Knut’s Day Yeast and Weevils

January 13 is St Knut’s Day, celebrated across Scandinavia as the day to take down your Christmas tree. The Finns have a long tradition of marking the day with processions and begging visits. In an effort to understand these more fully I consulted a Finnish-language site and  translated what I found there. I hope you are as illuminated by the results as I was:

Nuttin Day (January 13) finally ended the Christmas holiday season. For weeks, food and drink had been enjoyed and visiting corpses and holders were remembered. The holy time ended with a joyful and noisy feast, after which the rye could be carried back to the barn and other daily work began.

In folklore, Nuutti has meant the day after Epiphany, the seventh of January. The day was not moved to its current location on the calendar until January 13, until the early 18th century. Many of Nuut’s customs and sayings related to the end of Christmas actually belong to the day after Epiphany.

The Nuuttipuk tradition has continued alive in Finland until the last wars. At the heart of the procession of yeast or weevils were strangely dressed men or women. The dresses had the skin of a goat or sheep on their heads, their faces covered with leather or a masked face, or blackened. There was a long beard in his chin. The jacket on the stand could be leather upside down or a jacket made of straw braids. Some had in their hands a rod with a wet scepter at their head to swing people.

The nuts went from house to house, singing greetings and asking: Is there any yeast left? The peasants had to endure the buck with food and food. If the sahti was over, the goats took the pegs out of the beer kegs and sang mocking songs. In northern Finland, poor houses were also carried inside. However, if entertainment was received, the goats gave thanks and sang. The peasants responded to the costumes with their own songs.

People along the way joined the crowd passing from house to house. The procession marked on the door or aft wall of each house that the house had paid its “tax”. If the entertainment had been plentiful, as many pictures of the branch as had been offered in the house were drawn on the wall. The drawing was allowed to be in place all winter to witness the wealth and hospitality of the house.

The food and drinks collected by the buck could be gathered in one house that had been chosen to host the last games and dances of the Christmas season. The people of the village arrived there in the evening together to eat, drink and thus say goodbye during Christmas. The parties played, danced and made noise. At the end of the celebration, Christmas straws were carried out of the house.

New Year’s Eve

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.




The Feast of the Holy Innocents

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.”

In the Middle Ages the Shearmen and Tailors’ Guild of Coventry took their part in the famous cycle of mystery plays staged annually at the feast of Corpus Christi. The Bible stories they were responsible for portraying included the Massacre of the Innocents. It is this story for which the song known as “The Coventry Carol” was written, sung in the pageant by women of Bethlehem trying to keep their children quiet lest their crying betray them to the murderous soldiers of King Herod.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day?

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

“By, by, lully, lullay.”

Herod the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day.

His men of might, in his own sight,

All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee!

And ever morn and say,

For thy parting neither say nor sing,

“By, bye lully, lullay.”

The painting above by Pieter Brueghel sets the massacre in a Dutch village in the 16th century as if it were carried out by the occupying Spanish army.

December 24

The feast of Saints Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, were first honoured as saints in the churches of Eastern Christianity and during the Middle Ages their cult spread into the West. Though the Catholic church never officially recognized them with a feast day, popular veneration of Adam and Eve was widespread, particularly on December 24 when it was thought fitting that those responsible for the Fall of mankind be linked with the birth of the Saviour who came to redeem humanity.

Medieval dramas which told the story of Adam and Eve had as a stage prop a tree representing the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was decorated with apples or round wafers representing the host of the Mass and it is this “Paradise Tree” which some historians see as a precursor to the modern Christmas tree. This link is evident when we note that as late as the nineteenth century some American and German Christmas trees had images of Adam and Eve and the Serpent underneath them. Godey’s magazine claimed “an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining itself. The apples were placed on the table on Christmas Eve to recall those through whose sin mankind first fell as well as the Virgin Mary, the new Eve.”

December 21


The term wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon toast “waes hael”, or “good health” (the expected reply is “drinc-heil” or “drink well”). To wassail is to ceremonially drink someone’s health at Christmas, especially from a decorated bowl filled with a seasonal drink. The wassail bowl was traditionally filled with mulled ale or “lamb’s wool” and was adorned with ribbons. “Wassailers” often referred to those who went door-to-door at Christmas with a wassail bowl expecting a gratuity for a drink or those who expected the householder to fill the bowl at each stop.

The tradition of wassailing the apple trees or livestock is a vernerable one. In the seventeenth century the poet Robert Herrick noted: Wassail the trees, that they may bear/ You many a plum, and many a pear:/ For more or less fruits they will bring,/ As you do give them wassailing.

In order to ensure fertility for the coming year English farmers developed a number of variations on the wassail. In Devonshire, on Twelfth Night, men got out their weapons and went to the orchard. Selecting the oldest tree, they would form a circle and chant:  Here’s to thee, old apple tree/ Whence thou mayst bud and whence thou mayst blow/ And whence thou mayst bear apples enow:/ Hats full, caps full,/ Bushels, bushels, sacks full,/ And my pockets full too!/ Huzza! Huzza!

After drinking some cider the men would discharge their (unloaded) weapons at the tree and head home. Traditionally the women of the house were to deny the men entrance until they had guessed what sort of roast was being prepared for them. The man with the correct guess presided over the evening’s entertainment.  In other  parts of England fruit trees were wassailed by being sprinkled with cider, beaten with sticks and bidden in rhyme to bear well. In Cornwall the song was sung with a cider jug in one jug in one hand and a branch in the other. In south Hampshire they threatened the fruit tree: Apple tree, apple tree/ Bear good fruit,/ or down with your top/ And up with your root.

This threatening of the orchard is reminiscent of a custom in Romania. The farm husband and wife will go through the orchard at Christmas, she with her hands covered in dough and he with an axe. The man will go from one barren tree to another, each time threatening to cut it down. Each time, the wife will plead for the tree by saying:  “Oh no, I am sure that this tree will be as heavy with fruit next spring as my fingers are with dough this day.”

In the West Country it was also customary to wassail the oxen: on Twelfth Night men and women went into the stalls. They drank from the wassail bowl and took a cake from a basket decorated with greenery and placed it the ox’s horns. If the ox remained quite it was considered good luck. In Hereford, a cake was stuck on the horns of the ox while the oldest person present chanted: Here’s to thy pretty face , and to thy white horn,/ God send thy master a good crop of corn,/ Both wheat, rye and barley, of grains of all sort,/ And next year if we live we’ll drink to thee again. The rhyme was repeated in chorus, then the oldest threw a pint of cider in the beast’s face. If he tossed the cake forward it was a good sign.

In Sussex and Hertfordshire we also have mention of wassailing the bee-hives.

December 20

Beatings at Christmas

There are a number of different types of thrashings connected with the Christmas season in many countries over the centuries. The first is a threat of chastisement and is connected with the switches and rods carried by gift-bringers and their helpers. In the sixteenth-century Germany the Christmas bundle of presents included: “things that belong to teaching, obedience, chastisement and discipline, as A.B.C tablets, Bibles and handsome books, writing materials, paper, etc. and the Christ-rod”. The first book in the United States to include a picture of Santa Claus, the 1821 Children’s Friend, has the gift-giver state that he was happy to reward good girls and boys but “[W]here I found the children naughty,/In manners rude, in temper haughty,/ Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,/ Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers, I left a long, black birchen rod,/ Such as the dread command of GodDirects a parent’s hand to use/ When virtue’s path his sons refuse. The threat of corporal punishment was inherent in the role played by such figures as Black Pete, Krampus, Cert or Père Fouettard (Father Switch) who accompany the gift-giver.

 On Childermas, December 28, which commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod it was once customary in England to beat children. The explanation given in the seventeenth century was that that the memory of Herod’s crime “might stick the closer; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the crueltie again in kind” but anthropologists have noted that ritual beatings are more likely descended from pagan rituals of good luck than punishment. An old German custom called “peppering” saw children beating their parents and servants beating their masters with sticks while asking in verse form for a treat. An equally venerable tradition in Normandy allowed children to give a thrashing to those who stayed too long in bed on December 28. In Wales on St Stephen’s Day, the practice was called “holming” or “holly-beating” — the last person to get out of bed was hit with holly sprigs and made to act as servant to the rest of the family. Sometimes the purpose of the holming was to draw blood. In parts of Scotland on New Year’s Eve boys beat each other with holly branches in the belief that for every drop of blood shed a year of life was saved for the victim. In Sweden it was once customary for the first-riser on Christmas Eve to give other family members small bundles of twigs which they would use to beat each other in the spirit of imparting vitality.

It is worth noting that fruit trees also came in for ritual beatings at Christmas. See tomorrow’s post on“Wassailing”.

December 19

The Atheist Critique

Not everyone likes Christmas. Aggressive atheists are particularly vexed by the season in which the claims of Christianity are most publicly on display and held in good repute. The most famous infidel of the late 19th century was Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) who lectured frequently on the virtues of unbelief. Here is his “Christmas Sermon” of December 19, 1891. His notion that Christmas was borrowed from pagan sun worship is no longer taken seriously by historians but it still lives on the internet.

The good part of Christmas is not always Christian — it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural.

Christianity did not come with tidings of great joy, but with a message of eternal grief. It came with the threat of everlasting torture on its lips. It meant war on earth and perdition hereafter.

It taught some good things — the beauty of love and kindness in man. But as a torch-bearer, as a bringer of joy, it has been a failure. It has given infinite consequences to the acts of finite beings, crushing the soul with a responsibility too great for mortals to bear. It has filled the future with fear and flame, and made God the keeper of an eternal penitentiary, destined to be the home of nearly all the sons of men. Not satisfied with that, it has deprived God of the pardoning power.

And yet it may have done some good by borrowing from the Pagan world the old festival called Christmas.

Long before Christ was born the Sun-God triumphed over the powers of Darkness. About the time that we call Christmas the days begin perceptibly to lengthen. Our barbarian ancestors were worshipers of the sun, and they celebrated his victory over the hosts of night. Such a festival was natural and beautiful. The most natural of all religions is the worship of the sun. Christianity adopted this festival. It borrowed from the Pagans the best it has.

I believe in Christmas and in every day that has been set apart for joy. We in America have too much work and not enough play. We are too much like the English.

I think it was Heinrich Heine who said that he thought a blaspheming Frenchman was a more pleasing object to God than a praying Englishman. We take our joys too sadly. I am in favor of all the good free days — the more the better.

Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget — a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds — a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.

December 18

Christmas Baking

Baking has become an essential part of the celebration of Christmas for a number of reasons. Historically it relates to the midwinter veneration of grain and grain products in hopes that the next year’s harvest will be bountiful. We can see this in the eastern European custom of placing wheat and hay about the house, even under the table-cloth, on Christmas Eve and in the widespread practice of preparing a grain porridge, such as kutya or frumenty, at Christmastime. This notion carries over to baked goods, especially bread. In the nineteenth century German peasants believed there was particular power in bread baked at Christmas: thrown into a fire, it would quench the flames; given to cattle, it would keep them healthy. Similar beliefs attached to the oplatek wafer in Slavic Europe and Christmas cake in Flanders. As a result special breads and other baked goods became identified with Christmas in many countries: the German Christstollen which was said to represent the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus; the Greek christopsomo which is often decorated with a cross; the medieval English mince pies which were made in the shape of a crib and adorned with a dough figure of the Holy Child; the Belgian cougnou or pain de Jesus in the shape of the baby Jesus; the Ukrainian kolach, which is sometimes stacked in threes as a reminder of the Trinity. Many cakes are baked in the shape of wreaths and circles to symbolize everlasting life.

 Christmas-tide is a feast and a feast means food and abundance. Christmas baking is therefore an expression of indulgence and the celebration of a full pantry after a year’s hard work. This is a time when the richest ingredients and most costly spices can be employed with a guilt-free conscience: the effort and expense lavished on Christmas baking is unmatched by food preparation at any other time of year. The weeks of Advent are scarcely time enough for the marshalling of resources — flour, fruit, nuts, butter, cream, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, etc., etc. — and the preparation of the cakes, cookies, breads and pies that are consumed in such quantities. It is little wonder than an Irish term for Christmas Eve is Oidhche na ceapairi, “Night of Cakes.” In Norway no less than seven kinds of cookies must be prepared.

Baking at Christmas is also a community activity. Most families will prepare at least some goodies together, as in the custom of the Stir-Up Sunday pudding, and on many occasions members of a whole village, church or other group will be involved. Eating Christmas baking is, of course, a communal activity as well, binding the family together in present enjoyment and often linking them to those who are dead or absent. The oplatek wafers of Poland are shared ritually with those around the table but some are reserved for those away from the home; in many countries families leave bread out for the spirits of those departed or for the Holy Family. Sharing with those less fortunate is often part of the Christmas tradition: either by setting a place for the unexpected visitor or by giving baked goods away — the “soul cakes” of England and the French pain calendeau are examples of charity foods.

December 17

Countless made-for-TV movies and newspaper editorials have pondered the question “What is the real meaning of Christmas?” For Christians, the answer is an easy one. Its most important purpose is the celebration of the arrival in the form of a human baby of the Emperor of the Universe. But Christmas has many meanings which have shifted over time.

Here are the words of Nicholas Breton, (c. 1555-1626) English poet and satirist. We see in this quote how Elizabethans viewed Christmas and a clear sense of the connection between the merry and the sacred:

 It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: cards and dice purge many a purse, and the youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you:—and against the New Year provide for the presents:—The Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy: stolen venison is sweet, and a fat coney is worth money: pit-falls are now set for small birds, and a woodcock hangs himself in a gin: a good fire heats all the house, and a full alms-basket makes the beggar’s prayers:—the maskers and the mummers make the merry sport, but if they lose their money their drum goes dead: swearers and swaggerers are sent away to the ale-house, and unruly wenches go in danger of judgment; musicians now make their instruments speak out, and a good song is worth the hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship. In brief I thus conclude it: I hold it a memory of the Heaven’s love and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly. Farewell.