December 31 is the feast day of St Sylvester, the fourth-century pope during whose reign (314-35) persecution of Christians ceased and Christianity received the favour of the emperor Constantine. In legend Sylvester was supposed to have cured the emperor of leprosy and received western Europe from him through the spurious Donation of Constantine. In German speaking countries “Silvester” is the name given to New Year’s Eve and its festivities
Every December 31 (St Sylvester’s Day) and January 13 (Old St Sylvester’s Eve) men of Urnäsch in eastern Switzerland don fantastic costumes and go, in groups, from door to door. There are three types of dress, depending on the level of grotesqueness: the Wüeschti, or the ugly Chläuse is covered in bark and branches and wears a frightful mask; the Schö-Wüeschti, or less-ugly, is equally piney less frightening; and the Schöne or pretty Chläuse wears a huge bell or a massive headdress depicting a rural scene. At each house they sing three zäuerli, or wordless yodels and are rewarded with a drink, food and money before going on to the next destination. Once part of the widespread phenomenon of Christmas-tide begging visits, the custom is now kept alive partly out of a love for local tradition and partly for the tourist trade that it attracts.
New Year’s Eve in Ireland, Oiche na Coda Moíre, is called the Night of the Big Portion because of the belief that in order to ensure prosperity for the home in the new year a huge meal must be eaten on December 31. In fact, in some areas it was once believed that all the food in the house on New Year’s Eve had to be devoured.
Evil monsters of Greek Christmas foklore whose description varies — in some places they are viewed as half-human with hoofs and claws, in others they are wolf-like or simian. They spend most of the year in the underworld, chopping away at the tree that supports the earth. This tree is renewed at Christmas by the birth of Christ so the demons come to earth for revenge: they urinate on fires, ride on folks’ backs, force them to dance to exhaustion and commit other enormities. They may be kept out of the chimney (through which they enter) by keeping the Christmas log alight or by burning salt or old shoes whose smell repels them; the lower jaw of a pig or certain herbs such as hyssop hung behind the door or inside the chimney will also keep them out. They roam the earth until January 6 when the Blessing of the Waters drives them underground.
Any child born during Christmas is in danger of becoming one of the kallikantzaroi; to prevent this the child must be bound in tresses of garlic or straw or have his toenails singed.
In the influential poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” which taught North America much of what it was to learn about Santa Claus, the author notes that “down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.” That is how generations of Canadian and American children expected the gift-bringer to arrive, so much so that many fathers have been moved to clomp around on the roof or in the attic to imitate the noise of reindeer standing by the chimney. The chimney is also the mode of entrance for a number of other of the world’s Christmas gift-bringers. In Italy Befana comes down the chimney (and in true chimney-sweep fashion carries a broom with her); in the same way Father Christmas enters homes in England and Père Noël or Le pétit Jésus in France. In Holland the gift-bringer’s helper Black Pete goes down the chimney to keep St Nicholas from getting his clothes dirty. The chimney also serves to carry messages to the gift-bringer: in England children write letters to Father Christmas and burn them in the fireplace sending their smoky wishes via the chimney; in Scotland children “cry up the lum” — they shout their wishes up the chimney on Christmas Eve.
But the chimney is not just a way in for the gift-bringer. To psychiatrists it represents the birth canal and it also admits unpleasant creatures. Norwegians feared that witches would come down the chimney and, in order to prevent this, would burn dry spruce which emits sparks, or put salt in the fire. In Greece the “skarkatzalos” log is burned over the Twelve Days of Christmas to keep out the Kallikantzaroi who slip down the chimney — in Scotland they use a similar trick to keep the elves out.
There are other ways in for gift-bringers besides the chimney. In Brazil, where the tropic heat renders chimneys few and far between, Papai Noel comes through the front door. The direct method is also used in Sweden (where gifts are often thrown in through the door), Finland and Australia. In Hungary the Baby Jesus brings presents through the window and, like the Befana, rings a little bell when the deed is done. Germany’s Weihnachtsmann has been known to use both the window and the chimney, while Chile’s Viejo Pascuero prefers the window.
December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorates the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. In England the day was known as Childermas (or Dyzemas) and was considered an ill-omened time; few would want, for example, to be married on that date. Not only was no business conducted on that day, but the day of the week on which it fell was deemed unlucky for the rest of the year. In Ireland it was Lá Crostna na Bliana, the “cross day of the year” when no new enterprise was begun. Many sailors would not sail on that day; on the Aran isles no one was buried on Childermas (or the day of the week on which it occurred); and in Cornwall to wash on that day was to doom one of your relatives to death.
Childermas was also a day for ritual beatings. The seventeenth-century writer Gregorie notes the custom of whipping children in the morning of that day so that Herod’s murderousness “might stick the closer; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the crueltie again in kind.”
December 27 is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, the son of Zebedee, companion of Jesus and reputed author of the Fourth Gospel. In the Middle Ages the day was marked by a blessing of the wine, derived from the legend that John had drunk poisoned wine and not been harmed. As Barnaby Googe in the sixteenth century related: Nexte John, the sonne of Zebedee hath his appointed day,/ Who once by cruell tyraunts will, constrayned was they say, Strong poison up to drinke, / therefore the papistes doe beleeve/ That whoso puts their trust in him,/ no poyson them can greeve.
It was also a custom for people to bring wine or cider to the church on December 27 to be blessed and then to take this liquor home to be poured back in the barrels. This “St. John’s Wine” was considered a protection for travellers setting out on a journey or for those near death. Because the gospel of John proclaims Jesus as the light of the world, a German custom allowed children named John or Joan to be the first to light the Advent candle.
December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.
Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.
The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.
St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:
Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.
“And it came to pass as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 15-16.)
The artistic portrayal of the visit of the shepherds to the baby Jesus was at first depicted as a visitation by two or three shepherds with simple gifts such as a lamb. The number of shepherds increased in later medieval art and the scene was often conflated with the Annunciation to the Shepherds or the Adoration of the Magi. In Le Brun’s 1690 Adoration of the Shepherds the host of angels filling the air above the Virgin contrasts with the earth-bound shepherds who crawl toward the centre of the canvas. The piety and simplicity of the shepherds made the scene a favourite subject for centuries — other artists who have painted the scene include Rembrandt, Bassano and El Greco whose Adoration was his last work, meant to hang over his tomb .
The incident is also the subject of carols, movies and television specials.
The day before Christmas, known variously as the Vigil of Our Lord, Noche Buena (“The Good Night” in Spanish), Wigilia in Poland, Heilig Abend in Germany, Stedry´ vecer (“Generous Evening”) in Slovakia, etc. In eastern Europe it is marked by meatless meals (Advent being a fasting period) and in other countries the occasion of heavy feasting and drinking. In Catholic lands many faithful stay up for the midnight mass and in most places children find it hard to sleep because of their anticipation of the arrival of Santa Claus or another gift-bringer. In Provence Christmas Eve is the Day of Reconciliation when one goes to neighbours to beg or offer forgivenes for wrong-doings during the past year.
It is the most supernaturally powerful of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Animals speak or kneel in homage to the birth of Jesus, bees sing a psalm , etc. In Russia and France it was believed that water turned to wine at midnight while on the isle of Sark this was the time water turned to blood. It was a time for treasure to be revealed, for the Star of Bethelehem to be seen in the Well of the Magi and to remember the dead, for on Christmas Eve spirits will revisit houses where a place is left for them at the table, or a bed, or a bath.
On December 23, 1927 Santa Claus robbed the First National Bank in Cisco, Texas. Dressed as St. Nick, Marshall Ratliff and three undisguised companions looted the bank and took hostages but were greeted by police and heavily-armed townspeople when they emerged from the building. In the shoot-out that followed, two officers and a bandit were mortally wounded. Though Ratliff and his two remaining partners temporarily escaped after a series of car-jackings and hostage takings, they were forced to abandon the stolen money and were all rounded up within a week.
The erstwhile Santa, who killed again in a failed escape attempt, was eventually taken from his jail cell by an angry mob and lynched. A piece of the rope used in the impromptu hanging is on display in the Callahan County Courthouse in Baird, Texas.
An inescapable aspect of the Advent season in Spain is the Loteria de Navidad, the Christmas Lottery, the biggest in the world. Almost every Spaniard buys a ticket for this venerable lottery which dates back to 1763 and everyone dreams of winning El Gordo, the “Fat One”, the first prize. The drawing for the millions of Euros in prizes takes place on December 22 and is covered live by Spanish media. It is traditional for the winning numbers to be sung by orphan school children. (Another lottery with a Christmas connection is El Niño, the Christ Child, which is held on January 7.)