The Sublime and Sinister Sides of Yuletide Customs

Although the traditions and rituals of Christmas have evolved through the centuries, many of them have remarkably ancient origins linked to the midwinter festivals of Yule and Saturnalia and the hope of renewed life as the days lengthen with the promise of spring.

Yule, a time for present-giving and indulgent eating and drinking, was a pre-Christian celebration enjoyed by the people of northern Europe.

Today’s Yule log represents the fires lit on these dark days. Oak was the wood of choice, as it was believed to be the most likely to draw the sun back to the earth.

The mistletoe (Viscum album), the white-berried, sickle-leaved evergreen which grows on the oak and other trees such as tall limes and poplars, and on apple trees as a semi-parasite, was believed to guard the tree from evil – including witchcraft. It also has strong links to fertility, which is undoubtedly why couples still kiss beneath it at Christmas time. Cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon will, it is believed, preserve the plant’s magic. It was even hung in cow sheds to ensure the continued health of livestock.

Tradition still dictates that with each kiss a man should remove one berry and put it in his pocket or buttonhole. On production of the berry he can then claim more kisses on demand. In the past, mistletoe was often dried and kept from one year to the next for good luck in every season. However it has long been believed that a girl or boy will stay unmarried for the year if they are not kissed under the mistletoe at Christmastime.

There are other rituals that are also thought to be worth performing or observing to bring love and luck, health and happiness for twelve months:

  • When a man kisses his would-be love he must pluck a berry and present it to her. Only if she accepts it will her love be true.

  • Keep the mistletoe all year and burn it before the new sprigs are put up. A good sign is a steady flame. For a married couple, or a bride to be, a spluttering one means a bad-tempered husband.

  • After being kissed a girl should pick a mistletoe leaf and a berry. In the privacy of her room she must swallow the berry and prick on to the leaf the initials of the man she loves then stow the leaf as near to her heart as possible

Christmas evergreens

The holly, ivy and mistletoe are the quintessential Christmas evergreens, and it is believed that all must be handled correctly to avoid ill fortune.

They must certainly be removed by 6 January, which is Twelfth Night or the feast of the Epiphany. For their Christmas celebrations, early Christians adapted the traditions of the bawdy Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia, bringing in evergreens to decorate their homes and churches. Christmas Eve is the most propitious day for cutting greenery; if you use it before this date quarrels are, it is said, sure to ensue.

By old country lore, while the prickly holly (Ilex sp) represents the male, the ivy is undoubtedly feminine. The Greeks called it cissos after a dancing girl who danced herself to death at the feet of Dionysus and was transformed into the plant by the god, so moved was he by her art. Unlike holly, ivy (Hedera sp) is not always welcomed indoors but kept for decorating doorways and porches, ‘just in case’. While mistletoe could be brought into the home, it was banned from churches for decoration because of its pagan associations and is still discouraged today.

The Well-Lit Tree

Until it was introduced from Germany by Prince Albert, the Christmas tree was virtually unknown in Britain, though the tradition of bringing evergreens indoors at this season goes back to ancient pagan festivals. One possible origin for the custom of decorating trees for Yule relates to legends that certain trees burst into bloom on Christmas Day. One was the miraculous Glastonbury thorn, believed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea who, on his mission to Britain, planted it in the ground on Christmas Eve.

Such flowering trees were especially revered in Germany. In 1430 one writer recorded that:

‘Not far from Nuremburg there stood a wonderful tree. Every year, in the coldest season, on the night of Christ’s birth this tree put forth blossoms and apples as thick as a man’s thumb. This in the midst of deep snow and in the teeth of cold winds.’

Trees were cut and used in plays performed at Christmas, telling the whole Christian story from Adam and Eve to the Resurrection. In this context the Christmas tree represented both the Tree of Knowledge and Christ’s Cross.

Lights on the Christmas tree illuminate the dark days of winter as well as the advent of the ‘Light of the world’. Legend has it that it was Martin Luther who first decorated a tree with candles.

Folklore Thursday

The Fearsome Legend of Krampus

In ancient times, a dark, hairy, horned beast was said to show up at the door to beat children, and carry them off in his sharp claws. The Krampus could be heard in the night by the sound of his echoing cloven hooves and his rattling iron chains. The strangest part was that he was in league with Santa Claus.

The Christmas Terror

The unnerving beast was no demon, however. He was the mythical Krampus, companion to Saint Nicholas (known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, etc.) While Saint Nicholas now has the reputation of loving all children and visiting them at Christmastime, judging their character and giving gifts to the ‘nice’ ones and lumps of coal to the ‘naughty’ ones, Krampus plays the dangerous sidekick.

It is believed that the long-horned, shaggy, goat-like monster with a long, angry face and lolling, forked tongue would visit the home of misbehaving children to punish them. It was believed he would give beatings, and kidnap the kids, bringing them down to his underworld lair to live for a year.

On Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, the eve of December 5, German children took care to not attract the attention of the intimidating beast, in hopes that St. Nicholas would bring presents on Nikolaustag, December 6.

According to National Geographic, Krampus is believed to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology (Hel, daughter of Loki and overseer of the land of the dead). His name is derived from the German word  krampen, meaning claw. He shares traits with other figures in Greek mythology, such as satyrs and fauns, and has been portrayed in a salacious manner in late 19 th century greeting cards, lusting after buxom women.

Feared and Loved

The myth of Krampus can be found in the Alpine regions, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, and the legend has gained long legs, reaching across Europe and around the world. Families traditionally exchanged colorful greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, since the 1800s featuring the sometimes silly, sometimes sinister Krampus.

In the early 20 th century Krampus was prohibited by the Austrian Fascist government, but the tradition was revived with the fall of the government after World War II. Traditional annual parades are still held in which young men dress as the Krampus, and race through the streets snarling and shaking chains at onlookers.

Many cities and towns, in keeping with old tradition, run a popular Krampuslauf, a sizeable gathering of revelers (largely fortified by alcoholic schnapps) dressed in Krampus costume to chase people through the streets. More than 1200 Austrians gather in Schladming, Styria each year to dress up as Krampus, swatting passers-by with sticks and loudly ringing cowbells. Birch sticks are painted gold and displayed to remind of his arrival.

These days on Krampusnacht, Krampus will commonly accompany St. Nicholas to homes and businesses where St. Nicholas will give out gifts, and Krampus will hand out coal and birch stick bundles.

Santa’s Companions

In addition to Krampus, Santa traditionally enjoyed a host of different companions depending on region and culture, reflecting local history and beliefs. These mythical figures have many common traits, and generally play the role of punisher or abductor, in contrast to the benevolent and generous saint. They often carried a rod, stick, or broom, were usually dressed in black rags, and were shaggy, with unruly hair.

Related image

Elves, kobolds, or pre-Christian house-spirits of English and Scandinavian tradition were believed to be gift maker or bringer, but didn’t share the same elevated status as Saint Nick and his companion.

In Germany, Knecht Ruprecht ( Farmhand Rupert , Servant Rupert) was an old man with a long beard dressed in straw or covered in fur. He accompanied St. Nicholas and carried a bag of ashes, and one might hear his coming due to the ringing of tiny bells sewn into his clothing. Knecht Ruprecht expected children to be able to recite Christian catechism or say their prayers, whereupon he would give them fruit or gingerbread. If they hadn’t learned their lessons, it was said he’d leave them a stick or a lump of coal in their shoes at best, and at worst he’d place the children in a sack, and either eat them or throw them in a river. Ruprecht became a common name for the devil in German.

In Palatinate, Germany, as well as Pennsylvania in the United States, and in the east coast of Canada the companion is named Belsnickel. A scary figure, much like Knecht Ruprect, this partner visits at Christmas and hands out gifts or punishments. In some regions, this figure is dressed as a female, and called the Christmas Woman. She is thoroughly disguised in female clothing, with cloth wrapped around the head and face, and carries sweets and cakes, as well as a long switch which acts like a swatting stick, or a charmed wand.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is an old mythical figure of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg who has become a controversial figure in modern times. Traditionally a blackamoor (African male figure usually symbolizing a servant), he was characterized as a Moor from Spain, and a helper to St. Nicholas who was to amuse children and give candy.  Actors portraying Zwarte Piet would wear ‘blackface’—dark makeup, curly black wigs and red lipstick—a practice which is now seen as a racist stereotype. Appearances of Zwarte Piet are now protested in the Netherlands.

Ancient Origins

Image – John Isaac

Symbolism of Yuletide

Winter solstice, which takes place in late December, can be a profound way to tune into the magic and beauty of the season. For people throughout the ages—from the ancient Egyptians and Celts to the Hopi—midwinter has been a significant time of ritual, reflection, and renewal. Creating a meaningful celebration of winter solstice, either in place of or in addition to other holiday activities, can help us cultivate a deeper connection to nature and family and all the things that matter most to us. Winter can become a time of feeding the spirit and nurturing the soul, not just emptying our bank account and fraying our nerves.  Throughout history, celebrating the solstice has been a way to renew our connection with each other through acts of goodwill, special rituals, and heightened awareness. This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice can be a beautiful remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing.

On the solstice, visit a place outdoors that’s special to you—a trail you can walk or a field you can lie down in, a hillside or mountain perch that provides the perfect view, or even the roof of your apartment building or a quiet place on the edge of your garden. Consider watching the sun rise or set from your little patch of the world. Write a poem. Make a list of loving wishes for friends, family, coworkers—even people you don’t know that well. Build a shrine of nature’s found objects. Light a candle. Reflect on your aspirations for the coming months. .Sharing food, an important part of any celebration, is particularly meaningful during the solstice, as it represents faith in the return of the sun and the harvest.

,So however you celebrate midwinter, knowing that you are sharing its traditions with the folk who lived long ago will make it extra special. May it bring you joy, contentment and all that you deserve. Yuletide Greetings to you all.

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