
The woman did as her neighbor had said. Not before she had stood up from her seat, they were after her. Just as she rushed out the door, they tore off her coat, and she ran home like crazy.
In the morning when people came to the church to attend the morning Mass, only bits of the coat were left behind on the church steps.
Abigel Stokkeland, (b. 1844), as told to Peter Lunde in 1919 

Just as she rushed out the door, they tore off her coat, 
and she ran home like crazy. Drawing by Vicent St. Lerche (1837-92)

Originating from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic region, The Midnight Mass of the Dead is a special form of legend, widely spread and communicated in a number of variants throughout Europe. The oldest version of the legend was recorded as early as in the 6th century, by the French bishop and historian Gregory of Tours, while in Norway it was first put in writing in the late 1700s, by the priest and scientist Hans Jacob Wille. 

Although existing in a multitude of national and local variants, the core of the legend commonly remains the same:

A man or a woman is mistaken about the time of day (possibly due to the long, dark winters of Northern Europe), and find themselves attending a Mass in the middle of the night. They then discover that both the priest and the congregation are ghosts. They are then warned by a deceased acquaintance participating in the Mass, and flee out of the church. In most variants the protagonist gets out of there alive, yet the final outcome may also be fatal.

Sometimes these incidents occur at New Years or Midsummer Eve, at other times on a Thursday or on a Sunday. Most commonly, however, it is at Christmas Night in which the Midnight Mass of the Dead takes place. The reason for this mainly stems from the old belief that ghosts and spirits belonged to the darkness; it was therefore natural to consider them increasingly present during the darkest times of the year. In the long, cold months of the Nordic winter, the dead exercised a greater authority, and therefore did not emerge as invisible beings from a distant sphere. They existed, on the contrary, as highly corporal representations of their former self, appearing substantially as they did while still being alive.

It is not unreasonable to imagine that the modern conception of the undead, widely communicated by the popular culture
(the examples ranging from The Night of the Living dead, to American Horror Story and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), might be highly influenced by the ghosts in this narrative tradition. As initially told by Abigel Stokkeland, they are often portrayed as rather evil, quarrelsome beings who become infuriated with the poor wretch who are so unfortunate to stray into the church, interrupting their Midnight Mass. Several records informs of the undead clinging to peoples’ backs, tearing of their clothes, pinching and causing disease. In many of the stories, the protagonist cast of their coats, leaving it to be ripped apart by the undead, a maneuver that is performed as a way of deluding the ghosts. When the tattered clothes are later on retrieved, they have most likely provided a tiny glimpse of what might have happened to the poor soul unfortunate enough not to get away. 

For these stories exist as well – of the undead, taking lives.

A legend from Lapland tells for instance of a priest and a sacristan who made a bet about who dared to go into the church during the Midnight Mass of the Dead. First went the sacristan. He saved his life by ringing the church bells. Shortly thereafter, the priest went in. He entered the pulpit, and gave a sermon. The undead however, could not care less about this gesture, and they tore the priest into shreds. The next morning, when people arrived to church, only the intestines remained after the late priest, carefully swirled around the pillars.

Notions like these have existed for centuries, and are to be found even in the Norse folklore. In the Icelandic Grettis saga, we learn about Grettir Ásmundarson, a belligerent giant who gets into a fight with an undead being – a draug – named Glåm. Before he falls for Grettis sword, the revenant pronounces a curse upon his rival:

I also lay this curse on you, that these eyes that I bring to bear on you will always be in your sight, and you will find it hard to be on your own, and this will bring you to your death.
In the aftermath, Grettir’s already difficult temperament deteriorates further, and he finds himself burdened by disabling anxieties about being alone at the approach of darkness. He incurs outlawry and is forced to live in solitude for the rest of his life. 

[...] Grettir ran under his hands and gripped him round the middle, and bent back his spine as hard as he might, and his mind it was that Glam should shrink thereat; but the thrall lay so hard on Grettir's arms, that he shrank all aback because of Glam's strength. Artist unkown

In another Icelandic saga, the Eyrbyggja saga, (eng. 'The Saga of the People of Eyri') we learn that strange and sinister things have happened on the farm of Frodå, after a shepherd was found dead and buried by the church grounds. One night, a man named Tore Wooden-Leg went out to do his business, and encountered the shepherds’ ghost. Desperately, Tore tried to get away, yet the shepherd came after him and beat him to the ground. Shortly thereafter, Tore got black as coal all over his body, and lastly passed away. From that moment on, the two of them always appeared together – the shepherd and Tore Wooden-Leg. And, as one might expect, scaring people completely out of their wits. 

A Swedish version, rendered by the Danish folklore researcher Henning Fr. Feilberg (1831-1921), tells the story of a man riding past a church on Christmas Eve. There where obviously someone in there, for the windows were lit, and he could hear the undead and their tormented song:
Our bones are fragile, our life is over – we soulless beings await the coming of judgment day.
These words reflect another important aspect of this narrative tradition; the horror stories of angry undead aside, far more often these legends actually communicate an increasingly redeeming form of substance. As this little example from Sweden shows us, the ghosts actively seek redemption from their dreary circumstances, by participating in a Christian Mass almost identical to those of the living. In some cases, their appeals are also granted. 

A legend from Østerdalen in Norway tells for instance about a ghost who receives help from a girl, in order to make amends for his past wrongdoings. He was an evil man while being alive, and tormented all of his three wives, who are now deceased and participating in the Mass of the dead. He himself is not allowed to enter the church, he confides to the girl, but is doomed to remain at the cemetery for all eternity. He pleas the girl to go into the church, and ask each one of his former wives for forgiveness on his behalf – for this is the only way he can find peace, he says. And so the girl does as she is asked.

Afterwards, the man stands waiting for her on the outside. 
'What happened?' he asks. 
'They forgave you, all three of them, and they shook my hand on it,' she says.
'Oh, God bless you!' the man exclaims. 'Now I can finally be at peace!'

And then, in the blink of an eye, he is gone.


  • Brynjulf Alver (1950). 'Daudinggudstenesta: ein europeisk førestillingskrins i norsk tradisjon'. I Arv: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore.
  • Ørnulf Hodne (1999). Norsk folketro. Cappelen: Oslo. 
  • Grettir's Saga. English, transl. William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson. Retrieved from the Icelandic Saga Database. URL:
  • Norsk Folkeminnesamling: ml4015. De dødes messe. Id: SIN228. År: 1919. Sted: Søgne, Vest-Agder. Informant: Abigel Stokkeland, f. 1844. Samler: Peter Lunde
  • Russell Poole. 'Myth, Psychology, and Society in Grettis Saga'. In Alvissmál; nr 11 (2004). URL: