St John’s Day

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.

St Stephen’s Day

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. In the sixteenth century Tusser noted:

Yer Christmas be passed,

let Horsse be lett blood,

For many a purpose

it dooth him much good:

The day of St. Steeven,

old fathers did use.

If that do mislike thee,

some other day chuse.

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. Irish Wren Boys are shown in the photo above.

The wren,the wren, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;

Though is body is small, his family is great,

So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned a spit;

I burned my finger; I feel it yet,

Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:

Give us some money to bury the wren.

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.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Here is an editorial I did for the the Frontier Centre for Public Policy:

Yes, Michael, there is a war on Christmas – and you’re part of it

For the last couple of years Toronto writer Michael Coren has been claiming that there is no such thing as “the war on Christmas”. The phenomenon, he said in a nasty moment so uncharacteristic of the charitable tone for which he is renowned, is a “chimera built by conservatives so that they can claim persecution and argue that their rights are being curtailed.”

As a long-time admirer of Mr. Coren, I thought that he might appreciate a contrary view that pointed him to some real facts about the matter. I had, after all, just published Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, (Oxford University Press, 2016; a wonderful gift for a loved one at only $27 on Amazon) and I fancied myself a bit of an expert on the subject. So, I wrote Michael a very respectful letter that corrected the errors underlying his mistaken viewpoint and even offered to send him a free copy of my book.

Alas, I received no reply. Now I see that he is up to his old tricks again this year, denying the reality of the Christmas wars while complaining of “the self-prescribed right of Christians to dominate the public square and dictate the private conscience.” So, for Michael and all others who are wondering about that gingerbread-scented whiff of hostility in the air during the holiday season, what follows is the real scoop.

There has always been a war around Christmas. Even before Christians began to celebrate the feast, there was debate about whether it was proper to mark the nativity of Jesus. The early Church was more interested in the imminent return of Christ than in his humble origins and, besides, birthdays, were a bit of a pagan thing. When various dissidents began to insist that Jesus had never had a physical body and was always pure spirit, it suddenly became important to speak about those events at Bethlehem in the reign of Caesar Augustus and to bring up the angels, shepherds, manger and swaddling clothes. Once Christians decided to make a festival out of Christ’s birth, the next argument was when should it be.  Various dates were suggested but the western churches chose December 25 while the great cities of the east opted for January 6; centuries passed before uniformity was achieved. Then the battle was to keep non-Christian elements out of the holiday or to sanctify them – so presents and greenery were acceptable but transvestism and dancing about in animal skins were not.

The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s saw Christmas eliminated in Calvinist territory (Scotland, some American colonies, parts of Switzerland and the Netherlands, and, for a while, England). It took more time, and some occasional violence, before Christmas was almost uniformly popular in churches again, just in time for the twentieth century and forces outside of the faith to join the attack on the holiday.

Countries which adopted Communism such as the Soviet Union and China opted for direct suppression of the festival. Nazi Germany tried to co-opt Christmas and make it into a pagan solstice event while revolutionary governments in Latin America waged war on the American Santa Claus and replaced him with an Aztec serpent-god or a multi-racial jungle dweller. Meanwhile conservative Christians such as the Catholic Archbishop of Liège burnt Santa in effigy and hard-line Protestants in the USA put the old bearded gent on trial and lynched him.

Today the Christmas wars continue on many fronts. In Turkey and India, local religious zealots of an anti-Christian bent attack the holiday as a foreign infidel intrusion. The Chinese government bans university students from having Christmas parties and Jewish rabbis in Jerusalem threaten to yank the kosher certification of hotels which erect Christmas trees. In Europe nationalist sentiment seeks to forbid the appearance of Santa Claus and replace him with the older gift-bringers whom he had, for a time, dislodged – St Nicholas, the Three Kings, angels or the Christ Child.

But the war that gets most notice in the news is the one that is waged by atheists, secularists and the diversity police to privatize Christmas – to drive it back into the home or the church and to create a religion-free public space. No Christmas concerts in schools, no Christmas trees in museums or courthouses, no nativity scenes on town hall lawns, no carols sung in veterans’ hospitals. A town banishes Santa Claus from the Santa Claus parade because he is somehow “too religious”; Chicago’s Christkindl (“Christ Child”) Market bans promotion of a movie about the Nativity because it would be “insensitive to the many people of different faiths who come to enjoy the market for its good and unique gifts.”; Christmas trees become the “Giving Tree”, the “Seasonal Conifer”, the “Tree of Lights”, or least imaginatively, the “Annual Tree”. In the name of multiculturalism a dreary winter monoculture is mandated.

But, say the critics of Christmas, no one really wishes to ban the holiday – just to move it out of sight. The atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens noted that “there are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as ‘churches,’ and they can also force passersby to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether. If this is not sufficient, then god damn them. God damn them everyone.”

This is the heart of the matter: the desire to make no space in public for religion. This is a tragic misunderstanding of the binding roles that religions plays in the larger life of the community and fosters an atomistic view of society where social life is conducted only within one’s own group. It leads to identity politics and perpetual claims of victimization. Everyone is poorer if Handel’s Messiah or Mozart’s Requiem or “Silent Night” are considered threats to schoolchildren; if St Patrick’s Day parades or Diwali celebrations or Carnival are kept off the public thoroughfares. Religion is already out on the streets, not just in spectacle and music but in the hospitals, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, sports leagues, after-school programs, homes for the elderly, etc., etc., in which various faiths mandate their followers serve their communities.

In claiming that the war on Christmas is a right-wing plot to assert cultural dominance, Michael Coren has shown himself as, not the truth-seeker which he believes himself to be, but someone who has abandoned the virtues of tolerance and diminished the quantum of goodwill, love, and magic in his country.

Christmas Eve

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.

St Andrew’s Day

A portrayal of  St Andrew from a 5th century Roman fresco

November 30 is the feast day of Saint Andrew, brother of Saint Peter and one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. As described in John 1: 40 Andrew was the first to follow the Messiah and the first to bring others to him, so the Church has placed his day at the beginning of the church calendar: Advent Sunday is the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day. In parts of Germany it was once the custom for children to put out their stockings on St Andrew’s Eve and to find them the next morning filled with nuts and apples.

In much of Europe it was a day for prognostications, especially for girls seeking husbands. In Romania, vampires rise from the grave. In Germany, if a woman throws a shoe over her shoulder toward the door at midnight, and the shoe lands pointing to the door, the woman will receive a marriage proposal within the year.

Because Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross, the St Andrew’s cross often appears on flags, such as that of Scotland or the Russian navy.