Keep your Yule logs lit as we delve into both the welcome and unwelcome guests, and their related Christmas/Yule/Solstice folklore, who visit Sabrina (Kiernan Chipka) and her family and friends over several nights leading to the longest night of the year in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina holiday special, “A Midwinter’s Tale.”
I’ve always been intrigued by the darker spookier side of Christmas. As a not very well closeted Anglophile, the British tradition of ghost stories at Christmastime brought to this American via A Christmas Carol and The Woman in Black (*shivers, looks over shoulder, throws away rocking chair), is a welcome left turn from the relentless cheerfulness of the American “holly jolly” style Christmas, which I also happen to enjoy. The Sabrina holiday special, “A Midwinter’s Tale” embraces the spookier Christmas ghost story tradition in a way few American shows/films do with obvious exceptions like Supernatural and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The holiday episode, added after the fact while Part 2 of Season 1 was already in production, had the difficult task of connecting Parts 1 and 2 of the 20 episode Season 1 without treading over territory that the second half of Season 1 will surely handle in-depth. Series showrunner and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has said that he wanted the episode to work as a stand-alone episode that might even work for the uninitiated (pun intended) to the series, like the holiday Doctor Who episodes. However, it airs as part 11 of Season 1 and has to sidestep the major changes that all of the characters were dealing with by the end of the midseason finale.
There’s a little resulting awkwardness as Sabrina seems a bit more like her earlier moonstruck over mortal ex-boyfriend Harvey self in this episode than the newly platinum-haired young woman who had fully embraced her darker side at the end of the first half of Season 1, including giving a bit of a wink to the devilishly named new potential love interest Nick Scratch, after being forced to sign the Dark Lord’s book in order to prevent a mini Greendale apocalypse. There’s a slightly extraneous side plot about Sabrina awkwardly trying to give Harvey (Ross Lynch) magical “always sharp” colored pencils for Christmas (hey, breakups are hard) and curing his father’s alcoholism with enchanted eggnog. Gestures that make no sense given that Harvey wants nothing to do with magic after living with the disastrous results and consequences of Sabrina’s misguided dark magic attempt to bring Harvey’s brother back to life earlier in Season 1. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Harvey asks her to never use magic on him or near him again while thanking her for helping his dad and returning said magic pencils. If we ignore any backsliding of character arcs and simply appreciate it as more of a capsule episode about spirits and demons on the spooky longest night of the year, it’s easy to enjoy.
In that vein, “A Midwinter’s Tale” has the loose framework of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with at least three visitations by spirits and entities over several nights so I am approaching this episode in that framework. Let’s jump down the chimney and meet them.
We begin with a flashback to Christmas of yesteryear when a younger Sabrina, played by a distractingly “is it computer animation?” level good doppelgänger, McKenna Grace from Haunting of Hill House, out on a holiday shopping trip with her Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) and her friend Susie (Elle Twedt) and Susie’s father (Adrian Hough). Sabrina sits on Santa‘s lap and says all she wants for Christmas (or uhh Solstice) is to see her mother Diana again, foreshadowing our first spirit, the ghost of Sabrina’s mother. We’ve actually already met another entity in this Santa visit flashback, but more on him later.
Back in the present day, it’s almost the Winter Solstice so Sabrina and family are decorating the Yule “don’t call it a Christmas” tree while Sabrina stares longingly at a picture ornament of her parents holding her as a baby and wishes she could’ve spent one solstice with them. Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) is talking about reading A Christmas Carol and says it’s the best time for ghost stories. Yes, Ambrose, full agreement here!
Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) makes a point to explain while lighting the Yule log that they all need to make sure it burns continuously, not as a decoration but for protection from malevolent forces wishing the family harm who may pop down the chimney tonight should the log burn out. Spoiler alert: they do and Santa and the Grinch are nowhere in sight.
Sabrina decides to contact her mother Diana (Annette Reilly) via séance to find out how her father told Diana he was a warlock, how she reacted and if she considered breaking up with him. Sabrina’s clearly thinking of her recent breakup with mortal Harvey and looking for some motherly advice even from the spirit realm. More importantly, when Sabrina visited Limbo in Season 1 to return Harvey’s brother Tommy’s soul to him, she found her own mother Diana there in torment, confused and crying out about how “they took my baby” and Sabrina wants to find out if she can help her move on. She tells Ambrose about this and he tells her it’s a bad idea. He also told her to not keep her distance from her mortal friends Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) who have only recently learned that she’s a witch, and let them know it’s OK. She asks them to join her in the séance but they feel like it’s too weird and too soon.
Madame Satan, (Michelle Gomez) still inhabiting the body of Sabrina’s English teacher Ms. Wardwell, calls out to Satan and wonders what her purpose is on earth now since she’s achieved the Dark Lord’s mission to get Sabrina to sign the Book of the Beast. She wonders why she’s hasn’t been called home to the pit and needs a new mission in life if she’s to stay. Just as she asks for a sign, Sabrina knocks on the door and asked to borrow her Book of the Dead to contact her mother through a séance. Madame Satan decides she better disrupt the proceedings so that Sabrina’s mom doesn’t have a chance to tell her anything that might make her question the path of the Night. Madame Satan has crafted gingerbread people who look like Sabrina and her two aunts and the Spellman house too. She pours liquid down the chimney of the gingerbread house as part of a spell, thus extinguishing the Yule log and creating a portal for malevolent spirits.
Sabrina has chosen the Solstice eve at midnight for the séance as the veil is thinnest between the living and the dead at the solstice. Sabrina gets Academy of the Unseen Arts witch students, the Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, Abigail F. Cowen), to join her. Agatha, who’s studying to be a spiritualist, leads the séance. In a scene echoing Beetlejuice, they use her mother’s wedding dress as the object to attract her spirit and call out her name “Diana Regina Sawyer Spellman.” Diana appears in her wedding dress and Agatha asks for proof of how she died to be sure they are not being tricked by another spirit. Diana correctly answers that she and Edward Spellman died in a plane crash, flight number 2331. Numerology folks, everything on this show tends to be a reference or have a meaning so get out your knowledge of #9, the number of completion, and endings.
Sabrina finally has a chance to ask her mother why she’s in Limbo and if there’s anything she can help her with to allow her to move on but Diana suddenly appears disturbed, crying and telling her it’s not safe. Like Marley’s ghost, she is warning her of other spirits but not the kind to teach her how to be generous before Christmas Day. Agatha announces that there’s interference from other spirits and ends the connection.
The First of Three Spirits: The Yule Lads (okay, 13 or so spirits)
Meanwhile, something invisible comes down the chimney and knocks over the Christmas tree. Zelda thinks it was Sabrina’s doing once she discovers the séance and is disgusted with her. Ambrose uses a divination tool to discover malevolent spirits in the house but finds none willing to be discovered.
Solstice morning December 21st, the shortest day of the year, dawns safely for the residents of the house. Aunt Zelda has the (recently kidnapped by Zelda for her own good) twin daughter Leticia of Father Blackwood, who Zelda fears have rather “Herod-like tendencies toward baby girls” given his male rights approach to the Church of the Night. Zelda has inexplicably dressed the baby in Puritan baby garb. Zelda plays peekaboo with baby Leticia in a scene that directly mirrors that famous peekaboo scene in the film, The Witch. No one, witch or otherwise, takes the baby in this scene but we know the stage has been set. This is a nice call back to The Witch, as the world of the first part of Season 1 portrays the same beliefs the film shows of witches being tied to Satanism and signing the devil’s book in the woods. None of this seems like great news for baby Leticia.
In the Spellmans’ basement mortuary, Ambrose keeps seeing the woman he needs to embalm walking and standing in the mirror out of the corner of his eye. Finally, she tries to stab him but he casts a spell that makes her fall down as all of the doors start moving on the morgue cubbies. We then hear eerie disembodied children’s laughter and the woman has risen again, snapped her fingers and the lights go out. Off-camera, Ambrose manages to tie down all of the corpses that have come to life. Something mischievous has definitely come for a visit.
Hilda is baking massive amounts of solstice goodies in the kitchen to the sounds of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” when suddenly her rolling pin keeps going missing, the flour tips and the children’s laughter is back again. Little footsteps begin to appear as all knives appear over her in the ceiling and fall around her in a circle.
Leticia begins to cry upstairs. Zelda tried to cheer her up with another game of peekaboo that we know won’t end well. Suddenly the sewing machine starts working and something has embroidered “We Have Your Baby.” Hilda finds the baby unharmed in a pre-heating oven in a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hansel and Gretel.
Sabrina comes home and Zelda explains that the Yule Lads, poltergeist-like spirits of children who come down from the mountains every midwinter to cause mischief in the unguarded homes of witches, have infested their home like impish bedbugs. In Iceland, the thirteen Yule Lads visit children for the thirteen days leading up to Christmas and either leave gifts or rotting potatoes in their shoes. They play harmless tricks as well and had a more dangerous past but the legends have mellowed out over the years, likely to help the kiddies sleep at night. Furthermore, Zelda announces that they won’t leave until their mother tells them to. The only catch is their mother is Grylla, a dangerous Icelandic witch and she must be summoned.
The Second of Three Spirits: Gryla, the Icelandic Christmas Witch
Zelda gives Gryla’s backstory before they summon her. During a time of famine, Gryla had made a pact with another witch to cook and eat their children but after they ate Gryla’s son, the other witch went back on their bargain. Gryla has spent the last thousand years trying to replace her son by collecting orphans. Sabrina says, “What is it with witches and cannibalism?” which is a neat reference to the fact that her aunts in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic are cannibals and also to Church of Night ritual feast where the queen is eaten after her reign of several days in Episode 7 “Feast of Feasts.”
They will have to make Gryla an offering in order to gather up her Yule Kids. Ambrose has to leave the house and go to a Solstice Party as Gryla hates men and is known to eat them, just as the Icelandic Gryla in folklore was known to have eaten her husband and has a man-eating giant Yule Cat. Sabrina agrees to hide baby Leticia with her in their basement mortuary as Gryla would be eager to add another orphan to her band of Yule Lads.
Gryla (Heather Doerksen) is summoned and she asks for the sisters to drink gin with her instead of the solstice cookies and tea cakes she’s offered by Hilda. Gryla’s satisfied with the gin offering and is about to call home her Yule Lads when Leticia’s pacifier falls out of her mouth and she begins crying. Though she’s in the basement with Sabrina, Gryla hears her cries and demands the babe as she can sense that Zelda is not her mother.
Sabrina’s mother Diana’s spirit shows up in a white dress and a gold crown and says she will decide who deserves the babe. Diana says she has the mother’s right to decide as she lost her child who called her here with “guides both mortal and infernal.” She claims authority over the decision as to who deserves the child as Saint Lucia took her right hand and a demon Lucy took her left and “she wears their crown on this longest of nights.” Interestingly Saint Lucia was a martyr who had consecrated her virginity to God but was forced by her mother to marry a pagan, in a parallel to the mortal Diana marrying the warlock Edward Spellman.
In a reversal of the King Solomon story, Diana has the witches put the baby in a circle of black salt and commands Zelda and Gryla to each grab an arm and whoever pulled her out of the circle would win the baby. When Zelda stops so as not to tear the baby apart, Diana shockingly awards the baby to Gryla. Sabrina says “What’s fair is fair” in an ugly cryptic way which reminds us that she’s on the dark path now.
After Gryla leaves, Sabrina and Diana reveal that they tricked Gryla because Diana had taught Sabrina a changeling spell to make one of Ambrose’s teddy bears look like Leticia and the deception wouldn’t be figured out until Gryla was way up in the mountains.
The Spellmans were lucky they were visited by this Gryla. The Gryla or Christmas Witch of Icelandic folklore is an ogress that comes down from the mountains to snatch up children who are behaving badly and turns them into a stew.
The Last of the Spirits: Bartel, the Yule Demon
Earlier in the episode, while trying to make awkward conversation with Sabrina after she asks Susie and Rosalind to join her for a séance and is turned down by them, Susie shares that she’ll finally get to play Jingles the Christmas Elf, a reference to the Archie comics in which Jingles appears every year to cause mischief in Riverdale. She’ll be working in the same Santa Land she and Sabrina visited as kids and the same Santa played by Mr. Bartel (Brian Markinson) is the boss.
Susie has to stay late to help Bartel clean up and he tells her the mannequins are precious and that he’s made each one himself. She sees the young boy mannequin start to cry real tears and Bartel tells her that usually he has to hunt for the most beautiful child to harvest but this year it came to him as he throws his Santa bag over her head.
There’s a knocking at the Spellman’s door and everyone worries that Gryla is back but it’s Rosalind letting them know about Susie being missing. When the aunts hear the name Mr. Bartel, they recognize the name Bartel right away as the Yule demon who is the Austrian counterpart to Krampus who thrashes or abducts misbehaving children.
Rosalind shares that she had one of her “cunning visions” of him looking like a demon and shares that she’s afraid that he dips children in wax and that Susie is next. Zelda looks his address up in the phone book and finds that his first name is Sin but she says they’ll have to be careful as demons are powerful at night and this is their time.
They will have to enlist Gryla’s help because she hates children being hurt so she will help to fight the demon Bartel despite being tricked out of taking the real baby Leticia earlier. Rosalind will stay at their house to watch Leticia. In the best line of the show, Rosalind asks Sabrina if this is what it’s like to be a witch—“hosting séances and fighting demons?” and Sabrina answers “Not usually, except kind of.”
Gryla and Yule Lads quickly rescue Susie from Bartel. When Susie reveals that she is not an orphan and she has a dad, Gryla says she can leave because she won’t want to see what happens next. Gryla then turns Bartel into a kind of living candelabra and welcomes the new spirits of children previously trapped in the mannequins to join her Yule Lads. They all celebrate the solstice with the festival of light up in the mountains.
The End of It
Ambrose teleports Rosalind home before her parents can worry. Hilda gives Susie’s dad sugar cookies that will make him forget the last 12 hours of having a missing child so that she can get an after-school job again.
Zelda realizes that Leticia is not safe hiding in their home as Grylla may come back so she will give the baby to Dezmelda—-the witch in the woods we met earlier this season—to raise her in seclusion in the old ways.
Sabrina’s mother Diana comes back to tell her that she was in Limbo because she was worried Sabrina wasn’t being cared for but she now sees that she has a family who adores her. This does not seem to explain how distraught and lost she was in Limbo but I expect both that and the truth about how Sabrina’s parents actually died will be covered in the second half of Season 1. Sabrina asks for her advice about Harvey and Diana says she tried to follow Edward down the path of night but she would not lead anyone else there and Sabrina says she understands. Cut to Madame Satan eating the head of Sabrina’s gingerbread cookie which doesn’t seem to have any immediate ill results.
Sabrina’s family is cozy by the Yule log listening to traditional Christmas carols like “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and sipping hot toddies. Ambrose, Luke, and the Aunts are ironically listening to lyrics like “Save us all from Satan‘s power.” Ambrose says “I’d say this was a rather merry solstice.”
They encourage Sabrina to recite the line that is their annual Solstice tradition and she says in a reverse Tiny Tim moment “Satan, bless us, everyone.”
Postscript Cliffhanger: The Three Wise Unholy Men
Hilda says, “Now if we can just get through Witch Epiphany without some other terror rising from the bowels of hell.” Ambrose continues the annual reading of A Christmas Carol. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger with apparently three demonic Wiseman bearing gifts walking out of Greendale’s demonic mines as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” slows down with distorted voices and starts to sound demonic and a bell chimes as Ambrose reads the line “the ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one.” Are the three demons bringing gifts for a new Antichrist and if so, is it Sabrina—the newly minted dark witch with extreme potential, or one of both of Father Blackwell’s newborn twins, Leticia and/or Judas? Sounds like they’ll need something stronger than a Yule log to get through Witch Epiphany!
Please share your thoughts on what you liked or didn’t like about “A Midwinter’s Tale,” what you were hoping for in a Sabrina holiday special, and what you’re looking forward to when the second half of the season starts on April 5th.