Friday, December 28, 2018

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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Victorian Christmas: Miniature Shoes

The Victorians were responsible popularising giving gifts on Christmas day. Traditionally gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day or Twelfth Night, but When Prince Albert and Queen Victoria made it a Christmas habit, the idea soon caught on with middle class.

Victorians would give miniature shoes as keepsakes and for good luck. Although this was started in the eighteenth century after a life-size print of the Duchess of York's shoe was published and polite society started to give porcelain shoes as gifts.

Later sentimental Victorians exchanged miniature shoes in leather, pottery, alabaster, silver and brass. Shoes became the symbol of contentment and prosperity and remain so to this day.

The nineteenth century custom of giving china and pottery miniatures of shoes and boots as good luck charms to friends and relations was often to mark important family occasions such as christenings, anniversaries and birthdays. At weddings from medieval times, the bride’s father passed the bride’s shoe to the groom to demonstrate all responsibility for his daughter's well being was now passed to his son-in -law.

Victorian Gentlemen might be given gifts such as gin flasks crafted in the shape of women's boots or papers knifes in the shape of high heeled shoes. Wooden snuffboxes in the shape of shoes were also very popular.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

This Christmas beware Julinissers and Kallikantzartoi

The famous elves which help Santa make and deliver the toys are the good elves but there are also some back fellows too. In Denmark, you need to take care to avoid the Julnissers at Christmas. During the rest of the year they live outside but during the winter festivities they sneak indoors to cause mayhem. Whilst Julinissers wear woollen clothes with red caps, and long red stockings and wooden clogs, they are not easy to spot. Sometimes only the family cat can see them.

At Christmas the Julnissers become practical jokers and do mischievous things like hide shoes, or blow out candles. To avoid their attentions, it is important to leave out a bowl of rice pudding and if they are kept happy, then the children of the house find the occasional treat or lost coin.

In Greece there are wicked elves called Kallikantzaroi. In order to keep them from causing trouble in the house a large log called a skakantzalos was burnt. This is the traditional Yule log. Sometimes Greeks burnt old shoes in the hope the smell would keep the wicked elves away. Greek children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas day were feared to be Kallikantzaroi, and as a precaution all newborns during the Christmas festival were bound in braids of garlic or straw and had their toenails singed .

It is a well held belief human smells ward-off evil attention and this may be one reason why our ancestors were reluctant to adopt washing more than once per year.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Where did the Christmas tree come from?

The origins of the Christmas tree come from Germany when St Boniface was converted to Christianity. After he came upon a group of Pagans worshipping at an oak tree, he cut it down and when a fir tree sprung up from the roots this was taken as a sign.

By the 16th century fir trees were brought into the home and it is reputed Martin Luther was the first person to decorate the tree with candles. Queen Victoria spent long holidays with her German relatives and always enjoyed the decorated tree. Later Prince Albert decorated the Buckingham Palace Christmas tree for Victoria and the children. The Royal couple were so popular loyal subjects took to the custom and every home had one.

Initially they were decorated with flags of the Empire but when Woolworth's offered coloured lights, these were used. German settlers are thought to have taken the decorated trees to North America when they emigrated. In the early 1800s, when the first lit tree was erected outside a church, many parishioners protested because they felt the action was pagan. By the late 19th century Christmas trees had gained in popularity. The introduction of electricity meant it was much safer to illuminate the tree. Soon ever town community council had civic displays, all trying to compete with each other.

Originally (musical) horns and bells were used to decorate the trees, the purpose of which was to frighten away evil spirits. Later these ornaments took on a Christian message i.e. heralding the birth of Christ. Originally in some parts of Europe fairy like figures were used on the trees, but later these became angels. The origins of tinsel relate to the time when Europeans let their animals into the house. This was done because the birth of Christ took place in a stable.

The story goes women did not want spiders in their homes, but when a spider spoke to the baby Jesus, he was allowed to go to the Christmas tree on the night before Christmas. By morning his web had turned to silver with the rising sun. A spider's web on the Christmas tree is thought to be a sign of good luck.

On Christmas Day children from the poorer families got an orange, a new penny, a piece of shortbread and a toffee in their stockings. Oranges were a symbol of St. Nicholas's gold, and in hard times like the Depression and during War Rationing, families had no means to buy gifts. Instead, it was such a treat, even a luxury, to find things like a sweet orange or some walnuts in your stocking on Christmas. The orange segments represent the ability to share what you have with others.

Christmas dinner consisted of chicken broth followed by potatoes, roasted in the garden or street bonfire. The families sang carols (songs of joy) and clapped their hands to keep warm. The custom started in England and most carols were written in the nineteenth century. These scenes were depicted graphically in the works of Charles Dickens’s.

Christmas crackers were an attempt to make a log shaped novelty similar to the Yule log. At first sugar almonds and love messages were placed on the table then when the 'snap' was invented, the now familiar cracker was introduced. Instantly these became popular with families and were used in all manner of celebrations. Later these became exclusive to Christmas.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The celebration of Modern Christmas : A brief history

In 1644, the English Puritans forbid any merriment or religious services by Act of Parliament. This was on the grounds that it was a heathen practice, and ordered Christmas to be kept as a fast. Charles II revived the feast, but the Scots adhered to the Puritan view and did not celebrate Christmas for several centuries. In the Scottish Highlands Christmas was just another day with faint echoes of bonfire ceremonies, more related to pagan sun worship than celebrating the birth of Christ. Twelfth Night, had more significance to the Scots until the English condensed the feast days into the family fun celebrations of Christmas and Boxing Day.

What we now recognise as a modern Christmas was actually invented in Victorian Times. One of the "traditions" in many of the aristocratic families at that time, including Queen Victoria, was to inverse the roles of master and servant during the twelve days of Christmas. Of all the Europeans to resist the temptations of the new Victorian festive season were the Scots. Because there was no reference to celebration of Christmas in the New Testament, then they refused to celebrate it. Many viewed the idea of Christmas as an attempt by the English to emulate Hogmanay. Others, like Charles Dickens, viewed it, as a time for Victorian ‘do good’ers’ to exercise charity to the less privileged.

The first official Christmas celebrated in Australia was Dec 25, 1788 at Sydney Cove. No Christmas cheer was shown to the prisoners on that day with the exception of Michael Dennison who had been sentenced to 200 lashes. In the spirit of the season the prisoner was given 150.

In the Colonies, Christmas was a time to link with their homes and families. Scottish tea planters in the east ate plum puddings and turkey dinners long before their relatives gave recognition to Christmas Day in Scotland.

The first Christmas tree was believed to have been put up in the eighteenth century by English monks. Lit candles and lamps helped return the light and warmth mid-winter and for the superstitious, chased away the spirits of darkness. A remnant of paganism is the lights, which decorate the Christmas tree. Christmas was called the Festival of Light in the Western or Latin Church. The Yule log was a Norse custom and burning of the yule was a celebration of the sun during the winter months.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

How old is the celebration of Christmas ?

The Babylonians (1750- 529 BC) celebrated renewal of the year and the same festivities were later adopted by the Persians (529BC - 637AD). Eventually this merged into ancient Roman culture. Called the Festival of Saturn one of the themes, thought to have started by the Persians, was to temporarily subvert social order during festivals. Subsequently masters and slaves exchanged places and the same practice was commonly seen throughout the Middle Ages during other festivals such as The Festival of Fools. In the Royal household of Queen Victoria this custom was observed throughout Christmas Day.

The 25th December was used by pagans to honour the harvest god, Saturn and Mithras, the god of light. Mithras worship took place in churches called grottos and may have given origin to Santa's Grotto. Pagans prepared special food, decorated their homes with greenery, and joined in singing and gift giving. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the celebrations and customs became part of the Christian way.

Christian Christmas Day has been celebrated on since 336 AD. At the beginning of Christianity days of celebration outnumbered the days in the year and it was only after the Reformation the holy colander was formulated and many of the original Holy days were lost. The most important of these retained was Christmas Day and was first thought to be celebrated by King Arthur in the city of York in AD 521. By the twelfth century Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe.

Although merriment and religious devotion were not associated in the early church, ultimately, they were incorporated due to political pressures. The obsolete feasts of antiquity were gradually adapted to the main events of the life of Christ. This was probably done to attract more followers. Most of the nativity scenes were painted in the 15 & 16th centuries and Christmas cards depicting them becoming popular only in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Christmas Superstitions: Shoes and feet

Celebrations at mid-winter predate Christian times by millennium and whilst Christmas became a Christian festival many of the original superstitions of pagan times are still observed. Four thousand years ago, Egyptians (3110- 30BC) celebrated the rebirth of the sun with a festival that lasted 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in the sun's calendar. Evergreens were cherished because they symbolised the season to come. Using palms with 12 shoots to represent a complete year they decorated their houses with greenery in a similar way to what we do now.

In Ancient Rome. people decorated their homes with greenery and the usual order of the year was suspended and grudges and quarrels forgotten. Wars were interrupted or temporarily set aside. and merriment of all kinds prevailed. These sentiments are very similar to the cheer promoted in the greeting of today's Christmas cards.

Yule logs were traditionally burnt during the winter festival and the ashes and embers were kept for good luck for the following year. It was a very bad omen if the Yuletide embers were touched by either a flat-footed woman or a cross eyed man. The Evil Eye is well documented in occult culture. Keeping Christmas cake or the remains of the Yule Log under the bed was also thought to help get rid of chilblains.

An old English saying was "If you do not give a new pair of shoes to a poor person at least once in your lifetime, you will go barefoot in the next world." This belief may be the reason why Christmas gifts were exchanged by the middle classes so as to avoid poverty. In any event many people gave presents to the poor and miniature shoes became popular gifts for good luck from the 18th century onwards. One reason why miniature shoe was given instead of the real thing might be because superstitious people believe if you give a friend a new pair of shoes then they were sure to walk away from you. Wearing new shoes on Christmas Day was also thought, by many, to bring bad luck.

The traditional Greece custom of burning old shoes during the Christmas season to prevent misfortunes in the coming year shares a rationale with the belief the shoe contains the spirit of the wearer and foul smells repel evil. It was not uncommon to inhale the flames of burning shoes in the belief it would cure respiratory conditions. However, this is not recommended today as shoes contain so many synthetic polymers potentially hazardous to health, when ignited.

(Video Courtesy: Eduardo Robles by Youtube Channel)