Friday, March 30, 2018

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Hot Cross Buns, Easter Eggs and the Easter Bunny

The reason we associate Easter with east or sunrise is because the name came from Eostre the Anglo-Saxon goddess of dawn. Easter was the celebration of Spring and the beginning of the growing season. Followers of Eostre sacrificed oxen in her honour and baked buns with horns decorating the top. Small loaves on leavened bread scored with a cross were known to be found in ancient Egyptian tombs. The cross appears to have had no symbolic significance, or at least if it did, it has been lost in time.

It was also recorded the time of Easter in ancient Rome coincided with a festival to the worship of Mutunus Tutunus. During this festival people ate phallus shaped bread but the early Christians felt symbolism more associated with Christ would be better and the phallus was replaced with the Cross. This is thought to be a credible origin of today’s pastries. No one can be sure of the origin of the word bun but many believe it comes from the Old French word ‘bugne’, meaning, and “a swelling caused by a blow” The same origins for the word bunion. The word bun made its appearance in the English language about 1370.

Hot cross buns were known in the 18th century and referred to in Poor Robin’s Almanac for 1733. The first recorded mention was a street cry common to bakers.

The cry became children’s rhyme
“Hot cross-buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross-buns!
If you have no daughters,
Pray give them to your sons!
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny would imply there were two types of bun on sale.

To Pagans, the rabbit and hare were symbols of life and fertility because there was a plentiful source of food. During the spring months both became a focal reminder of procreation. By the 1600s the rabbit had become more associated with Easter festivities and was a custom known and practiced in Germany. Until the 18th century the term ‘cony’ (Pronounced cunny) was used to describe adult rabbits, and rabbit was the preferred name for young rabbits. “Cunny” was also an Old English colloquialism for female genitalia and so cunny had to become bunny, hence the Easter Bunny.

The first edible Easter Bunnies were made in Germany during the early 1800s and were made of pastry and sugar. The Easter Bunny was introduced to America in the 1700s by the German settlers to Pennsylvania Dutch country. The Easter Bunny or Osterhase (pronounced in the dialect of the region Oschter Haws) was a major figure in the calendar of children and his arrival on the day before Easter would equate to the arrival of Christkindl (Kris Kindle) on Christmas Eve. Many of the old myths were described in the writings of fairy tales which became very popular in the 19th century.

In legend, the Easter Bunny brought baskets full of coloured eggs to the homes of good children on the night before Easter. The Easter Bunny would either put the baskets in a designated place or hide them somewhere in the house for the children to find when they wake up in the morning. As a variation children started to build nest for the magical birds that laid the eggs. The children used their hats and bonnets and the nest were usually in out of the way places on the farm. Fearing the loss of expensive clothing the frugal parents sought out the nests and filled them with coloured eggs. Somehow the roles were reversed and parents hid the eggs so as the children would take pleasure in finding them.

As the custom spread throughout the 18th century the nests became Easter Baskets. There does not appear to be any attempt to infer the rabbits laid the eggs but the symbolic combination of eggs for fertility; and rabbits for procreation were enough.

No one can be sure why the eggs had to be coloured but certain colours such as red and green were symbolic of life and growth respectively. Eggs were not eaten during Lent (the fast kept by devotees prior to Easter) so it may be eating brightly coloured eggs may have had some celebratory significance to Catholics. It has also been suggested endulging in egg eating throughout Lent may have been a Protestant preoccupation.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The origins and practice of hogmanay

Although the well known Scottish tradition of Hogmanay (originally a type of three cornered, biscuit) is celebrated on New Year's Eve, its origins are age old and grounded in Celtic culture. Despite the long association with the Scots, Hogmanay is not a Scottish custom but practiced, all over Europe. The following is a brief outline of Hogmanay, custom and practice.

Hogmanay was first recorded in 1604 in the Elgin Records as hagmonay (delatit to haue been singand hagmonayis on Satirday) and again in 1692 in an entry of the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, "It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New-years Eve, crying Hagmane." Etymology of hogmanay remains obscure and may arise from a French, Norse or a Goidelic (Insular Celtic) root.

The Festival of the Dead
In the old Celtic calendar, New Year fell on the 1st November and was called Samhain. This was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where spirits of the dead and those not yet born walked freely among the living. It was a time of plenty as the stocks were returned from the hills before the severe winter ahead and a great time for kinship as the hill dwellers came to the gathering. The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic and Hispanic world and lasts from Halloween to New Year.

Samhain was a time where darkness of night was thought to prevail over the lightness of day. Lun the Sun God was defeated by his darker side and became the Lord of Misrule. Good people needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Much of the sacred symbolism of Samhaimn can be found in the customs of Halloween and Hogmanay.

First Footing
In the New Year many cultures believed the first foot to cross the threshold brought the house good fortune for the coming year. "First footing" is an ancient custom and tradition demands the first person to pass the threshold must be a sonsy (trustworthy), a stranger of dark complexion and full head of hair, carry a lucky talisman. It was considered very unlucky to have a first fit who was a person with fair complexion. Suspicious people refuse to leave their home until they were first footed.

The Talisman
Bearing gifts echoes the 8th Century beliefs of the Vikings that good luck charms made the New Year a thriving one. Black bun (pastry covered rich current bun), and wassail (hot toddy) represent food and sustenance for the coming year. The coal symbolized good luck and prosperity.

Foot Arch
In the Isle of Man (UK) a good first footer was a man of good appearance and dark complexion with in-steps high enough to allow a mouse to run through. The significance of the arched foot remains unclear but early Christians believed men were made in the image of God and the Christian Foot had a perfect arch. Flat feet or splayed feet were considered the sign of evil and hence unlucky omens.

The Evil Foot
Functional feet were important to the early Christians as walking was the only means to spread the Gospel. Subsequently well formed feet became associated with joy and happiness. Literature abounds with reference to this. Prior to modern medicine illness and deformity were regarded as a form of demonic possession. Many contagious diseases of the time left deformities like flat feet.

After the Bells
First footing remains a strong tradition in rural areas. The modern interpretation is after hearing the Bells of the New Year ring, friends visit each other's homes sharing goodwill and treating them to intoxicating liquor. The Celts held alcohol in very high esteem and was an important part of ritual. In the past first footing had practical purpose to small communities which allowed everyone in the village to meet the New Year with good cheer and d more importantly be able to leave their abode after being first footed.

New Year’s Family Dinner
In Scotland families gather on Ner’day (New Year‘s Day) and feast like the traditional Christmas Day. This represents the modern “gathering of the clans.” Certain foods are thought to bring good fortune for the New Year. These include a thick and tasty bowl of Scotch broth: Steak pie and a Clootie dumpling (a sweet fruit pudding). It is not uncommon in Celtic tradition to have an extra place set at table for unexpected guests.

Auld Lang Syne
Auld Land Syne is a traditional air given lyrics by Robert Burns but this was not traditionally sang at Hogmanay until the 20th century after it was played at a New Year celebration in New York. The song and sentiment expressed was perfect for the occasion and have been associated ever since.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Who is Santa Clause and what has he to do with shoes?

Although Santa Claus in one form or other is a familiar figure to people all over the world, the weight advantaged, red suited, old man variety is of comparative recent origin. Giving gifts during the festive season however is an old and treasured custom. Modern Santa is a mixture of many historical and cultural traditions.

The most ancient Santa was St Nicholas of Myria. Born about 280 AD in Patara (now Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, merchants, wrongly accused, endangered travellers and farmers. One of his gracious deeds was to give gold to a poor man with three daughters. This meant the girls could have dowries and marry well. Because St Nicholas wanted to remain anonymous he threw three bags of gold down the chimney.

The gifts landed in the girls’ stockings and henceforth we hang up Christmas Stocking at Christmas Eve.

Modern Santa probably came from North America (via Holland) and is likely to be only 200 hundred years old. He first appeared in literature about 1822 in the famous children's poem

'T’was the night before Christmas, when all throughout the house, No a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...."

Written by Clement Clarke Moore for his children the poem introduced to many Americans the fictitious character, Sintaklass.

He was a Dutch mythical character with a friendly disposition. Many historians believe Santa came from a mispronunciation of Sintaklass. After pictures of Santa appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1863 the rest, as they say, is history.

In France, children lay out their shoes (traditionally sabots which were clogs) in the anticipation Pere (Papa) Noel (Father Christmas) who will fill them with lollies.

The legend is Pere Noel was so cold one Christmas Eve, to keep warm he burnt the clogs of a little girl and to compensate her left gifts.

In Belgium children get their presents on the 6th December i.e. St Nicholas Day and only small gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day.

In Spain Christmas was traditionally a religious festival and the Spanish still do not recognise Santa. Children do however look forward to gifts during this season. One Spanish tradition was for children to leave their shoes on the windowsill stuffed full of straw, carrots, and barley to feed the horse and donkeys of the Wise Men.

Balthazar is a welcome visitor for he is the Spanish Santa and on Christmas morning by children's shoes are filled with gifts. A similar ritual is observed in Portugal with the added tradition of setting an extra place at the table for the souls of the dead (Celtic tradition).

The Italian Santa is a woman, La Befansa and like her Russian counterpart, Babouschka depicts an old lady who did not offer help and food to the Wise Men on their journey to the baby Jesus. The women search in vein carrying gifts which they give to well behaved children. Naughty children get ashes in their stockings.

In Holland highly decorated clogs are traditionally given as Christmas gifts.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Festival of the Dead: Trick or Treat

The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic world and lasts from Halloween to New Year (Hogmanay). In the old Celtic calendar, New Year fell on the 1st November and was called Samhain. This was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where spirits of the dead and those not yet born walked freely among the living. It was a time associated with spirits and monsters on the prowl. Many ancient superstitions surrounding Samhain were concerned with the darkness and the evil it was thought to harbour.

The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic and Hispanic world and was traditonaly the time of plenty as the harvast was gathered and the stocks returned from the hills in preparation the severe winter ahead. This was a great time for kinship as the hill dwellers came to 'the gathering.'

Samhain was a time where the darkness of night was thought to prevail over the lightness of day. Lun the Sun God, was defeated by his darker side and became the Lord of Misrule. Good people needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Much of the sacred symbolism of Samhain can be found in the customs of Halloween and Hogmanay. Kissing under the mistletoe is thought to be an ancient Druid (Celtic) tradition. Drinking of wassail (alcohol) is another Celtic tradition. The Vikings used to slaughter a boar at Yule time in honour of the god, Freyr.

A common practice among medievil Christians was during certain celebration days to temporarily reverse order. During “All Hallows Eve,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints Day” for example, the faithful dressed up as saints, angels and demons. Children and poor adults at Hallowmas, went from door to door in disguise (guising) begging for food (soul cake). As they went from house to house they entertained (or mummed) and to ignore them was thought to bring bad luck. Children were likely to play tricks on the less charitable.It has been suggested modern 'trick-or-treating,' evolved from impersonating spirits, or the souls of the dead. A long held belief is souling dressing like the spirits or souls, by itself protects the guiser from evil doing.

"Guising" has long been a Scottish and Irish tradition from the 16th century. The children are only supposed to receive treats if they perform a party trick for the households they go to. In North America, trick-or-treating has been a Halloween tradition since the late 1920s.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Chinese Valentine's Day

The 28th August is Chinese Valentine’s Day or the Qiqiao Festival (乞巧節), and celebrates a fairy tale from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Qixi Festival always falls on the seventh day of the 7th month on the Chinese calendar and is sometimes called the Double Seventh Festival, or the Magpie Festival.

The original tales tells of two lovers, Zhinü a goddess renowned for her weaving skills and Niulang, a mortal cow herder and was first told in a classic poem 2.5 k years ago. When the young Zhinü came to Earth looking for adventure she met and fell madly in love with the cow herder and they got married and had two children. However, when her mother the Goddess of heaven, found out about what her seventh daughter had done , she was angry and stole Zhinü back. The lovers were heartbroken. Niulang vowed to reunite and when an old ox from his herd revealed to him he too was once a god and if Niulang killed him he could use his hide to make magical shoes to fly to heaven.

When the Goddess of heaven discovered his plan she used her hair pin to create a river of stars that would become the Milky Way to separate the two lovers. Their cries touched the magpies and thousands formed a bridge for the couple to walk over. Eventually, Zhinü 's mother relented and agreed to let the couple meet one night out of every year on Qi Xi, (the seventh night).

Qi Xi came to symbolize true love. During the festival, girls make a display of their domestic skills and needlework and will offer fruit, flowers, tea, and face powder to Zhinü on the night of the festival. In temples, girls recite traditional prayers for dexterity in needlework and to marry a good and loving husband. Children will also pick wild flowers to hang on an ox’s horns in memory of the cow-god who sacrificed himself. In some parts of China young girls hide in pumpkins farms or beneath grapevines, hoping to hear the whispers of Niulang and Zhinü in the hope it would help them find a boyfriend. Hair washing ceremonies in early morning dew are common in the belief the dew is the tears from the separated couple.

In Taiwan, people release floating lanterns into the sky to make wishes for love. The Qi Xi festival inspired Tanabata festival in Japan and the Chilseok festival in Korea.

Amor Vincit Omnia

Monday, June 5, 2017

Feet, shoes, and Superstitions: Wart cures: Old wives' tales

In the Dark Ages, verrucae or plantar warts caused by a viral infection came in for their fair or unfair share of alternative treatments. Why this is, is not particularly clear? However the life cycle of the virus, which cause warts, is reasonably short and under certain conditions can appear to vanish as if by magic. In times gone past when people looked for signs of good and bad physical appearance was important and skin blemishes such as warts were associated with the dark side and many witches reported to have them. It is unlikely however viral infections were influenced by occult worship and they would appear equally on the righteous as they did on those from the dark side. The populous were gullible however and always prepared to believe the incredible when simpler explanations suffice. This may well be why so much mystique surrounds the occult cure for warts. Physiological changes do arise from the psychological state and the belief in the power of spells, voodoo, magic or even the odd concoction of animal, vegetable or mineral applied to the skin made for credible means of removing warts. Remnants of which are now collectively known as Old Wives’ Tales. What follows is a collection of occult practice given in good faith and in the interests of historical interest. The contents should not be taken as health care advice. If you have verrucae then please consult your physician.

Most occult cures involved one or all of four factors i.e. touch, transference, repetitive behaviour, and nocturnal activities. Touching usually by rubbing vigorously the surface of the wart with a variety of solutions was common. Old rags were recommended and soaks included the juice of milkweed, radishes, marigold flower seeds, and limes. Dandelion sap, cinnamon powder, caster oil, potato peelings and even the water used to boil potatoes were all thought to cure warts. If that failed blood, spit or menses were also commonly used. Another innocent variation on the touching theme was to rub the wart with a wedding ring for three consecutive mornings. More macabrely the wart was rubbed with the skin of a black snail or dead corpse.

Transference usually involved touching the wart with something like plant seeds then putting them into the ground. Regional variations included grains of corn, beans, grapevines, and even rotten apples. Sometimes these had to be fed to livestock in order for the remedy to work. Alternatively the juice of raw or baked vegetables in ash were commonly smeared on the wart before being thrown away (usually over the head or left shoulder) and without watching where it fell. Onions or potatoes were used for this purpose too. Perhaps the most bazaar cures involved twisting a chicken's gizzard above the person’s head before throwing it backwards. An alternative to this to bury a dead cat in a graveyard in the dead of night after passing a crossroads. More commonly bacon was rubbed over the wart before burying it. Beans too were commonly thought to rid warts and some people buried them whilst others left them under the front doorstep to decay. As the matter decayed, the wart got better, or so the theory went. One other common practice was to pick the wart with a pin then stick it into an ash tree, reciting:

"Ashen tree, ashen tree, pray take away these warts from me."

The warts will then be transferred to the tree.

A common belief of our forbears was they could pass the wart onto someone or something else. This may relate to the times when illness was considered to be the possession of demons. Righteous people could rid themselves of ailments by giving up demons to sinners. In small communities strangers was frequently viewed as sinister interlopers. Many people thought by selling the wart to a stranger and keeping the money blemishes would miraculously disappear. One of the mildest transference cures was to place a pebble, previously rubbed over a wart, into a bag of pebbles then leave it at a crossroads. Who so ever picked up the bag would inherit the warts. Seems rather rough justice but for those who believe in the occult, a crossroad was a magical place and not always white magic. One cure for warts was to write a wish on a piece of paper, presumably relating to the end of suffering, then taking it to a crossroads before tearing it up and throwing it to the four winds. Another was to bury a bag at the crossroads containing the same number of stones as the person had warts. Complete eradication would follow.

Repetitive behaviour such as cutting notches in wood was at one time thought to clear up warts. Several versions appear in folklore. A small branch of a peach tree was cut the same number times as there were warts to cure. Placed in the ground where water dripped the branch decayed and as it did, the warts vanished. A variation was to cut tree bark and as they grow over, the warts disappeared. Cutting notches in a matchstick before burning it still thought in some parts to have the same efficacious effect. The belief that gently stabbing the wart with a needle (sterilised, of course) would caused it to disappear particularly when the needle was burnt. Stopping the blood supply by tying a silk thread or horses hair around the wart before burning it was also a common belief. Many of these rituals were considered more effective when undertaken in the dead of night. Finally an old wives tale was to touch each wart with chalk before inscribing a cross for each on the back of the fireplace. As the crosses became obscured by soot, the warts vanish.

Psychological states do influence skin physiology as random controlled experiments undertaken to compare hypnosis and auto suggestion have verified. People suffering from verrucae were divided into two groups for treatment. Some were hypnotised once per week for five weeks, and told their warts would disappear. After three months, six of the group had lost all their warts, and three more got rid of up to 75%. In the control group, where they were not hypnotised, not one patient lost a wart in the same time span. A similar experiment using tap water was undertaken and the population was divided into Catholic children and non-catholotic children. Each group were told the water was Holy Water and the clear-up rate in Catholic children was significantly higher than in the group of non-catholic children.

Now if you suffer from warts, or think you do, I would recommend you see your podiatrist or health care professional.

Rinzler CA 1979 The dictionary of medical folklore London: Magnum Books

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Feet, Shoes and Superstition : Even more factoids

At some time in our lives we are all guided by superstition. Whether we avoid walking under a ladder, take extra special care on Friday 13th, or use a lucky coin to play scratchy. All of us a prone to believe our future can be influenced by events and things that probably have no obvious bearing upon it. Belief in superstition gives people the idea that they can, to some degree, predict the future. Good or bad, seeing our destiny is obviously compelling and being able to avoid certain courses of action or conversely, by performing certain rituals seems a fair exchange. < br>

Some superstitions may have certain logic such as the obvious dangers of walking under a ladder with someone working overhead; others are less obvious like avoiding cutting your toenails on a Sunday. To believe in every superstition would be impossible so people tend to put store by the folklore they are familiar with. This is a possible reason why there are so many minor variations on common themes across the world.

On the whole feet and shoes are associated with good luck. Old shoes were often hidden in the roofs of medieval buildings for good luck. It was a common belief old shoes retained the character of their owners. One explanation of this belief is shoes in the Dark Ages were very expensive and it was a common practice to bequeath them to family members. This custom was thought to be where the phrase, "following in your father's footsteps" came from. A gift of shoes from loved ones was considered good fortune. So by extension leaving old shoes in buildings would also bring good luck.

Perhaps not so easily explained was the old Egyptian habit of inhaling the fumes from burning shoes to cure headaches. One explanation might be the shoes (sandals) were made from vegetable materials which contained natural salicylates. The smoke released these to the atmosphere and like aspirin offered an analgesic effect. In pre-Hellenic times people burnt their shoes to scare away evil spirits, perhaps in this case the unpleasant smell had the desired repellent effect.

The demon king seemingly does not like human things like smelly feet or bottoms burps. It was customary in days gone past to ward off evil spirits by either "farting loudly" or "mooning" (showing your bare bottom). The sight of female genitals was also thought to heal the sick or scare away storms and devils. Stone carvings of vaginas date back to 35,000 BC. These were carved in a round stone with three line indentations.

Later this took the form of a horseshoe which as everyone knows brings good luck when nailed upside down above a door. The symbolism of entering through door, I shall leave to your fertile imagination.

It is widely believed people with holes in the soles of their shoes would become wealthy. This refers to following in your father's footsteps. People in the Middle Ages believed it was proper to live within the station of society they were born into and thought it unnatural to move socially upward (or downwards). Holes in your shoes meant hard times now, but good fortune round the corner. An old Lancashire was "Clogs to clogs in three generations" Meaning no matter how the family rises from their humble station in life their offspring will be poor again within three generations.

In the past traveling carried with it many pearls and to avoid bad Karma or ill omens many people believed in rituals such as before setting out on a journey it was considered good luck to drop an old shoe outside your front door. Throwing shoes at someone who going on a journey was considered very good luck and today throwing confetti at weddings is thought to be a remnant of this custom. Journeys were viewed with great suspicion. If on a journey the path of travellers was crossed by a barefooted woman, then this was thought to be bad luck and could only be rectified by drawing blood from her forehead. To dissolve the spell meant a return to your abode, cross the threshold with the right foot, eat and drink then set out again. Meeting a barefooted woman on the way to a wedding was a particularly bad omen and likened to meeting a witch. An old greeting to the bride and groom is "a happy foot" and when traveling to the wedding it was customary for the bride to kiss fellow travellers. It was also the done custom for travellers met on the way to a wedding to join the party otherwise to continue of their original journey would bring bad luck to the couple.

Reviewed 2/03/2016