I am really very fond of kitties, big and small. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you I’m a mad cat lady in training. But I think I would run away screaming if I ever met the Yule Cat…
The Yule Cat is not your average domesticated feline; the sort who purrs like a lawnmower, and is only really guilty of attempting to pinch your dinner and leaving the odd half-dead rodent in your shoe.
The Yule Cat is, in fact, from Iceland, and it seems certain moggies in this part of the world are a little bit… um… different. The National Museum of Iceland explains further:
It was customary in the old rural society that employers gave the employees in their home a new garment and sheepskin shoes for Christmas. This was done to reward the people for good work as the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas were numerous and therefore the weeks leading up to Christmas were characterized by a rigorous workload.
The saying went that those who did not receive a new garment for Christmas would be ‘devoured by the Christmas Cat’ which was a fate to be avoided at all costs – whether this meant that the Christmas Cat would eat them or eat their food. Thus everyone worked zealously at finishing all the woolwork and knitting of garments for the members of the household before the arrival of Christmas.
You have been warned.
If you’re in the mood for lots more festive reading, click here!
As Edgar Allan Poe dramatically describes in his famous 19th century poem, the raven has an ominous and prophetic reputation in many different cultures and mythologies, similar in some ways to that of its cousin, the crow. This has long been so; as symbols of the underworld, the Greeks associated the raven with the goddess Hecate, and Norse mythology with the god Odin. During the medieval and early modern periods, the raven was commonly cited as a witches’ familiar in various parts of Europe.
So, who is he, this mysterious man in red? And why does he do what he does? At any other time of the year these days, a fat jolly bearded stranger (with several known aliases) landing on your roof and sliding down your chimney would result in a slap on the wrist from the Civil Aviation Authority, and a breaking and entering charge for the bearded one at the very least (if not an ASBO).
And, with cries of ‘animal cruelty’ ringing in his furry ears, poor Rudolph would probably be sent packing to a reindeer sanctuary somewhere in Scotland, and the sleigh would end up clamped and impounded by over-zealous traffic wardens. But before the nightmare of this horribly politically correct eventuality really does come to pass (and because I wouldn’t want any of you to wake up on Friday morning to an empty stocking), let’s find out exactly what’s going on here…
Santa Claus as we know him today is actually an amalgam of a number of different figures and archetypes, some real, some legendary. The first of these is probably the most important of all in the development of the Santa myth…
The 4th century saint
The first of the origins of the Santa legend can be found in a rather unexpected place. Not in the ancient nomadic tribes of Lapland or the North Pole, as we might expect, but in 4th century Turkey with the part-real/part-mythic St Nicholas. Like an increasing number of people during this early period in the development of the Christian church, Nicholas was a deeply religious man. In fact, the real Nicholas was a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. He was bishop of Myra, which is now in Turkey but was then part of Byzantine Anatolia, a position which meant he had a certain amount of power and influence.
Today is the shortest day of the year. As I write this, it is just gone three in the afternoon and there is already a hint of dusk about the sky. Within an hour or so, night will have fallen, and the Christmas celebrations will soon be one day nearer. But today is a celebration too – an ancient midwinter festival that has been celebrated in Britain for millennia, long before Christianity (or even the Romans) arrived on these isles. Today is also the Winter Solstice.
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), which expresses the idea perfectly as the sun appears not to move on the horizon. In astronomical terms, the Solstice marks the shortest day – that is, when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky because the tilt of the earth has moved our hemisphere furthest away from the warmth and power of the sun. This is the last day before the winter nights begin to shorten and the hours of daylight start to increase again.
To us modern folk, the reversal of the shortest day means little more than mild relief that we won’t have to get up in the dark of the morning for very much longer, but to our ancient ancestors it was far, far more important than that. Prior to everyone owning diaries and calendars which neatly divide the months and seasons by date, astronomical events, such as the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon at different times of the year guided the existence of our ancestors, controlling when they sowed their seeds or took their animals to be mated, for example. The sun, in particular, was very important to this process, which (partially) explains why the Solstice has long been celebrated as its return and rebirth.
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).
Those of you who have followed this blog across the internet from its old home may well be aware of my slight obsession with the green parakeets that live wild in large flocks across parts of London and south east England. Not everyone does, but I absolutely love them – for their noisy, colourful, unmissable cheerfulness in this grey and often miserable city. They make me smile.
I was first told of their presence in London about ten years ago, and my initial reaction was one of complete disbelief until I saw a small flock of them noisily squawking their way over my parents’ back garden one summer afternoon. I was then intrigued enough to do a little research on these colourful birds, and soon realised that, for them, living in London must be the equivalent of a tropical holiday in comparison to their native environment. It may surprise some that these birds, whose natural home is among the foothills of the Himalayas, happily thrive in such an urban environment as London, but they do – and to such an extent that there is now talk of a cull to reduce their numbers, despite the fact that they are, at present, protected by law.
For those who have not yet encountered these brightly-coloured and noisy birds, you probably soon will; particularly if you live in south east England – it is estimated that there are currently 30,000 of these Ring-necked (or Rose-ringed) parakeets living wild across south-west London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and the RSPB further estimates that their numbers will increase to at least 50,000 by next year.