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.


The Ancient Tradition of Wassailing

Wassailing is a tradition that brings celebration and social warmth to the dark cold days of winter. I have attended many Wassails in Kent, Cornwall and Chepstow, Wales with our Guise Team Boekka .

The following article has information on the festival’s historical origins.

“Wassail, wassail, all over the town

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree

With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee”

— Gloucestershire Wassail Carol

When you read the lyrics aloud to this drinking song (or hear the tune), you can almost feel that cup of hot alcohol in your hand as you drunkenly sway to and fro, singing at the top of your lungs around the Christmas tree.

The drink, wassail, conjures images of caroling revelers dressed in boughs of holly and fir with wooden crocks full of good cheer in a Bacchus-type parade through city streets. It’s nostalgia wrapped in a warm blanket of cider, mulled wine, nutmeg and floating orange slices. A celebratory holiday gathering around a highly decorative punch bowl. But, wassail has a muddled heritage. Is it warm booze? An action verb? A hearty salutation? A song? Yes. It’s all of these things, and it includes a storied family tree rooted in tradition and branching out in nearly every direction for over a millennium.

I salute thee…Waes hael!

First, let’s rewind to a castle in 5th-century Britain, where Rowena — the beautiful daughter of a Saxon leader — seduces an incredibly inebriated King Vortigern with a goblet of spiced wine, giving the first recorded toast in history to his good health by crying out, “Waes hael!” Taken by her beauty, he immediately beds then weds the girl after ordering her to drink of the same cup and exclaiming, “Drinc hael!” — “drink, and good health!” This moment in British history becomes the foundation on which one thousand years of wassail tradition spring forth and is said to be the first documented “toast” in history. Seems legit, right?

Whether we are to believe a drunken king wearing wine goggles is charmed into bed, then marriage by a potion-bearing, Saxon babe — thus inadvertently setting the course of the Western world’s drinking culture — is neither here nor there. The point is, it’s a great story. One of many attributed to the history and lore which seem to surround wassail. No one really knows what was in that goblet. Was it spiced wine? Mead? Ale? It doesn’t matter. Wassail was not a drink that night. It was simply a salutation — a toast among drinking buddies celebrating the good health of their friend, the king. Whatever the case, the salute stuck. The word as we know it today, “wassail,” first appears in the 8th century poem “Beowulf”. In the poem, it is again not a drink, but a salute to its warriors.

“Forlorn he looks on the lodge of his son,

wine-hall waste and wind-swept chambers

reft of revel. The rider sleepeth,

the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,

in courts no wassail, as once was heard.”

Get wassailed

“I’ve always liked the fact that wassail produced a verb — wassailing, which suggests roots in social activity — something arising out of the dark, northern days of the holiday season. I’ve heard people talk about going cocktailing, but that doesn’t have the same ring.”

-Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails

Long after Vortigern and Rowena’s intoxicating meeting, wassail continued to dominate English drinking culture in one form or another. The act of “wassailing” dates back to pre-Christian times when farmers living in England’s southeastern apple-growing region would gather in the mid-winter chill in the orchards collectively shouting while pouring cider onto their trees to ward off evil spirits. By wassailing their crops in the winter, it was said to ensure a healthy crop in the spring.

As Christianity began to spread, this ritual evolved further into singing and drinking to the health of next season’s crops on Twelfth Night; the last night of the traditional Christmas season. It seemed only appropriate to attach the celebration of Christ’s birth and his visit from three wise men with the hope for a good yield in the orchards in the coming year. It also assured them not being burned as heretics under the ever-watchful eye of the Church.

In some regions of medieval Britain, wassail involved a large gathering of tenants at the manor house where the master, channeling Rowena, would hold up a bowl of steaming spiced wine or ale and shout, “Wassail!” with the crowd replying, “Drink hail!” before devolving into Christmas revelry. Yet in other regions, wassailing took on a slightly sinister tone with drunken crowds gathering outside feudal lords’ homes while bowls of ale flowed, singing loudly and not dispersing until they received Christmas treats. Hence the line in We Wish You a Merry Christmas, “Now give us a figgy pudding. We won’t go until we get some.” You can imagine the fear of the manors’ inhabitants watching a fire, backlit crowd of drunken idiots demanding food growing larger and louder by the minute. That’s enough to make anyone relent to mob rule.

In the 14th century, someone decided to morph the old story of King Vortigern and Rowena, their boozy salute, and the passing of the loving cup yet again. This time, the act of door-to-door drinking took a cue from the simple act of saluting and celebrating to a healthy, happy new year. Crowds of carolers would visit neighbors rather than their masters with a large wassailing bowl filled with a spiced punch of mulled wine or ale, nutmeg and sugar. People would then dip toasted bread into the mixture to soak up the flavor and share in the merriment. This band of intoxicated carousers unwittingly created our modern word to “toast” by simply floating a few croutons in a bowl of ale. But it was from here, the act of wassailing and its drink would forever merge, forming one of cocktail’s most enduring partnerships.

Wassail, wassail!

By the Renaissance, wassailing had a firm foothold in England’s Christmas traditions. The drunken band of rabble-rousers banging on doors begging for figgy pudding was now simply spreading good cheer door-to-door in the village while singing Christmas carols with a punch bowl of sweetened, spiced ale. But it was during the 17th century the liquid inside the bowl finally started to take center stage in the merry ritual of Christmas and its now 500-year love affair with apples. The rich punch-like mixture called “Lambswool” was considered the wassail drink of choice for the Christmas punch bowl of the day. It contained warm ale or mulled wine, sugar, nutmeg, eggs, toasts, and “crabs” — steaming, roasted crab apples dropped still-hot into the warm punch, bursting upon impact and making a hissing sound as the mixture frothed and bubbled. The crabs gave the punch a tart sweetness while adding a bit of drama. It is from Lambswool that what we know as the traditional Christmas wassail drink was birthed.

From Wassail to Nog to Toddy

What started as most likely mead or spiced wine sweetened with honey has gone through many transformations throughout the centuries. Wassail evolved from a hot punch-like beverage of mulled wine spiced with nutmeg and raisins to keep the winter chill at bay for loitering merrymakers to its modern Christmas cousin, the cider concoction containing wine, bobbed apples, and sliced oranges and in some households, to an even richer, cream-based punch containing sherry, crusts of bread or sweet cakes, and even eggs.

As the punch matured, mixtures of madeira, sherry, or brandy began to appear alongside the traditional ale or cider, becoming a modern, more complex split based punch. When settlers began arriving in America, “wassailing” had become nothing more than a celebratory gathering at home with friends during Christmas with a cider-based punch spiked with rum. An ocean now separated the old and new. Wassail’s American transformation continued as generations grew further from their English roots, streamlining the creamy Lambswool-based punches into egg nog or the cider-rum mixtures into a wassail-for-one with the whiskey-forward hot toddy. It is these drinks we now most associate with our modern holiday traditions as the punch bowl of yore gathers dust on the shelf in the China cabinet.

The carousing traditions of wassail may have gotten lost in its own convoluted history, but the drink that emerged from the lore continues to play a small role in the nostalgia that is Christmas in the Western world. Many still gather around the punch bowl, sometimes singing carols, often happily sipping a cider-based, spiced concoction which today may or may not contain alcohol. Even the vessel has modernized, with wassail being kept warm for party-goers’ convenience in the crock pot; always at the ready for ladling into a punch cup.

Wassail is indeed both a noun and a verb. Mostly it is a salutatory celebration of a long year as you gather with those you cherish and raise a glass of good cheer to toast to a healthy, happy new year and enduring friendships. For wassail is, first and foremost, a salute.

So, we say to you, readers, whatever you believe, “Wassail! Drink hail!”

Tales of the Cocktail


Mumming is also an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas! It means ‘making diversion in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women would swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbors, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot. The leader or narrator of the mummers was dressed as Father Christmas.

The custom of Mumming might go back to Roman times, when people used to dress up for parties at New Year. It is thought that, in the UK, it was first done on St. Thomas’s day or the shortest day of the year.

Different types of entertainments were done in different parts of the UK, particularly in England. In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon a special sword dance was performed. There were also different names for mumming around the UK too. In Scotland it was known as ‘Gusards’ or ‘Guising’; in Somerset, ‘Mumping’; in Warwickshire or ‘Thomasing’; and ‘Corning’ in Kent.

In Medieval times, it had turned into an excuse for people to go begging round the houses and committing crimes. It became so bad that Henry VIII, made a law saying that anyone that caught mumming wearing a mask would be put in prison for three months!

One poem that people said when mumming was:

Christmas is coming, the beef is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.

Over the years, this was changed into a very similar poem that is said by some carol singers today:

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

The early settlers from the UK took the custom of Mumming to Canada. It is known as Murmuring in Canada, but is banned in most places because people used it as an excuse for begging.

There’s also a famous Mummer’s Day parade New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, in the USA, which lasts over six hours!

Mumming is still done in parts of the UK, USA and Canada.

Why Christmas

Read more about the Chepstow Wassail tradition and have joyous Wassails wherever you are!

Winter Effigies -The Deviant History of the Snowman

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.

The Dark Season of Samhain


John Isaac

Ancient Origins of Halloween

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.

This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

All Saints Day

On May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.

By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It’s widely believed today that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday.

All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Halloween Comes to America

Celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.

As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.

Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish potato famine helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.


Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.

In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.

Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything “frightening” or “grotesque” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Halloween Parties

By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide Halloween parties as the featured entertainment. Despite the best efforts of many schools and communities, vandalism began to plague some celebrations in many communities during this time.

By the 1950s, town leaders had successfully limited vandalism and Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed mainly at the young. Due to the high numbers of young children during the fifties baby boom, parties moved from town civic centers into the classroom or home, where they could be more easily accommodated.

Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.

Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.


Soul Cakes

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.

The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money.

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.

On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.

On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.

John Isaac

Black Cats

Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. It began as a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.

Today’s Halloween ghosts are often depicted as more fearsome and malevolent, and our customs and superstitions are scarier too. We avoid crossing paths with black cats, afraid that they might bring us bad luck. This idea has its roots in the Middle Ages when many people believed that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into black cats.

Halloween Matchmaking

But what about the Halloween traditions and beliefs that today’s trick-or-treaters have forgotten all about? Many of these obsolete rituals focused on the future instead of the past and the living instead of the dead.

In particular, many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands and reassuring them that they would someday—with luck, by next Halloween—be married. In 18th-century Ireland, a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it.

In Scotland, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, the opposite was true: The nut that burned away symbolized a love that would not last.)

Another tale had it that if a young woman ate a sugary concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night she would dream about her future husband.

Young women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders, hoping that the peels would fall on the floor in the shape of their future husbands’ initials; tried to learn about their futures by peering at egg yolks floating in a bowl of water; and stood in front of mirrors in darkened rooms, holding candles and looking over their shoulders for their husbands’ faces.

Other rituals were more competitive. At some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.

Of course, whether we’re asking for romantic advice or trying to avoid seven years of bad luck, each one of these Halloween superstitions relies on the goodwill of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly.

John Isaac

Mythology and Folklore

All the major festivals of the year, from Hallowe’en to Christmas and Easter – have Pagan roots. Some people may not think they’re Pagan and mentioning their root is irrelevant, but if you celebrate any of these dates, you are ostensibly celebrating a Pagan ritual. All the Christians did was roll these Pagan celebrations into their own religion several hundred years later.

Of course, the fact that the Christians did this raises its own questions, but the purpose of this article is not to address such things in-depth [though it may be more appropriate to do so at Yule]. Moreover, the purpose is to break open the hard crust of ignorance that has been formed around Samhain and Hallowe’en and to make the unknowing realize why they are celebrating this event, drawing home the importance of Samhain’s mythology and folklore, which many might think is unrelated to them, but which we carry out routines through every year. This is our history, our ancestry and part of what makes us. We should learn of it, respect it and be proud.

Samhain is primarily a celebration of harvest. The Pagans focus around three major harvest festivals in the year: Lammas the corn harvest in August, Autumn Equinox the fruit and vegetable harvest in September and Samhain, the nut and berry harvest at the end of October. Samhain is therefore a celebration of the third and final harvest of the year before the Winter proper sets in. The word Samhain is Gaelic [pronounced Sawin] and is part of Celtic tradition that has come to form part of the worldwide Pagan banner, the word itself actually meaning ‘November’ or ‘November day’ even though the true etymology stretches back as far as Sanskrit.

As with many Pagan festivals, a lot of the mythology and importance gets integrated from different parts of the world. To the Celts, 1st November was an important time of year because it was the time when the cattle that had been grazing in the pastures all summer were led back to the farmhouses and slaughtered for their meat to be preserved over Winter. The bones of the cattle were burned in bonfires which became something of a related ritual additionally.

Samhain is highly associated with death. All the crop is in, the cattle are slaughtered, plants die, leaves fall. It is the end of the land cycle of birth and growth, now we are entering into a period of widespread demise. Everything about this time of year signifies a downturn in life and an upturn in death – even the light is dying as the evenings draw in ever closer and the daylight shrinks away. Samhain is the beginning of the Dark Half of the year which lasts six months all through to Walpurgisnacht on the 30th April, after which the Light Half of the year commences at the Beltane festival on 1st May. It was seen as a time when the door to the Celtic Otherworld was most open, allowing spirits of all kinds to cross the boundary into the physical realm. It is customary on Samhain night to set an extra place at the dinner table for those ancestors who may return during the evening to visit us: in fact, honouring our ancestry is a major part of Samhain in general. Seeing as it is a time for concentrating on the dead and reflecting in the darkness, discussing our lineage and paying homage to those who bore us is vital. It is because of the link with death and darkness that the colour black is so closely associated with this time of year, as well as orange which represents the vitality within death and the colours of Autumn. Black or orange candles should be lit on Samhain in reference to this, as well as to the fact that black candles are used as a tool of protection and banishment in candle magic whereas orange is used for fertility and stimulation. Black is associated with looking back, whereas orange is related to looking forward.

Seeing as Samhain was associated with the interference and transgression of evil spirits from one spirit world to the next, it was Irish and Scottish custom to dress up as spirits in a process known as “guising” [from the word ‘disguise’] as a means of warding off other spirits. Of course, dressing up as spirits can easily encourage playing tricks and pranks, and it’s clear to see how doing one led to the other, in what is now known as trick or treating, the history of which dates as far back as the 18th century, likely merging with the English tradition of giving soul cakes to the poor on All Saints Day or the custom of going house to house collecting food and fuel for Samhain evening. Of course one of the most prevalent icons of the time of year is pumpkin carving, which is mostly thought of as being an American tradition. Far from it: the carving of pumpkins at this time of year came from the carving of turnip lanterns in 19th century Ireland and Scotland, most likely used to light peoples’ way on Samhain night and bearing grotesque faces to protect the carrier from evil spirits. As for another edible Samhain symbol, the apple, its inclusion comes about through the belief of the apple being a sacred fruit and representative of life and immortality to the Celts, apples being buried at Samhain to give food to souls waiting to be reborn.

As for the witches we spoke of, they have a long history of being associated with the time of year, primarily because of ritual gatherings at Samhain and Walpurgisnacht, the cauldron used as a symbol of the witches’ control over life and death, the cauldron shape alluding to sexuality which is such a prevalent feature of this dark festival. The black cat has always been related to the supernatural as well, a thought process which goes back to Ancient Egypt. Cats wonder at night and black cats can conceal themselves in the shadows so they were seen as the diabolical supernatural servants of evil and were even slaughtered because of it.

Samhain is a time of heightened sexual awareness and activity. The act of sex itself is extremely emotional and powerful – the seed and fruit of human beings connecting with the seed and fruit of the harvest, the power and energy raised by sex being seen as a portal through which the dead are able to return. Sexuality is intrinsically linked to witchcraft with sex magic being used for deific worship and ushering in a spiritual and mystical connection.  The birch and willow brooms were ‘ridden’ by witches through fields, the jumping height signifying how high the crop would grow the following year, the hallucinogens in the flying ointment on the broom giving the belief of real flight. Once again, we see everything returning to the harvest.

Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, Samhain was celebrated widely by the Celts. Christians did all they could to wipe out celebration of the event but in the 7th Century, missionaries such as Pope Gregory saw the advantage of contorting the focus. He let people worship the objects they wished to so that their resolve remained intact, but he gave the worship a Christian spin so they effectively became devotees to the new religion. This tactic was massively successful in spreading Christianity and weakening the old religions, redefining the old meanings for new benefit. Seeing as All Saint’s Day traditionally falls on the 1st November, Samhain was rolled into All Hallows’ Eve and was seen as a highly spiritual time where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest as the evil spirits fled before Saint’s Day.

With Samhain only a few days away and with the spiritual power of this event increasing, it is time to not only celebrate this intense and fascinating occasion, but also to inform ourselves further as to the history and the importance of it. The folklore of our ancestors created and defined belief systems, societies and ways of living, and the old ways are still with us now hundreds of years later. The grip of large corporations – like that of Christianity – has allowed us to literally buy into this event without consciousness, but the real reason and respect for this occasion should never be lost. This Samhain take the time to honour the evening, the rituals, the history, the mythology and your own individual ancestry. Its personal implications and applications are more than most realize. Heathen Harvest

John Isaac


Early in the evening at Samhain we begin our celebration in our village of St Buryan when local residents escort their children around the village for ‘Trick or Treating’ and visit a real Wise Woman’s cottage. We also visit the St Buryan Inn for a celebratory drink before the preparations for our private group celebration at midnight. It is indeed an active time in the spiritual and physical worlds as the Celtic year ends but it is also extremely rewarding.
I will conclude this post by wishing you all a joyous Samhain and a prosperous and successful new Celtic year. The link below has evocative music and an explanation of the season. Enjoy!

Update for the Dark Gathering 2018

All Hallows event update 🙂

All Hallows Gathering

There a couple of items that need updating in this year’s line up at the Dark Gathering.  Firstly, the Mari Lwyd Workshop will not be taking place this year after all.  However, we hope that we can reintroduce this again at a later date.

The other main change to the schedule is that sadly, the Boscastle Buoys are unable to perform for us this year.  In their place will be a demonstration of traditional Welsh dancing by Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl.

Given these changes the Programme of Events will be as follows:

2 pm – Warm up act from the Salt Sisters.

3 pm – Dark Morris performances from Beltane Border Morris, Domesday Morris and this year’s Guest Side, Wolfshead & Vixen

4 pm – Display of Welsh Dancing

4.30 pm – Dark Morris performances

5 pm – Comfort Break

6 pm – Procession leaves from main car park

6.20 pm…

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Harvest Home in St Buryan 2018

Yesterday evening we attended the Harvest Home auction in our wonderful pub the St Buryan Inn. We arrived early to dine there, Cassandra reserved a table along with Vanda our Rector. While having our meal we were able to update one another on recent work as Vanda takes great interest in the varied spiritual events that occur in all areas of Cornwall.

It was not long before we were joined by other friends and local residents within the village before the auction began.

Local produce filled the table and it was wonderful to see three pumpkins as they have been absent for the past two years.

Our local resident Pauline bakes wonderful Cornish pasties, she provides a few smaller ones, but the giant pasty is awaited at the end of each auction as it is understandably purchased at a high price.

The pub was full of locals and there was a happy friendly atmosphere within our community.



I also purchased my first pumpkin from the auction as Cassandra usually does so each year if any are available.

Barry our wonderful caller does well each year and Penzance Food Bank will receive £354 from this superb event.

Spiritual Meaning of Autumn Equinox


Image -Thriving Under Pressure

The voice of autumn speaks in a susurrus of leaves, its breath cool and dry and full of change. It is the winding down of the year, a time of both harvest and of death. More than any other season, people feel a spiritual connection to fall. They feel that they are closer, for a time, to something unnameable and immutable. And indeed, they are.

Each year, as the Earth completes its annual journey around the sun, the balance between night and day shifts. Because the Earth is tilted, and maintains that tilt, the sun’s light doesn’t hit the surface of the planet evenly—when the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, summer’s heat reigns, and the days are longer. When the southern half of Earth is tilted away from the sun, catching its light at an angle, winter arrives, and the days become shorter. When the reverse is true, the seasons reverse as well. It is only twice a year that the Earth is evenly struck by sunlight. These moments are called the equinoxes.

The first equinox of the year is the Spring Equinox, after which the days begin to lengthen, culminating in the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. After this, the daylight hours begin to decline until, finally, we reach the autumnal equinox, which then leads into the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

But this is only the physical, the surface of what the autumnal equinox is—the outer, celestial journey mirrors an inner, universal, and very spiritual journey. To think of the Equinoxes and Solstices in terms of a life, the year is “born” on the winter solstice, matures at the spring equinox, and reaches the prime of life at the summer solstice. The autumnal equinox marks the descent into old age, and, finally, the moment of the winter solstice marks simultaneous death and rebirth, starting the cycle anew.

John Isaac

Autumn holds a spiritually unique place. Many mistake the mystery and decline that surrounds and follows the autumn equinox for darkness and evil, but in reality, it is about endings—a very natural thing. Every journey must find its end, and fall is the bittersweet embodiment of this.

The physical death and darkness experienced by the land as we approach winter represents something else, as well. It is the external embodiment of the darkness all people contain within themselves—everyone is a blend of day and night, good and evil.

Darkness exists in all of us—we are flawed, imperfect human beings, after all. Darkness, ignored, grows and takes over like a cancer—it is only when it is dragged into the light that we can overcome it. Autumn is the time to face this darkness, a physical reminder of that which we must cull within ourselves.Fall, paradoxically, is a time of simultaneous bounty and withering; crops are harvested, even as the natural world begins to fade. If we make sure to align ourselves to the progression of the seasons, fall serves much the same purpose, but on a spiritual level. Consider, as autumn sets in, the areas of your life that need to be let go of, consider what no longer serves you, gets in your way, and needs to wither.At the same time, consider the dream-seeds that you planted at the beginning of the year, and that have been steadily growing. Allow those dreams—that bountiful harvest—to be reaped. Enjoy them as you replace those parts of yourself which do you no good. For example, perhaps you wish to be more assertive. At the beginning of the year, maybe you decided that you would be, and perhaps you studied how to be a more assertive person throughout the year. Fall is the time to then allow the fearful part of you to fall away and be replaced by confidence. Come the winter solstice, you will be born anew, and this will be a part of you.How can we get in touch with the spiritual side of autumn in our contemporary age? By being mindful and being present. Turn off your devices and simply take a walk. Make your pilgrimage of leaves, being mindful of the color of sky and grass and leaf and stone, of the feel of the air, of the scents and textures and sights all around you. As you do so, ask yourself, “What do I need to release? What are my burdens?”. Pay attention to what nature is doing around you—after all, everything has a purpose, including the changing of the seasons. They remind us to keep changing, to not allow ourselves to become stagnant.Remember—we all have leaves, of a sort. For a time, they gather energy unto us, but at a certain point, they no longer serve us. They lose their chlorophyll, turn brown, wither, and must be released. As you watch those earthly leaves fall to the ground to nourish the next generation of nature, consider your own leaves. Are you letting them go? Or are you hanging on to the dead?Take the time to connect to the world around you this fall. Don’t let its significance pass you by. It’s easy, in our loud, busy world, to allow that to happen. By reconnecting with the seasons, you’ll find yourself renewed and reborn each year, better and better than you were before. So allow yourself to open to the spiritual possibilities of fall as you enjoy that crisp air, and listen to the whispering voice of the leaves. They may just have great wisdom to impart to you. Belief.netJohn Isaac


Without darkness, there is no light. Without night, there can be no day. Despite a basic human need to overlook the dark, there are many positive aspects to embracing the dark side, if it’s just for a short time. After all, it was Demeter’s love for her daughter Persephone that led her to wander the world, mourning for six months at a time, bringing us the death of the soil each fall.John Isaac

In some paths, Autumn Equinox is the time of year that celebrates the Crone aspect of a triune goddess. Celebrate a ritual that honors that aspect of the Goddess which we may not always find comforting or appealing, but which we must always be willing to acknowledge. Call upon the gods and goddesses of the dark night, and ask for their blessings this time of year. ThoughtCo