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Superstitions that Folks Have About Christmas - Some of the Queer Beliefs in Different Countries: By Clifford Howard (Ladies' Home Journal 1907)
CHRISTMAS would not be Christmas without its legends and its time-hallowed customs — and, I was about to add, its superstitions; but this is no longer true for the great majority of us. We cling devotedly to our endearing legends and customs, but the bonny superstitions of Christmastime are fast fading away in the sunset of the world's illusions. Indeed, the modern, progressive world is forgetting all about them. It is only when we peep into the earth's nooks and corners that have not yet been swept of their cobwebs of folklore and primitive faiths that we find these quaint beliefs in the supernatural still forming a part of the Christmas celebration. But however remote they may seem at first thought, we need but turn aside from the highways of the Christmas season to find these superstitions thriving in simple faith among our neighbors and fellow-beings, and lending to this merry tide a mysterious and fairylike romance which makes us almost sorry that we have not retained our hold upon them along with our sainted Santa Claus and mythful mistletoe. They are not confined to any one race nor to any one locality. Wherever we go, whether it be along the byways of our own domain or those of foreign lands, we encounter these innocent Christmas superstitions holding sway among good and lowly folk.
The Cocks Crowing for Christmas
MOST common and most familiar are those relating to the behavior of the animals at Christmastime. Perhaps the oldest among them is the still-popular belief that the chickens know when Christmas is coming, and that at this season of the year the cock may be heard crowing in the middle of the night. It is said he is crowing for Christmas, and that his object in so doing is to frighten off evil spirits. Those who are familiar with the play of “Hamlet” will recall that Shakespeare refers to this ancient superstition, when Marcellus says to his companions upon the disappearance of the ghost:
“It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”
CLOSELY akin to this superstition is one that still prevails in certain parts of rural England. This is the belief that if on Christmas Eve any one cautiously approaches a hive of bees in the stillness of the night he will hear the bees singing. They know that the joyous festival is at hand and, awaking from their winter slumber, they join with mankind in celebration of this holy anniversary. And on the stroke of midnight the attentive listener will hear their subdued humming resolve itself into the melodious singing of the hundredth Psalm:
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
“Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with a song.”
Animals Kneeling in Adoration
THE belief that animals are inspired with a knowledge of the advent of Christmas and are given the power of expressing adoration at midnight is very widespread. In many places it is believed that the sheep at this hour awake and go in procession, in commemoration of the visit of the angels to the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. The cattle, too, are said to celebrate the birth of the Savior by kneeling in their stalls.
It is commonly believed among the peasants of Europe that this actually takes place on Christmas night, but it is a sight seldom witnessed by human eyes, owing to the condition that only those who are free from sin are permitted to behold the miracle.
This superstition early found its way to America, and in modified form still lingers among some of the Indians. Howison, in his “Sketches of Upper Canada,” relates that one moonlight Christmas Eve he was surprised to see an Indian creeping cautiously through the woods. When asked what he was doing he replied: "Me watch to see the deer kneel. Christmas night all the deer kneel and look up to Great Spirit."
Animals Gifted with Speech
IN THE German Alps there is a superstition that the cattle not only kneel in their stalls on Christmas night, but that they are also gifted with the faculty of speech at this time. It is regarded as a sin, however, for any one to listen to them. Only on penalty of speedy death may any one venture to hear the words spoken by the animals.
As a warning to those who might be inclined to allow curiosity to override their good sense, it is related that many years ago a farmer's servant hid in the stable on Christmas Eve to hear what the horses and cows would say when the clock struck twelve. Exactly at midnight one of the horses lifted up his head and spoke, saying in a distinct voice, "We shall have hard work to do a week from today." "Yes," answered one of the cows; "the farmer's servant is heavy." "And the way to the churchyard is long and steep," remarked another horse. Then silence fell again, and the servant, quaking with mortal fright, fled to the house, and dying a few days later was hauled to the churchyard by the two horses on the day they had prophesied.
The “Human Wolves” in Norway
Even more tragic than this, and, strangely enough, having about it no element of sacredness, is the old and one-time popular superstition still to be found in certain parts of Norway. This is the belief that on Christmas night men may change themselves into wolves. Those who take advantage of this uncanny opportunity become the most savage sort of beasts, and, forming themselves into packs, rage against their fellow-mortals and do more harm than the wildest of natural wolves. They attack houses and, breaking down the doors, get into the cellars and wantonly destroy the winter provisions, besides drinking up all the wine and beer they can discover.
Only by special prayers can a house be insured against a visitation from these werewolves; and so farreaching is their power for evil that if any one during the following month should chance to come upon the spot where the transformation of these creatures took place he will die within the year.
Holy Straw and Bread
BUT if the Norse folks have this unhappy superstition associated with the joyous Christmastime, they have also one of a different character, peculiar to themselves, which is truly in keeping with this hallowed season. In Sweden, particularly, it is customary for the peasants to scatter straw about their houses and their churches during the Christmas holidays. This is done in commemoration of the circumstance that the Christ-Child was laid upon a bed of straw at His birth. The straw thus used on these holy days is supposed to become possessed of miraculous properties and is carefully gathered up by each household at the close of the holiday season. If given to the cattle when they are first sent out to pasture in the spring this holy straw is believed to insure them against sickness; and if it is desired to have the field or garden yield abundantly during the coming year it is only necessary to scatter some of this straw upon the ground at planting-time.
In Denmark a similar superstition obtains with reference to bread baked on Christmas Day. If this bread is kept until the spring and then crumbled and mixed with seed it will make the harvest abundant. Eaten by men and animals it both cures and prevents disease.
The peasants of Lombardy believe that bread baked on Christmas Day and kept untouched for a month is a charm against serpent bites, while in Germany it is believed that if the crumbs of this holy bread fall upon the earth they spring up as little plants bearing a starlike flower and possessing miraculous healing powers.
Closely allied to these beliefs is another German superstition, that barley left out in the open air on Christmas night and moistened with the dew becomes imbued with special curative virtues, and if planted will produce in extraordinary abundance.
In Austria and certain parts of Germany it is believed that the Virgin and the Christ-Child pass through the villages on Christmas night while the people are asleep. In many of the houses the tables are spread and the lights left burning during the entire night, in order that the holy wanderers may find rest and refreshment. In other homes the candles are placed in the windows, so as to illumine the otherwise darkened streets, in order that the Christ-Child may not stumble, and that by this token He may know of the love that abides for Him in these lowly dwellings.
The belief that Christ comes again as a little child and that other Biblical events are repeated at Christmastime is not uncommon. In Poland there is a popularly accepted belief that on Christmas night the scene of Jacob's ladder is reenacted, the angels descending to earth and scattering abroad the influence of peace and good will.
Subterranean Christmas Bells
IN SEVERAL countries there is a superstition that if one goes to a certain valley in the early morning of Christmas Day and puts his ear to the ground he will hear the ringing of church bells deep down in the earth. The valley is supposed to have been caused by a great earthquake that occurred many centuries ago and which swallowed up a whole village one Christmas morning while the bells were ringing, and ever since then these bells can be heard on the anniversary of that day.
In England this mysterious valley is in Nottinghamshire. For a great many years it was the custom for the people to assemble in this valley on Christmas morning and listen reverently to the muffled chimes of the buried church. Even now, though this ancient custom is no longer observed, the old men and women will tell the young folks that if they go to the valley and put their
ears close to the ground they will hear the Christmas bells ringing as in olden times.
This superstition suggests one that is peculiar to the Tyrolese peasants, who listen at the bake-ovens on Christmas Eve. If they hear music it signifies an early wedding; but if the ringing of bells is heard it forebodes the speedy death of the listener.
The Foretelling of Events
THIS superstition on the part of the Tyrolese peasants is but one of many that relate to the foretelling of events at Christmastime. In certain parts of Swabia it is customary on Christmas Eve for the young women to draw sticks from the woodpile. As the stick is, so will be the man who is to marry the maiden. If it is long he will be tall; if it is thick he will be stout; if crooked he will be deformed, and so on. In order to determine also what his trade or profession will be the interested maid pours molten lead into a bucket of water, and the shapes thus produced furnish the desired clew. If the hardening metal resembles a boot the future husband will be a cobbler; if a hammer, a carpenter; and if a rod, a schoolmaster. And to ascertain which of the maidens will be the first to marry, during the coming year the party forms a circle around a blindfolded goose, and the one whom the goose first approaches is the lucky damsel.
That the events of the coming year can be prognosticated at Christmas is a very old and very widespread belief. There are many who hold that the day of the week on which Christmas falls determines the kind of a year we are to have in respect to harvests and weather and conditions generally. Other superstitions of a like character are based upon the phases of the moon and the state of the weather on Christmas Day. In an old book, intended to enlighten the public on various matters, and written in all seriousness, we read:
“When Christmas Day cometh while the moon waxeth it shall be a good year, and the nearer it cometh to the new moon the better shall that year be. If it cometh when the moon decreaseth it shall be a hard year, and the nearer the latter end thereof it cometh the worse and harder shall the year be. When on Christmas night it is very fair and clear weather, and it is without rain and wind, then it is taken that in this year will be plenty of wine and fruit. But if the contrariwise—foul weather and windy—so shall it be very scant of wine and fruit. But if the wind arise at the rise of the sun, then it betokeneth great dearth among beasts and cattle this year. But if the wind arise at the going down of the sun, then it signifieth death to come among kings and other great lords.”
The Planting of Saint Barbara's Grain
AQUAINT custom associated with the superstition relative to the foretelling of the coming harvest is to be found among the good people of Southern France. There, on Saint Barbara's Day, the fourth of December, every devout housewife fills two plates with grains of wheat and pours enough water upon them to cause them to float. She then places them in the warm ashes of the fireplace or on a sunny window-ledge. This is called the planting of the blessed Saint Barbara's grain. The water and the warmth cause the wheat to sprout by Christmastime, and the anxious watchers are then able to tell what the harvest of the ensuing year will be; for as Saint Barbara's grain grows well or ill, so will the harvest be good or bad. And in symbolization of the life that has come into the world these plates with their tiny sprouts of green are placed in the centre of the table on Christmas Day when the festal meal is served.
The Original Halcyon Days were at Christmastime
THE days at Christmastime are the original “Halcyon Days.” They were so called because the halcyon, an ancient name for the kingfisher, was fabled to build its nest upon the waters at this season of the year. It was popularly believed that this bird, through the influence of the holy season, had the power of charming the winds and waves, so that the weather was then calm and peaceful and enabled the halcyon to lay its eggs within its floating nest and brood upon them in perfect safety.
In olden days the faith of men declared that all Nature testified in various ways to a recognition of the great event commemorated in the celebration of Christmas. The winds and seas, as well as the animals and the plants and all other living things, gave evidence of an innate knowledge of the advent of this glorious anniversary and became imbued with the prevailing spirit of joy and peace and adoration.
Tradition says that at the moment of Christ's birth a universal peace reigned throughout the earth and heavens; that a profound silence rested upon the world; that the birds stopped in their flight, the cattle ceased to feed, and men became motionless with sudden awe in the midst of their labors, and that the stars glittered with added lustre, and the sun twice bounded for joy.
From this tradition came the superstitions of the Middle Ages relating to the miraculous phenomena supposed to occur each year at Christmastime, and many of which, surviving through the centuries, still find devout acceptance among lowly followers of Christ.
Whatever may be our attitude toward these Christmas-born legends and superstitions, we know that there comes upon the world at this jubilant season a spirit of peace and of good will, a spirit of poesy and of romance, unknown and unfelt at any other time, and which lends a reasonableness and a glamour to these enduring superstitions which we are loath to disturb by any reference to logic or science. For these are the Halcyon Days, and all that is, is good; and our hearts become as those of little children, unquestioning the joy and the faith inspired by this holiest of all seasons.
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