With thoughts of the Christmas season looming large in the minds of those who choose to follow this very western tradition, it seemed a good idea to look at some of the more quirky aspects of Christmas.
Food has had a central role in Christmas festivities since the beginning and more so in recent decades when the modern table groans (as do our stomachs) under the weight of a variety of dishes. There was a once a superstition to ensure good luck the Christmas dinner had to have nine dishes – an interesting take on the pagan belief of the importance of the number three and three by three being of extra special significance. In addition, if you really want to increase your luck, fish scales need to be placed under each plate (sorry, no idea why…).
Mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake all have their own peculiar superstitions. Have you ever wondered why ‘Uncle Derek’ ate so many mince pies? Well apparently the number of mince pies consumed equals the number of months of future happiness…a useful excuse for just one more. Christmas cake should only be eaten on Christmas Eve, otherwise bad luck will follow (perhaps we could all go back to eating the cake on Christmas Eve and 2021 will be a better year…). The Christmas pudding also has its own traditions, when making it should be stirred east to west by every member of the household (a nod to the Christian faith) but woe and betide if you are an unmarried woman and you don’t get to stir the pudding – you shall remain unmarried for the next twelve months (sounds like a good reason to be absent from home that day). Perhaps one of the more well known traditions surrounding the Christmas pudding is the placement of a silver coin in the mix; whoever gets it in their slice will have good fortune in the coming year (provided you haven’t broken a tooth on it).
Oddly, bread and apples also have an association with Christmas. It is said that eating an apple on Christmas Eve will bring good health for the coming year. Bread baked at Christmas will protect the household from accident, misfortune and fire for the next twelve months. But do hang onto some of the Christmas bread because when crumbled into hot water it can cure dysentry and diarrhoea.
Decorating the house, inside and out, is also a big part of the season. Once upon a time the decorations would have been all natural – foliage suitable to the season was used to liven up the celebrations and although many of the decorations used today are of the reusable kind it hasn’t stop families from coming up with their own traditions associated with decorating for the season. In our house, there is a long standing tradition of who gets to sit on top of the tree – will the Christmas pug (yes you read that right) be the victor or will the USS Enterprise win the day…actually what usually happens is a compromise and both get an equal footing on the top of the tree. In some parts of the world decorating the tree doesn’t happen until Christmas Eve but in others it earlier the better – a sign of how fed up everyone is with 2020 is evidenced by the numbers of people who had the decorations up at the beginning of November.
The taking down of the decorations has long been dictated by the twelve days of Christmas. According to tradition they much be taken down on the twelfth day (which is January 6th), to do so before or after will endanger the households prosperity (again for the sake of a better year…). In the days of real foliage being used as decoration it was customary to keep one sprig of evergreen as further insurance for a good year. The rest was either burnt or not burnt – here there was no definitive answer as to which was best.
Holly and mistletoe are traditional, (real) decorative elements most commonly found in the northern hemisphere – the southern hemisphere, plastic versions dominate. Their importance to this time of the year date back to before the birth of Jesus. Holly with its bright red berries were a reminder that even in the depths of winter life can prevail and the green would return to the world in Spring and so boughs of it were brought indoors as a reminder of this. It was also believed that it could repel witches and demons thanks to its harsh foliage and prickly thorns. Not forgetting its ability to protect the house from lightening. Certainly the evergreen of choice for the wise householder.
Later traditions developed as Christianity developed; early Christians would place holly over their doors to prevent persecution (later these became the holly wreaths we hang on the doors). As Christianity developed the holly’s prickly foliage became a reminder of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the red berries were representative of drops of his blood.
Mistletoe is another of those plants whose association with Christmas traditions began back before the beginnings of Christianity. In several ancient cultures some varieties of the plant were prized for its healing qualities, its aphrodisiac powers, as an aid to fertility to name a few. For Celtic Druids the mistletoe represents an affirmation of life, as it blossoms in the middle of winter. In ancient Babylonian mistletoe was hung over the temple of their love goddess. Which begs the question, where did kissing under the mistletoe originate? There are several suggestions but the favourite comes from a Scandinavian legend of Baldur, a much loved god and son of Odin and Frigg. His mother sought to protect him from the dangers of the world, to do this she asked all things on the earth to swear an oath not to harm Baldur. Unfortunately she neglected the mistletoe which sat high up in tree, unnoticed. However, Loki noticed and made an arrow from the plant using it to kill Baldur; anyway the long and the short of it is that the other gods were able to bring Baldur back to life and Friggs tears became the berries on the mistletoe who then declared the plant to be a symbol of love and would place a kiss on anyone who passed under it.
One of the traditions at Christmas is to send or give cards, although this too like so much has become less important during recent years. But it is fun to look at some early examples of the Christmas card, the following quirky cards are from a time when card producers had not yet got the hang of what constitutes appropriate seasonal greetings. Some of these are bizarre to our modern eyes, one can only imagine what the recipients may have thought…
Their are two final superstitions from a long ago time worth mentioning here. Firstly, as with so many of the above traditions/superstitions the following needs to be done to ensure the households prosperity. At midnight on Christmas Eve all the doors of the house were to be opened to expel any evil spirits and at the same time a candle was to be lit and hope it burns all night long. It says something for the fragility of a households fortunes that so many of the traditions are concerned with ensuring good fortune and prosperity.
Secondly, and this is an odd one, there is a rural superstition that at midnight on Christmas Eve all the cattle would develop the power of speech. The only trouble was you could not stick around to hear if this was true because to hear them would mean certain death…