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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In modern movies snowmen are portrayed as something magical, loved by children and they also capture the imagination.
I remember feeling these magical energies when Cassandra Latham Jones and I built a large snowman during the heavy snowfall of January 2010 in the grounds of the mill house in Crean, St Buryan.
The history of the snowman however is quite different as you will see in the following article:
Dutch queen Wilhemina & princess Juliana as snowpeople in the Netherlands (1913) (via Nationaal Artchief)
Humans are innately drawn to creating effigies of their own likenesses, often forging the figures from a crude stack of frozen balls plopped one atop of another. Building a snowman utilizes materials that are free of cost, easy to manipulate, and plentiful in certain times and places. It requires minimal artistic skill, as the placement of a few simple twigs and rocks can furnish your creation with an eerily expressive personality.
Snowman with charred backside in a 14th-century Book of Hours (via Koninkligke Bibliotheek)
Early snowman documentation has been discovered as far back as the Middle Ages, but we must assume that humans, creative beings that they are, have taken advantage of the icy materials that fall from the sky ever since winter and mankind have mutually existed. Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman found the snowman’s earliest known depiction in an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Hours from 1380 in the Koninkijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, Netherlands (shown above).
The despondent snowman seems to be of anti-Semitic nature, shaped with the stacked-ball method, and donning a jaunty Jewish cap. As he sits slumped with his back turned to the deadly fire, the adjacent text pronounces the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Apparently, plague-ridden Europeans needed a comical stooge onto whom they could foist their blame and frustration, and the Jewish snowman fit that bill.
Women attacking a cop snowman in a 1937 painting by Hans Dahl (via Wikimedia)
In the Middle Ages, building snowmen was a way for a community to find the silver lining in a horribly oppressive winter rife with starvation, poverty, and other life-threatening conditions. In 1511, the townspeople of Brussels banded together to construct over 100 snowmen in a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511. This event was uncovered by Eckstein in his The History of the Snowman book.
Their snowmen embodied a dissatisfaction with the political climate, not to mention the six weeks of below-freezing weather. The Belgians rendered their anxieties into tangible, life-like models: a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and women folk. Besides your typical sexually graphic and politically riled caricatures, the Belgian snowmen, Eckstein discovered, were often parodies of folklore figures, such as mermaids, unicorns, and village idiots.
The Snowman Trick (1950), illustration by Luke Limner, Esq. (via Abaculi)
The snowman’s place in the traditional Christmas canon of jolly holiday diversions — along with ice-skating and horse-drawn sleighs — gained a higher status in the early Victorian era, when Prince Albert thrust his penchant for German holiday fun onto England. Santa Claus and the snowman became ubiquitous icons who soared hand-in-hand o’er the land of commodified Christmas kitsch.
A snowman receives romantic advice from dog in Hans Christian Andersen’s “Stories for the Household” (1880s) (via Internet Archive Book Images)
The snowman’s lot in life is complicated — he is immobile, explicitly impermanent, and confined to an existence of ruminating upon his fate. He is the perfect metaphorical example of the human condition: longing for that which we cannot obtain, in his case touch and warmth. It’s believed that Hans Christian Andersen’s 1861 fairy tale, “The Snowman,” wherein a snowman falls unrequitedly in love with a stove, held symbolic implications of Andersen’s infatuation with Harald Scharff, a young ballet dancer at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre. Andersen wrote about how the thing we love most can eventually destroy us, yet we happily sacrifice ourselves. When the “stove-sick” snowman gazes upon the burning oven from outside, he cries: “It is my only wish, my biggest wish; it would almost be unfair if it wasn’t granted. I must get in and lean against her, even if I have to break a window.”
Modern-day authors, filmmakers, and artists of every ilk have appropriated the Frosty-type character as their own. The snowman has made appearances in hundreds of books and magazines, dozens of films, and seems to materialize at every critical time and place in history, just as long as Old Man Winter, Jack Frost, or any other personification of winter blows his snowy breath onto the land. The snowman’s persona is safe and placid, politically nonpartisan, unaffiliated with religion, and practically androgynous. Today’s snowman is fashioned with much less political allegory in favor of cheap, empty, irony, as he was commissioned to sell products such as liquor, laxatives, and rap albums.
Not unlike how the blank, smiling expression of a clown is inevitably considered creepy, the snowman has a wicked layer beneath his pure face. A snowman has portrayed the evil villain in ‘slasher’ films and sci-fi TV shows, and depicted sexual humiliation in comic strips, kitschy products, and your own neighbor’s front yard. Today’s snowman is as easily a malicious serial killer as he is a fluffy children’s plaything. This marks the period Bob Eckstein refers to as the snowman’s White Trash Years (1975-2000).
Field of Japanese snowmen in Sapporo (photograph by Angelina Farley)
You can wait for a blizzard and construct your own demonic snowperson, or head out to one of the hundreds of snowman festivals and contests. For over 30 years the Japanese city of Sapporo, in the Hokkaido region, has hosted the Sapporo Snow Festival where an infestation of 12,000 mini snowmen cluster in a field, wearing cryptic messages from their makers.
The stalwart “Jacob” (photograph by Schubbay)
There’s also the Bischofsgrün Snowman Festival (Schneemannfest), held every February in Bavaria, featuring “Jacob,” Germany’s über gigantic snowman.
Olympia, in Bethel, Maine (photograph by Chris Dag)
But the prize for the world’s biggest anthropomorphosized snow pile goes to a snowlady named Olympia, created in 2008 by the townsfolk of Bethel, Maine, and named for the state senator Olympia Snowe. Built in a month-long plow fest, the 122-foot-tall conical she-beast was decked in massive snowflake jewels and six-foot-long eyelashes.
The strange ritual of the Sonoma snowmen (photograph by Lynn Friedmann)
Meanwhile in California, every December Sonoma Valley fires up the holiday season with the Lighting of the Snowman Festival. This is what Californians do with a decisively snowless region during winter: plug-in hundreds of electrical snowmen who appear to be marching in military formation.
Symbolically, destroying a snowy effigy can mark the end of icy months and the tyranny of winter. In Zurich, Switzerland, for example, a giant snowman called the Boogg is plugged with firecrackers and detonated to the delight of the cheering crowd.
At the Rose Sunday Festival in Weinheim-an-der-Bergstrasse, Germany, the mayor leads a parade through town, beseeching the local children to behave obediently in order to earn the privilege of spring. The children agree, naturally, and the townspeople incinerate a straw snowman. Lake Superior State University commandeered this tradition in the 1970s with their own Snowman Burning Day. Over the years, LSSU’s annual 12-foot-tall snowperson has represented slightly more political and social issues, whatever they feel needs symbolic burning, from sexism and cloning to the Ayatollah Khomeini and a rival hockey team.
Explosion of the Böög in Switzerland (photograph by Roland zh/Wikimedia)
Children and adults alike can therapeutically release their anger onto the snowman — really let him have it — without much consequence. Pelt him with snowballs, stab him, and run him over with your car. He won’t resent you! He’s harmless! That is, unless you consider it harmful to endure listening to Perry Como’s 1953 rendition of the hit tune, “Frosty the Snowman.” Atlas Obscura.
Cassandra and I have been so busy of late with events and also work. Today we were asked to conduct a Handfasting at Boscawen-un stone circle. The couple decided to take this step on their 20th wedding anniversary. We became acquainted when they attended the All Hallows Dark Gathering in Boscastle and discovered that some aspects of our lives had synchronicity.
The weather was dry and cloudy with a slight chill of the forthcoming winter weather. Today was All Souls Day and the presence of the ancestors could be felt within the stillness of the air.
As Cassandra spoke of the ancestors and spirit loved ones witnessing the Handfasting rite, a murmuration of starlings flew over the circle.
A special thank you to our lovely neighbours Jackie and Lottie for assisting us and capturing some wonderful images of Kim and Tony’s special day. We then joined the couple for a celebratory drink and a meal in our local St Buryan Inn.
“We simply cannot thank Laetitia and Cassandra enough for The Handfasting Ceremony they performed for us. We can honestly say that it was the most romantic, magical and memorable moment in our lives. Anyone who is considering “Tying The Knot”, look no further than Laetitia and Cassandra. From advice to reassurance, nothing is too much trouble. Thank you so much for everything that you have done for us. Wonderful, warm knowledgeable Wise Women xxx” Kim and Tony