St Knut’s Day

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January 13th is celebrated in Sweden and Finland as St Knut’s Day, the 20th and last day of Christmas. A proverb says “Twentieth day Knut driveth Yule out.” The Knut (or Canute) in question was a murdered 12th-century Danish duke who was later canonized On this date Christmas trees are taken down and any remaining edible treats on the tree are consumed. The party that accompanies this is called a Julgransplundring, (“Christmas tree plundering”). 

In some parts of Finland on Nuutinpäivä, it was traditional for young men to disguise themselves as sinister goats and go door to door demanding hospitality, especially of the alcoholic kind. Today, however, the custom is more innocent and largely restricted to children.


G.K. Chesterton on Christmas

Home / Christmas / G.K. Chesterton on Christmas

We have met the brilliant G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) before, bandying opinions on Christmas with George Bernard Shaw. Here are a few more of his thoughts on the season.

What life and death may be to a turkey is not my business; but the soul of Scrooge and the body of Cratchit are my business. – Christmas, All Things Considered

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain. – The Wise Men

Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home. – Brave New Family

A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.  – Christmas

Anyone thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate. – The New Jerusalem

The more we are proud that the Bethlehem story is plain enough to be understood by the shepherds, and almost by the sheep, the more do we let ourselves go, in dark and gorgeous imaginative frescoes or pageants about the mystery and majesty of the Three Magian Kings. – Christendom in Dublin

The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why. – On Christmas, Generally Speaking


Bolsheviks Attack Christmas

Home / Christmas / Bolsheviks Attack Christmas

Marxist and Nazi totalitarian governments cannot abide a faith that challenges their ideological supremacy, so religion must be destroyed or controlled. In the young Soviet Union, the task of ridiculing religion was first put into the hands of the Communist youth league, the Komsomol.

On Orthodox Christmas Eve[1], January 6, 1923, activists launched the “Komsomol Christmas”. In the new capital city, Moscow, and across the Soviet Union, demonstrators held a series of parades with provocative and often obscene floats designed to denigrate religion. Clowns capered and sang the “Internationale”, a figure of God embraced a naked woman, Christmas trees were topped with red stars, staged trials judged Christianity, and mock priests and rabbis intoned lewd parodies of religious services. In a “Carnival of the Gods”, Christianity was linked to paganism and the Moscow parade ended with images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris all being burned on the bonfire. Komsomol youth went from house to house singing an parodic version of the Christmas Troparion hymn of the Orthodox Church.

Activists confronted believers emerging from church services, taunting them. In Odessa demonstrators burnt effigies of Moses and Jehovah in the main square. In Pskov, an orchestra was enlisted to entertain while militants buried “Counter-Revolution” and immolated the old gods. Anti-religious plays such as “The Liberation of Truth” were staged as were parodies of Orthodox rites where readings from scientific literature replaces the scriptures.

Lenin eventually grew weary of their juvenile provocations which he claimed were discrediting atheism; Komsomol groups toned down their attacks, Similarly, Stalin would turn on the League of the Militant Godless when he needed patriotic support in mustering a national effort against Germany.

[1] In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but according to the Julian calendar; the Soviet state (and most of the rest of the world) followed the Gregorian calendar which in the twentieth century differed by thirteen days.

Watchmen’s Addresses

Home / Christmas / Watchmen’s Addresses

It was customary in 19th-century American cities for certain tradesmen to solicit tips at Christmas by distributing a poetic broadsheet explaining why they deserved a seasonal gratuity — carriers, scavengers, and, particularly, town watchmen all touted their indispensability in verse. Here is the “Address of the Watchmen of the city and county of Philadelphia, on the Return of Christmas for the year 1818”. In it the author makes the unassailable theological point that, until God brings justice and peace to the world in the End Times, watchmen will always be necessary to guard the innocent householder.

Old custom calls a feast today,
Bids other bus’ness cease awhile
And liberal patrons think or say,
“Christmas repays the Watchman’s toil.”

His year is up–his labours claim
From generous friends a recompence,
‘Midst num’rous gifts, it were a shame,
To send him disappointed hence.

Thanks should inspire his breast, and yours,
That he who slumbers not, nor sleeps
Whose “mercy evermore endures,”
Our city still in safety keeps.

For vain the Watchman’s homely voice,
His rattle too and staff in vain
Useless each effort he employs,
If GOD should not our guard remain.

Him for our refuge–then no more,
With deep design or inward hate
Shall foes succeed at midnight hour,
To murder or to conflagrate.

Alas! what heart but throbs with shame,
What eye the rising tear denies!
At thought of man’s dishonour’d name,
To see the sad effects of vice.

 The court, the jail, the fetters whence,
But from this source their power obtain ?
Hence springs the whole, and only hence,
Of human woe, distress and pain.

The beasts, which tread the forest o’er,
And ocean’s monsters all are seen,
Not stain’d with half the horrid score
Of deeds, that marks the lives of men.

And shall the long expected day
Arrive, and all these mis’ries end ?
Shall peace and truth regain their sway,
And man become his fellow’s friend ?

Yes! for this DAY ensures that hour,
When HE, who cloth’d himself in clay
By his own “word” and “mighty power,”
Shall scatter crime from earth away.

Then shall the “leopard with the kid,”
The “lion with the lamb lie down;”
Blessings creation overspread,
And every name his kingdom own.

No Watchman then his post need stand,
His “rattle” or his voice employ:
The land will be “Immanuel’s land,”
Where none shall “hurt” or aught “destroy”.

Yet till that period approach,
Your liberal feelings can’t refuse
A GIFT; we do not say how much,
But leave it with yourselves to choose.

This will encourage us the more,
Our nightly hardships to sustain ;
To guard from felons every door,
‘Midst driving snow or pelting rain.

Grimm Christmas Proverbs

Home / Christmas / Grimm Christmas Proverbs

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) were indefatigable students of the German language and mythology, producing monumental works on linguistics and folklore. Among the numberless myths, stories, and sayings they collected were dozens of folk beliefs about Christmas and the Twelve Days. Here are some, mostly involving predictions of one kind or another.

When a maid wants to know if she shall keep her place, let her on Christmas Eve turn her back to the door, and fling the shoe off her foot over her head: if the tip of the shoe is towards the door, she’ll have to go; if the heel, she will stay.

He that is born at sermon-time on a Christmas morning, can see spirits.

 To find out if she’ll get husband during the year, let the damsel knock at the hen-house on Christmas-eve or at midnight: if the cock cackles, she’ll get one; if the hen, she won’t.

 On Christmas-eve the girls of Saalfeld sit up from 11 to 12. To find out if they shall get married the next year, they strip themselves naked, stick their heads into the copper, and watch the water hissing. If that does not answer, they take a broom and sweep the room backwards, and see the future lover sitting in a corner: if they hear the crack of a whip, he is a waggoner, if the sound of a pipe, a shepherd. Some rush out of doors naked, and call the lover; others go to a cross-road, and call out his name.

Tying wet strawbands round the orchard-trees on Christmas Eve makes them fruitful.

In the Twelve-nights neither master nor man may bring fresh blackened shoes into the stable; else the cattle get bewitched.

A hoop coming off a cask on Christmas Eve shows that some one in the house will die that year.

If from the fires of the three holy eves (before Christmas, New Year and High New Year [Epiphany]) glowing embers be left the next morning, you’ll want for nothing all that year.

He who walks into the winter corn on Holy Christmas-eve, hears all that will happen in the village that year.

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun …

Home / Christmas / After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun …

A reminder that earlier times saw Christmas as a long-extended season. From the wonderful blog “A Clerk of Oxford” some medieval English verse on the subject, followed by its translation. (The letter “þ” is pronounced like “th”, so “þe” becomes “the”.)

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After Christmas comes the crabbed Lent,
Which tests the flesh with fish and simpler food;
But then the weather of the world wages war against winter,
Cold clears away, clouds lift,
Brightly sheds the rain in warm showers
And falls upon fair fields, where flowers appear.
Both the ground and the groves put on green garments;
Birds begin to build, and brightly sing
For delight in the soft summer coming thereafter
To the banks;
And blossoms burgeon into bloom
In rows rich and abundant;
Then notes noble indeed
Are heard in the woods so wild.

Christmas in Ethiopia

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Ethiopia

Having been converted in AD 330, Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world and Christmas there is quite unlike anywhere else. It is primarily a religious observance, largely untouched by the commercialization and emphasis on gift-giving that has spread elsewhere, and begins with a 40-day fast. Though the fast is not as strict as that Lenten period that precedes Easter it is still a time for physical and spiritual disciplines which prepare the body and soul for Christmas.

 Ethiopians, following the Coptic calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 7. In churches around the country candle-lit processions take place and people stand (there are no pews in an Ethiopian church) for the mass that may last up to three hours. In the country’s spiritual capital Lalibela, home to ancient churches, thousands come every year in pilgrimage. They spend the night before Christmas in a vigil of prayer, singing and dancing. In the morning a great procession carries the Ark of the Covenant to the top of a nearby hill where the liturgy is celebrated. After the service there is more dancing, feasting and, for the men and boys, a game of genna, a kind of hockey played only on Christmas. This game is said to date from the time of the birth of Jesus when the shepherds who had just heard the good news from the angels waved their staffs in joy.

 Food served at Christmas will include injera, a spongy flat bread on which doro wat, a chicken stew (spicy like every other Ethiopian dish) or other main course, will be spread. A piece of the injera is then broken off to to scoop up the stew. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas in Ethiopia and is usually directed only toward children who will receive something simple such as new clothes.

One foreign custom that has crept into Ethiopian Christmas celebrations is the Christmas tree. Such is the demand for the trees in the area of the capital Addis Ababa that the government has had to impose conservation measures to save the local juniper trees from extinction.

Two weeks after Christmas is Timket, or Epiphany, (pictured above) which is an even greater festival lasting three days in honour of the baptism of Jesus and St. Michael. More gift-giving takes place and more feasting.

Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day

Home / Christmas / Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day

 Because the Christmas season ends in many parts of the world on January 6, Twelfth Night became a time of raucous celebration, associated with masking, mumming, drinking and social inversion. This misrule may have been a carry-over to some extent from the riotousness of the pagan Kalends. In Byzantium for example church councils had to legislate against the dancing and transvestism that went on in early January. During the reign of Michael III (842-67) the emperor and his court went so far as to use the occasion to mock the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Mass itself. Mock coronations and consecrations become common in medieval Europe with clerical hijinks, cross-dressing, noise and laughter the order of the day on Twelfth Night.

To commemorate the visit of the Magi who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, Epiphany became the day for giving gifts, especially to children. In the Spanish-speaking world the eve of the day of Los Tres Rejes Magos is when the three wise men pass through on their way to Bethlehem and leave presents for kids who, in turn, leave out snacks for the kings and their camels. In Spain their Majesties and their attendants can be seen processing through the city streets on January 5 in great splendour. In Italy the night of January 5 sees the visit of the Befana (the name itself is a corrption of Epiphania), an old lady who refused to spare time from her housekeeping to accompnay the Three Kings on their journey. She soon repented of her decision and tried to join the Magi but has never succeeded to this day. She therefore visits each home in search of the Christ Child and leaves presents for the little ones that she finds sleeping there.

The custom of the King’s Cake, Twelfth Night Cake, Dreikonigskuchen, gâteau des rois, etc., can be traced back to the thirteenth century. A bean or a pea or a coin was baked into the cake and the lucky finder was named king or queen of the party and could direct others to do his bidding for the evening. Though the tradition lingers in much of Europe (as well as French America) the custom in England was displaced to December 25 where it became the Christmas cake. In medieval France it was customary to put a piece of the cake aside for the poor or to collect money from the rich for their share of the cake and use the money for a charity.

Santa Claus and the Soprano

Home / Christmas / Santa Claus and the Soprano

For much of the 19th century there was no single, universally-recognized version of Santa Claus. Depending on the author or the artist, the magical gift-bringer could be young or old, bearded or not, tiny, half-sized, adult-sized or gigantic. His clothes could be those of a pedlar, a farmer, Robin Hood, a king, or a Chinese mandarin.

Truly one-of-a-kind is the character trying to pass himself off as St Nick in Santa Claus and Jenny Lind, likely a promotional piece for the P.T. Barnum-sponsored tour of America in 1850 by the Swedish Nightingale. For this book Santa Claus has dressed up as George Washington (presumably to associate himself with patriotic impulses) complete with eighteenth-century bicorn hat, pigtail and spurs on his boots, and sits astride a winged broom piloting a soprano through the skies singing: “I’m a jolly old man – I ride the wind; / The lady behind me is Miss Jenny Lind;/ The horse that we ride is a broomstick, you see –/ Oh! This is the horse for Miss Jenny and me.”

So much about this Santa Claus is different from his rivals: he carries no sack and all his toys emerge from his pockets; he is a clean-shaven, full-sized gentleman of late-middle years with nothing Dutch, elfin or fur-clad about him; he goes through the world during the hours of daylight and instead of waiting for Christmas Eve to reward the good behaviour he finds, he disburses his praises and gifts then and there. His behaviour is neither solemn nor jolly but rather downright queer – a word he uses several times to describe himself – and if he were to enter a doctor’s office today, he might not escape without a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. His mental focus seems very weak; on the least impulse he bounds away over the landscape: “I was happy to see such a good little boy,/ And took from my pocket a beautiful toy:/ I shouted and threw it, I couldn’t keep still,/ And then I was off, over valley and hill.” He won’t stay in one place long enough even to hear Jenny Lind sing; he hies himself to a mountain top “where winds whistle bleak,” and confesses, “I am dancing a jig, I am having a freak.”