Christmas is a holiday steeped in superstition and folk belief. Almost every tradition we unthinkingly observe during the festive season has its roots in long-ago times, a fact we’re comfortably though vaguely aware of even though very few of us modern fellows have any idea of the whys of our symbols and rituals. We know to erect a Christmas tree, for instance, but we don’t know why we’re supposed to, other than it looks good in our living room and gives us a place to leave presents under. We know we’re supposed to kiss under mistletoe, but we don’t know why, and we harbor a vague sense of wanting to give something to carolers who come to our door, but offhand can’t think of any reason to other than ordinary hospitality.
We have to step far back into the past to locate the origins of many of our Christmas customs. In long-ago times when winter snows and cold cloaked the earth, people would again gather around central hearths. Though summer, spring, and fall brought a spreading out of a community, winter brought it back together, with communal feasting and living again becoming the norm. The dark months were cold and inhospitable months, best shared in the company of others within a circle of both physical and societal warmth.
People didn’t gather back together just because it was warm and cheery inside — they did so because it was cold and dangerous outside. The dark months were scary months, a time when everyone knew evil forces were lurking just out of sight. The winter solstice (December 21) was seen as an especially vulnerable time, with the fabric drawn between our world and the world of malicious spirits becoming rent, allowing the harmful ones to slip through to perhaps claim a victim or two. Though the bad things were around all winter, at this particular juncture, they were said to be out in force.
It became custom to hold a loud, cheery celebration at that time, in hope that the din would convince the lurking evil that there were just too many humans gathered in this one place to take on. Charms and rituals became part of the tradition surrounding this party as a further way of protecting loved ones from evil. Divination rituals further became worked into the fabric of things because the fragility of the curtain between the two worlds might allow for a glimpse from this side into the wonders of that which would be — chances were if those holes were letting evil spirits through, we might be able to peep back through them to see into their world and learn something from it.
The stage is now set for an understanding of our various Christmas customs and symbols from the vantage point of superstition.
Decking the Halls: Evergreens are symbolic of enduring and renewed life, which is why we decorate our homes with them at Christmastime. The fetching in of green branches is a magical rite to ensure the return of vegetation at winter’s end. Our modern day Christmas tree is the centerpiece of this belief.
Although these days when we think of decking the halls only Christmas trees, holly, and mistletoe come to mind, our ancestors decorated their homes with all those, plus ivy, rosemary, bay, laurel, and anything else that still showed green. Our choices have become standardized in a way theirs didn’t because we modern types observe the ritual without understanding what underpins it whereas our distant forefathers didn’t lose sight of the concept that a plant’s greenness was what counted.
By tradition, Christmas decorations should not be erected prior to Christmas Eve, lest this visible proof of anticipation of a festival anger capricious forces. Evergreens especially (and that includes your tree) should not be brought into the house before this time. Comfort should therefore be drawn from the knowledge that greedy merchants who put up their Christmas finery in early November daily court the malicious attentions of evil spirits.
Holly is celebrated in lore for its protective powers, being said to be especially effective against witches and lightning. The bush itself should be treated with great reverence, and lore is full of tales about those fool enough to cut down a holly bush or to use its leaves to clean out a chimney. Holly is seen as a masculine plant and ivy a feminine one, leading to them being united at Christmastime.
Care should be taken as to which sort of holly is brought into the house first on Christmas Day because who wears the pants in that home in the upcoming year will depend on that. Prickly holly indicates the man will hold sway, but the smooth sort guarantees the wife will reign. Prudent couples take care to bring both kinds in together to assure a balanced and harmonious home.
Like holly, mistletoe is presumed a powerful charm against witches and lightning. At times it’s also been said to be a cure for poison, epilepsy, barrenness, and whooping cough. Mistletoe is consequently left hanging in the home year-round, with the old, dried-out bit not taken down until another festive season has come and fresh mistletoe is hung to replace it.
Division exists between those who say mistletoe must not be brought into the house before New Year’s Eve and those who believe it must be part of the greenery brought in Christmas morn. What all agree on, however, is the custom of kissing under it. Traditionally, a man may take a kiss from a girl standing under the sprig, but only if he plucks a berry from the plant and presents it to her with each kiss. Once the berries are gone, so’s the kissing.
The berry-plucking aspect of the tradition may have something to do with mistletoe’s rumored powers in matters of conception. Ladies looking to conceive are advised to carry a sprig of mistletoe with them. Perhaps then, the swain who kisses and then presents a berry from this plant to his lady-love is symbolically offering to get her with child.
One mistletoe love charm ritual tends to bear that theory out: The bussed lass takes the berry and a leaf from the sprig to her room, swallows the berry, pricks the initials of the man she longs for in the leaf, and sews the leaf into her corset where it will rest near her heart and thus bind his love to her for as long the leaf remains. (Not that swallowing a mistletoe berry would be all that good an idea, love charm or not, as the plant is poisonous.)
Mistletoe and husband divination also go hand in hand, with unmarried women told to swipe sprigs of the plant from church decorations, and hide them in their pillows to bring on dreams of their future husbands. Unmarried girls would also supervise the burning of old mistletoe to see how it went — steady flames were good signs, but spluttering ones foretold cross and bad-tempered husbands.
Ivy, oddly enough, is usually considered a bad luck magnet when brought into a home. (Growing on the sides of a house is just fine though; it’s then considered protective.) According to superstition, ivy should never be brought as a gift to anyone ill, and of course all ivy must be removed from the home of anyone under the weather. During the holiday season, however, holly and ivy are “reunited” under one roof as male and female are symbolically brought together again. Perhaps holly’s power counteracts ivy’s influence.
Ivy’s ill health aspects come into play in the prognostication rites associated with it. An ivy leaf left in a bowl of water on New Year’s Eve will on Twelfth Night Eve reveal the state of the questioner’s upcoming year. If the ivy is still fresh and green, a good year is expected. But woe to the questioner if black spots appear on the sprig — they signify ill health, possibly even death!
The preponderance of superstition says holly, ivy, and the Christmas tree itself should be disposed of by burning. (Custom in some areas runs the other way, strongly insisting these decorations at all costs not be set on fire.) Some say the ritual burning should take place on Candlemas Eve (1 February), others on Twelfth Night or the day following it, and still others say the dried out evergreens should be used in the Shrove Tuesday fire to help the pancakes along. In yet other areas, the greenery — especially the ivy — are to be fed to the cattle.
However they are disposed of, disposed of they must be, lest a death in the family be risked. Some say for every dropped pine needle left in the house after the tree is gone a goblin you will encounter. For others the belief runs even stronger, with a forgotten needle or berry in someone’s house or church pew presaging the death of that person within the year.
Evergreens brought home from the church are said to be especially lucky, and should be hung in the house and remain up all year to bring good fortune.
Fire and Light: Tradition and rituals surrounding the Yule log are so numerous that we deemed the subject merited its own page. In a nutshell, the log must not be bought and must be kept burning all night.
Christmas candles are similarly to be left burning until Christmas morning and should rest undisturbed from time of lighting until they are snuffed.
Look to the shadows cast by those gathered round the fire on Christmas night — if any of these shades appears to lack a head, that person will die within the year.
Difficulty lighting the fire on Christmas Day is particularly unwelcome as this presages a bad year ahead.
Food: Christmas cakes were usually eaten on Christmas Eve in the 19th century, though it was deemed most unlucky to cut into one (or any Christmas foodstuff) before that day dawned. A portion also had to be preserved until Christmas Day itself — it wouldn’t at all do to wolf the whole thing down.
As many mince pies as you sample at different houses during the festive season, so you will have happy months in the year to come. Mince pies must not be cut, however, lest you “cut your luck.” None must be eaten before Christmas Eve nor after Twelfth Night.
If Christmas pudding is on the menu, then all present must take part in stirring it if the household is to prosper. Traditionally, one has to stir the mixture at least three times, seeing the bottom of the pot each time. Even tiny babies take their turn, with parents guiding a little one’s hand on the spoon. Unmarried girls who forget to give the pudding its requisite stirs might as well forget about finding husbands in the upcoming year.
It’s customary to make a wish while stirring the pudding. In common with those made on stars, such wishes are kept secret until they come true; to speak them to anyone else is to jinx them. Into the pudding are dropped a silver coin, a thimble, and a ring. He who is served the coin finds luck, he who retrieves the thimble brings himself prosperity, and he who comes up with the ring hastens a wedding in his family (perhaps even his own).
Those interested in divination might try their hand at making a dumb cake at midnight on Christmas Eve. Prepared in complete silence by one or more, this concoction of flour, water, eggs, and salt is placed on the hearthstone with the upper surface of the cake pricked with the initials of one of those present. Provided the silence is unbroken, the future partner of the person indicated on the cake will appear and similarly prick his or her initials onto the cake. In some regions it is instead stipulated that a petitioner must walk backwards to her bed after eating the cooked cake, there to dream of her future spouse.
Letting Christmas In: The doors of a home used to be flung open at midnight on Christmas Eve to let out any trapped evil spirits. A Christmas candle was customarily left burning in the window all night to guarantee the household’s good luck in the coming year. (That candle going out while everyone slept was deemed a terribly bad sign.)
The first member of the household to open the door on Christmas morning might well shout, “Welcome, Old Father Christmas!” to the empty street. In other homes, one might be expected to sweep the threshold with a broom to clear it of “trouble.”
Particularly good fortune will attach to the household if the first visitor that day happens to be a dark-haired man. In common with New Year’s “first foot” beliefs, the arrival of a red-haired man is a bad omen, and it’s utter catastrophe if the first foot is a woman. Though under some circumstances a red-haired man might be allowed to serve as the first foot (it’s getting dark and no one else has come), one bars the door against a woman.
First foots (also known as “lucky birds,” “lucky bods,” or “first comers”) who bring evergreens (especially holly) or coal are prized for their thoughtfulness. When the first foot is a man, he should be welcomed with a drink and perhaps a bite to eat. A boy, however, should be given a coin or two. First foots often kiss all the women in the house.
Caroling: It is hugely unlucky to send carolers away empty-handed, no matter how badly they sing. One might be a king in disguise, after all. Offer food, a drink, or a bit of money.
Singing carols at any time other than during the festive season is unlucky.
Contrary to what has come to be popular belief, wassailing has nothing to do with singing carols at people’s houses and then getting drunk with the home’s occupants. Wassailing is the custom of honoring one’s livestock and crops during the Christmas season in hope that this salute will increase yield in the coming year. Toasts are drunk to corn, cows, and fruit trees. Celebratory fires are lit in fields and cider drunk in barns and orchards while men shoot guns into the air to scare off evil spirits. A plum pudding might well be stuck on a cow’s horn and the beast frightened into running until it tosses the pudding; if the pudding falls forward, a good harvest is predicted, but if it falls backwards, the harvest will be poor.
In parts of Scotland, the sea is similarly honored, with ale poured into the waves in hope this would entice the deep to yield up her fishes in the coming year.
Presents: Stockings are hung by the chimney in remembrance of the largesse of St. Nicholas. Moved by compassion for the plight of three sisters, he was said to have tossed three coins down the chimney of their home. Each coin fell neatly into stockings left drying by the hearth. We therefore leave our stocking out in hopes that a similar bit of good fortune will befall us.
Animals: Farm animals are said to kneel in homage to Christ at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve at which time they are momentarily blessed with the power of speech. Other versions of this belief limit the gift of gab to cats. Woe to any human who overhears their conversation though — such eavesdropping is fatal!
Dogs that howl on Christmas Eve are fated to go mad before the end of the year. Many otherwise healthy animals were formerly destroyed on these grounds.
Work: It is extremely unlucky to toil at tasks other than those that must be done (such as feeding livestock) on Christmas Day. This day is deemed too holy to be despoiled with ordinary work.
Born on Christmas Day: Those born on this auspicious day will never encounter a ghost, nor will they have anything to fear from spirits. They’re also protected against from death by drowning or hanging, making a career of piracy on the high seas an attractive choice.