Last Christmas, in order to take my mind off some personal issues, I decided to write an advent calendar on my old blog. This involved a blog post on a Christmassy subject every day from the 1st December all the way to the 24th. At the time, I don’t think I realised what a challenge this project would be, but I completed it and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. So I decided this year to resurrect some of the best of these Christmassy posts and share them on Another Kind Of Mind for those who won’t have seen the originals.
Today we’ll be looking at Christmas superstitions, but watch out for more to come on the Winter Solstice and the origins of the Santa Claus myth. In the mean time, I’d love to hear from you if you have any interesting or unusual seasonal superstitions in your family or community, or any Christmas stories to tell!
Midwinter has long been considered a mysterious and spooky time; the Christmas period particularly so. These beliefs probably go back to pre-Christian midwinter festivals and ideas of the death of the old year as well as connecting into the physically and psychologically protective qualities of lighting up the long, dark and cold winter nights – particularly during the period of the Winter Solstice (21st December) which was seen as a time of great spiritual vulnerability and risk in that the barriers between this world and that of the evil spirits would temporarily open. This makes it unsurprising that there are many (often ancient) superstitions associated with the rituals and traditions of Christmas; probably as many (if not more) than those associated with Halloween.
These superstitions began as rituals and charms, ways of protecting an individual and their families against the evil that was abroad in the dying weeks and days of the year. Midwinter festivals served the similar purpose of scaring away any evil spirits that might be lurking about in the darkness (as well as giving people something to look forward to at this cold and bleak time of year).
Like many pre-Christian rituals, a lot of these superstitions were adopted and adapted by the early Christian church (the idea of evergreens representing eternal life, for example, is far older than Christianity), which has meant that many of them have been carried down through time to today. Others developed less of a relationship with religious faith, but have still survived, in the main simply through their repeated telling and retelling over the centuries.
It is unsurprising that there are a number of superstitions related to fire and light. If you are lucky enough to have an open fire, then you need to get a good stock of fuel in: unless you want to bring bad luck into your house by letting the fire go out, it must remain burning for the entire twelve days of Christmas. Similarly, candles lit on Christmas Eve should be left burning until the following morning and shouldn’t be moved until they are blown out.
A spooky fireside superstition involves examining the shadows of those gathered around the hearth on Christmas Eve: if anyone’s shadow is missing its head, that person will die within the year. Trouble lighting a fire on Christmas morning also indicates bad luck for the upcoming year. However, the Greeks apparently burn old shoes at Christmas time in an attempt to counteract this kind of misfortune in the New Year!
There’s a whole set of superstitions associated with the burning of the Yule log. Traditionally, finding the Yule log was the task of father and son teams, who would go into the woods on the day of the Solstice and bring back the biggest chunk of wood that they could find. Lit by a piece of last year’s log, a ritual which was believed to protect the house from evil spirits, it would then burn for the whole of the ancient midwinter festival of Yule – bad luck would come if it went out.
In the more Christianised version of the superstition the Yule log must burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas, but by the 19th century this had been reduced to twelve hours overnight from Christmas Eve. Originally, the Yule log had the practical purposes of providing warmth and a fire to cook over, but seen in spiritual terms, it was much more important than that, being a symbolic representation of increased prosperity in the coming year.
And yes, these ancient Yule logs are very, very distant ancestors to the chocolate cakey version many of us happily munch at Christmas time today.
There are also a number of Christmas superstitions to do with marriage and children, particularly those that are supposed to show the single girl a vision of the man she will eventually marry. In Germany, according to one source, this involves a group of girls blindfolding a goose and forming a circle around the poor creature (prior to it becoming Christmas dinner, presumably). Whichever girl the goose touches first will be the first to tie the knot.
Another animal-related husband-finding Christmas superstition involves the young lady hitting the household pigs with a stick (!!) – if the first pig to squeal is a youngster, then her husband will also be young (and vice versa). Similarly, the girl can go down to the henhouse any time between 11 and 12 at night on Christmas Eve and knock on the door. She will indeed be married if a rooster replies to her knock, but if her knock is met by silence, she will never find a husband.
Our single girl had other methods of finding her beloved. She could also try looking down a well on Christmas Eve to see her future husband, or, at midnight that night, throw a ball of yarn into the air to see his face formed from the way the yarn falls on the ground (similar to the apple peel superstition associated with Halloween).
Holly also has strong associations with this kind of love superstition; in fact, should our single lass on the look-out for a beau wish to dream of the man she will marry, there are several similar holly-related methods of achieving this eventuality. She could tie a sprig of holly to the legs of her bed and eat a roasted apple before retiring for the night, or prick the initials of three of her admirers into three holly leaves and place them under her pillow on Christmas Eve, or even sew nine holly leaves onto her nightie and go to bed wearing a borrowed wedding ring on the third finger of her left hand (although I imagine the former would be very uncomfortable)!
Being born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is considered extremely lucky in most countries – although in Greece such a child could be a wandering spirit, or even a werewolf in Poland! Those born on Christmas Eve are said to turn into ghosts while they sleep every year on their birthday.
Should you not want to take ghostly form on your birthday, Lady Superstition says you must count the holes in a sieve from 11pm on Christmas Eve until the following morning. However, to be born on Christmas Day, it is said, means that you will never see a ghost (or, in some sources, are more likely to see ghosts), and nor will you die as a result of drowning or hanging. That’s all well and good, but one wonders whether that does actually make up for the fact that you only get the one lot of presents every year!?
One of the most famous Christmas superstitions of all says that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, all animals kneel in homage to the birth of Jesus and are suddenly able to speak (bees, it is said, hum the 100th Psalm instead). However, it is fatally unlucky for a human to hear their conversation – and what do sheep talk about, anyway?
Related to this superstition is one concerning kneeling donkeys. Should you find such a beast on Christmas Eve, you should then make the sign of the cross on its back and you will attain what you desire most in the world. Cats are also said to obtain the power of speech on the night before Christmas, but if a dog howls on Christmas Eve, however, then it is sadly destined to go mad within the year…
A few other random Christmas superstitions:
– It is unlucky to do any work other than what is essential (such as feeding livestock) on Christmas Day, as the day is considered too holy for ‘ordinary’ tasks.
– If Christmas Day happens to fall on a Thursday, which it did in 2008, the next twelve months will be windy.
– Eating an apple at midnight on Christmas Eve will bring good health for the next year.
– Unlucky things to do on Christmas Eve include: spinning, sewing and grinding grain. However, it is also unlucky not to do the washing up on Christmas Eve (I suspect that one had its roots in the practicalities of preparing for the Christmas Day feast).
– There are any number of superstitions which are supposed to bring you good luck on Christmas Day, including: sneezing, eating your breakfast by candlelight, hearing a cricket chirp, giving coins to a beggar, giving a kiss to the oldest person in the house, and (my favourite because it entirely seems to lack logic) wishing someone a Merry Christmas before you’ve even put your shoes and socks on!
– Conversely, there are almost as many things you can do to bring bad luck to your household on Christmas Day, including: being the first person home from church, carrying a spinning wheel across the house, getting up from the table before everyone else has finished their Christmas dinner, or stepping on cotton thread (what would happen if the thread was nylon, I wonder? Does that still count?).
– You should record any dreams you have on the nights of each of the twelve days of Christmas, as they will come true in the next twelve months.
– Next year’s harvest can be predicted by counting the stars on Christmas Eve – there will be as many sheaves of corn as stars. It is said that no seed or plant put in the earth on Christmas Eve will die, even if it is planted under snow.
You may have noticed that the vast majority of these superstitions are centrally concerned with the very ancient human concepts of gaining good luck and avoiding misfortune; ideas that were of very great importance to our distant ancestors, as they still are today. But in a world without modern medicine, over-stocked supermarkets and the welfare system, just one tiny piece of bad luck, the kind of misfortune that would merely inconvenience us modern folk – an injury, bad harvest, or an illness in the family, say – could lead to poverty, destitution, starvation and sometimes death for our ancestors who had nothing to fall back on under such circumstances. And particularly at this time of year, the time when darkness and evil spirits were abroad in all their mischievousness, our very distant ancestors needed all the luck they could get.
This blog post originally appeared on my old blog in a slightly modified form. If you’d like to read the entire advent calendar (or even just part of it), I’d suggest you start at the first post here!