Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
St. Clement's Day Quests and Processions—St. Catherine's Day as Spinsters Festival—St. Andrew's Eve Auguries—The Klöpfelnächte—St. Nicholas's Day, the Saint as Gift-bringer, and his Attendants—Election of the Boy Bishop—St. Nicholas's Day at Bari—St. Lucia's Day in Sweden, Sicily, and Central Europe—St. Thomas's Day as School Festival—Its Uncanny Eve—“Going a-Thomassin.”
The next folk-feast after Martinmas is St. Clement's Day, November 23, once reckoned the first day of winter in England. 9-1 It marks apparently one of the stages in the progress of the winter feast towards its present solstitial date. In England some interesting popular customs existed on this day. In Staffordshire children used to go round to the village houses begging for gifts, with rhymes resembling in many ways the “souling” verses I have already quoted. Here is one of the Staffordshire “clemencing” songs:—
In Worcestershire on St. Clement's Day the boys chanted similar rhymes, and at the close of their collection they would roast the apples received and throw them into ale or cider. 9-3 In the north of England men used to go about begging drink, and at Ripon Minster the choristers went round the church offering everyone a rosy apple with a sprig of box on it. 9-4 The Cambridge bakers held their annual supper on this day, 9-5 at Tenby the fishermen were given a supper, 9-6 while the blacksmiths apprentices at Woolwich had a remarkable ceremony, akin perhaps to the Boy Bishop customs. One of their number was chosen to play the part of “Old Clem,” was attired in a great coat, and wore a mask, a long white beard, and an oakum wig. Seated in a large wooden chair, and surrounded by attendants bearing banners, torches, and weapons, he was borne about the town on the shoulders of six men, visiting numerous public-houses and the blacksmiths and officers of the dockyard. Before him he had a wooden anvil, and in his hands a pair of tongs and a wooden hammer, the insignia of the blacksmith's trade. 9-7
November 25 is St. Catherine's Day, and at Woolwich Arsenal a similar ceremony was then performed: a man was dressed in female attire, with a large wheel by his side to represent the saint, and was taken round the town 9-8 in a wooden chair. At Chatham there was a torchlight procession on St. Catherine's Day, and a woman in white muslin with a gilt crown was carried about in a chair. She was said to represent not the saint, but Queen Catherine. 9-9
p. 213 St. Catherine's Day was formerly a festival for the lacemakers of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, and Bedfordshire. She was the patroness of spinsters in the literal as well as the modern sense of the word, and at Peterborough the workhouse girls used to go in procession round the city on her day, dressed in white with coloured ribbons; the tallest was chosen as Queen and bore a crown and sceptre. As they went to beg money of the chief inhabitants they sang a quaint ballad which begins thus:—
We may perhaps see in this Saint or Queen Catherine a female counterpart of the Boy Bishop, who began his career on St. Nicholas's Day. Catherine, it must be remembered, is the patron saint of girls as Nicholas is of boys. In Belgium her day is still a festival for the “young person” both in schools and in families. 9-11 Even in modern Paris the dressmaker-girls celebrate it, and in a very charming way, too.
“At midday the girls of every workroom present little mob-caps trimmed with yellow ribbons to those of their number who are over twenty-five and still unmarried. Then they themselves put on becoming little caps with yellow flowers and yellow ribbons and a sprig of orange blossom on them, and out they go arm-in-arm to parade the streets and collect a tribute of flowers from every man they meet.... Instead of working all the afternoon, the midinettes entertain all their friends (no men admitted, though, for it is the day of St. Catherine) to concerts and even to dramatic performances in the workrooms, where the work-tables are turned into stages, and the employers provide supper.” 9-12
The last day of November is the feast of St. Andrew. Of English customs on this day the most interesting perhaps are those connected with the “Tander” or “Tandrew” merrymakings p. 214 of the Northamptonshire lacemakers. A day of general licence used to end in masquerading. Women went about in male attire and men and boys in female dress. 9-13 In Kent and Sussex squirrel-hunting was practised on this day 9-14 —a survival apparently of some old sacrificial custom comparable with the hunting of the wren at Christmas (see XII).
In Germany St. Andrew's Eve is a great occasion for prognostications of the future. Indeed, like Hallowe'en in Great Britain, Andreasabend in Germany seems to have preserved the customs of augury connected with the old November New Year festival. 9-15 To a large extent the practices are performed by girls anxious to know what sort of husband they will get. Many and various are the methods.
Sometimes it suffices to repeat some such rhyme as the following before going to sleep, and the future husband will appear in a dream:—
Again, at nightfall let a girl shut herself up naked in her bedroom, take two beakers, and into one pour clear water, into the other wine. These let her place on the table, which is to be covered with white, and let the following words be said:—
This done, the form of the future husband will enter and drink p. 215 of one of the cups. If he is poor, he will take the water; if rich, the wine. 9-17
One of the most common practices is to pour molten lead or tin through a key into cold water, and to discover the calling of the future husband by the form it takes, which will represent the tools of his trade. The white of an egg is sometimes used for the same purpose. 9-18 Another very widespread custom is to put nutshells to float on water with little candles burning in them. There are twice as many shells as there are girls present; each girl has her shell, and to the others the names of possible suitors are given. The man and the girl whose shells come together will marry one another. Sometimes the same method is practised with little cups of silver foil. 9-19
On the border of Saxony and Bohemia, a maiden who wishes to know the bodily build of her future husband goes in the darkness to a stack of wood and draws out a piece. If the wood is smooth and straight the man will be slim and well built; if it is crooked, or knotted, he will be ill-developed or even a hunchback. 9-20
These are but a few of the many ways in which girls seek to peer into the future and learn something about the most important event in their lives. Far less numerous, but not altogether absent on this night, are other kinds of prognostication. A person, for instance, who wishes to know whether he will die in the coming year, must on St. Andrew's Eve before going to bed make on the table a little pointed heap of flour. If by the morning it has fallen asunder, the maker will die. 9-21
The association of St. Andrew's Eve with the foreseeing of the future is not confined to the German race; it is found also on Slavonic and Roumanian ground. In Croatia he who fasts then will behold his future wife in a dream, 9-22 and among the Roumanians mothers anxious about their children's luck break small sprays from fruit-trees, bind them together in bunches, one for each child, and put them in a glass of water. The branch of the lucky one will blossom. 9-23
In Roumania St. Andrew's Eve is a creepy time, for on it vampires are supposed to rise from their graves, and with coffins p. 216 on their heads walk about the houses in which they once lived. Before nightfall every woman takes some garlic and anoints with it the door locks and window casements; this will keep away the vampires. At the cross-roads there is a great fight of these loathsome beings until the first cock crows; and not only the dead take part in this, but also some living men who are vampires from their birth. Sometimes it is only the souls of these living vampires that join in the fight; the soul comes out through the mouth in the form of a bluish flame, takes the shape of an animal, and runs to the crossway. If the body meanwhile is moved from its place the person dies, for the soul cannot find its way back. 9-24
St. Andrew's Day is sometimes the last, sometimes the first important festival of the western Church's year. It is regarded in parts of Germany as the beginning of winter, as witness the saying:—
The nights are now almost at their longest, and as November passes away, giving place to the last month of the year, Christmas is felt to be near at hand.
In northern Bohemia it is customary for peasant girls to keep for themselves all the yarn they spin on St. Andrew's Eve, and the Hausfrau gives them also some flax and a little money. With this they buy coffee and other refreshments for the lads who come to visit the parlours where in the long winter evenings the women sit spinning. These evenings, when many gather together in a brightly lighted room and sing songs and tell stories while they spin, are cheerful enough, and spice is added by the visits of the village lads, who in some places come to see the girls home. 9-26
On the Thursday nights in Advent it is customary in southern Germany for children or grown-up people to go from house p. 217 to house, singing hymns and knocking on the doors with rods or little hammers, or throwing peas, lentils, and the like against the windows. Hence these evenings have gained the name of Klöpfel or Knöpflinsnächte (Knocking Nights). 9-27 The practice is described by Naogeorgus in the sixteenth century:—
With it may be compared the Macedonian custom for village boys to go in parties at nightfall on Christmas Eve, knocking at the cottage doors with sticks, shouting Kolianda! Kolianda! and receiving presents, 9-29 and also one in vogue in Holland between Christmas and the Epiphany. There “the children go out in couples, each boy carrying an earthenware pot, over which a bladder is stretched, with a piece of stick tied in the middle. When this stick is twirled about, a not very melodious grumbling sound proceeds from the contrivance, which is known by the name of Rommelpot. By going about in this manner the children are able to collect some few pence.” 9-30
Can such practices have originated in attempts to drive out evil spirits from the houses by noise? Similar methods are used for that purpose by various European and other peoples. 9-31 Anyhow something mysterious hangs about the Klöpfelnächte. They are occasions for girls to learn about their future husbands, and upon them in Swabia goes about Pelzmärte, whom we already know. 9-32
p. 218 In Tyrol curious mummeries are then performed. At Pillersee in the Lower Innthal two youths combine to form a mimic ass, upon which a third rides, and they are followed by a motley train. The ass falls sick and has to be cured by a “vet,” and all kinds of satirical jokes are made about things that have happened in the parish during the year. Elsewhere two men dress up in straw as husband and wife, and go out with a masked company. The pair wrangle with one another and carry on a play of wits with the peasants whose house they are visiting. Sometimes the satire is so cutting that permanent enmities ensue, and for this reason the practice is gradually being dropped. 9-33
On December 6 we reach the most distinctive children's festival of the whole year, St. Nicholas's Day. In England it has gone out of mind, and in the flat north of Germany Protestantism has largely rooted it out, as savouring too much of saint-worship, and transferred its festivities to the more Evangelical season of Christmas. 9-34 In western and southern Germany, however, and in Austria, Switzerland, and the Low Countries, it is still a day of joy for children, though in some regions even there its radiance tends to pale before the greater glory of the Christmas-tree.
It is not easy either to get at the historic facts about St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, or to ascertain why he became the patron saint of boys. The legends of his infant piety and his later wondrous works for the benefit of young people may either have given rise, or be themselves due to, his connection with children. 9-35 In eastern Europe and southern Italy he is above all things the saint of seafaring men, and among the Greeks his cult has perhaps replaced that of Artemis as a sea divinity. 9-36 This aspect of him does not, however, appear in the German festival customs with which we are here chiefly concerned.
It has already been hinted that in some respects St. Nicholas is a duplicate of St. Martin. His feast, indeed, is probably a later beginning-of-winter festival, dating from the period when p. 219 improved methods of agriculture and other causes made early December, rather than mid-November, the time for the great annual slaughter and its attendant rejoicings. Like St. Martin he brings sweet things for the good children and rods for the bad.
St. Nicholas's Eve is a time of festive stir in Holland and Belgium; the shops are full of pleasant little gifts: many-shaped biscuits, gilt gingerbreads, sometimes representing the saint, sugar images, toys, and other trifles. In many places, when evening comes on, people dress up as St. Nicholas, with mitre and pastoral staff, enquire about the behaviour of the children, and if it has been good pronounce a benediction and promise them a reward next morning. Before they go to bed the children put out their shoes, with hay, straw, or a carrot in them for the saint's white horse or ass. When they wake in the morning, if they have been “good” the fodder is gone and sweet things or toys are in its place; if they have misbehaved themselves the provender is untouched and no gift but a rod is there. 9-37
In various parts of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria St. Nicholas is mimed by a man dressed up as a bishop. 9-38 In Tyrol children pray to the saint on his Eve and leave out hay for his white horse and a glass of schnaps for his servant. And he comes in all the splendour of a church-image, a reverend grey-haired figure with flowing beard, gold-broidered cope, glittering mitre, and pastoral staff. Children who know their catechism are rewarded with sweet things out of the basket carried by his servant; those who cannot answer are reproved, and St. Nicholas points to a terrible form that stands behind him with a rod—the hideous Klaubauf, a shaggy monster with horns, black face, fiery eyes, long red tongue, and chains that clank as he moves. 9-39
In Lower Austria the saint is followed by a similar figure called Krampus or Grampus; 9-40 in Styria this horrible attendant is named Bartel; 9-41 all are no doubt related to such monsters as the Klapperbock (see VII). Their heathen origin is evident though it is difficult to trace their exact pedigree. Sometimes St. Nicholas himself appears in a non-churchly form like Pelzmärte, with a bell, 9-42 or with a sack of ashes which gains him the name of Aschenklas. 9-43
p. 220 Not only by hideous figures is St. Nicholas attended. Sometimes, as at Warnsdorf near Rumburg, there come with him the forms of Christ Himself, St. Peter, an angel, and the famous Knecht Ruprecht, whom we shall meet again on Christmas Eve. They are represented by children, and a little drama is performed, one personage coming in after the other and calling for the next in the manner of the English mummers play. St. Nicholas, St. Peter, and Ruprecht accuse the children of all kinds of naughtiness, the “Heiliger Christ” intercedes and at last throws nuts down and receives money from the parents. 9-44 In Tyrol there are St. Nicholas plays of a more comic nature, performed publicly by large companies of players and introducing a number of humorous characters and much rude popular wit. 9-45
Sometimes a female bogey used to appear: Budelfrau in Lower Austria, Berchtel in Swabia, Buzebergt in the neighbourhood of Augsburg. 9-46 The last two are plainly variants of Berchte, who is specially connected with the Epiphany. Berchtel used to punish the naughty children with a rod, and reward the good with nuts and apples; Buzebergt wore black rags, had her face blackened and her hair hanging unkempt, and carried a pot of starch which she smeared upon people's faces. 9-47
As Santa Klaus St. Nicholas is of course known to every English child, but rather as a sort of incarnation of Christmas than as a saint with a day of his own. Santa Klaus, probably, has come to us viâ the United States, whither the Dutch took him, and where he has still immense popularity.
In the Middle Ages in England as elsewhere the Eve of St. Nicholas was a day of great excitement for boys. It was then that the small choristers and servers in cathedral and other churches generally elected their “Boy Bishop” or “Nicholas.” 9-48 He had in some places to officiate at First Vespers and at the services on the festival itself. As a rule, however, the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, was probably the most important day in the Boy Bishop's career, and we may therefore postpone our consideration of him. We will here only note his connection with the festival of the patron saint of boys, a connection perhaps implying a common origin for him and p. 221 for the St. Nicholases who in bishops vestments make their present-giving rounds.
The festival of St. Nicholas is naturally celebrated with most splendour at the place where his body lies, the seaport of Bari in south-eastern Italy. The holy bones are preserved in a sepulchre beneath a crypt of rich Saracenic architecture, above which rises a magnificent church. Legend relates that in the eleventh century they were stolen by certain merchants of Bari from the saint's own cathedral at Myra in Asia Minor. The tomb of St. Nicholas is a famous centre for pilgrimages, and on the 6th of December many thousands of the faithful, bearing staves bound with olive and pine, visit it. An interesting ceremony on the festival is the taking of the saint's image out to sea by the sailors of the port. They return with it at nightfall, and a great procession escorts it back to the cathedral with torches and fireworks and chanting. 9-49 Here may be seen the other, the seafaring, aspect of St. Nicholas; by this mariners cult we are taken far away from the present-giving saint who delights the small children of the North.
The only folk-festivals of note between St. Nicholas's Day and Christmas are those of St. Lucia (December 13) and St. Thomas the Apostle (December 21).
In Sweden St. Lucia's Day was formerly marked by some interesting practices. It was, so to speak, the entrance to the Christmas festival, and was called “little Yule.” 9-50 At the first cock-crow, between 1 and 4 a.m., the prettiest girl in the house used to go among the sleeping folk, dressed in a white robe, a red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs and having nine lighted candles fastened in it. She awakened the sleepers and regaled them with a sweet drink or with coffee, 94 sang a special song, and was named “Lussi” or “Lussibruden” (Lucy bride). When everyone was dressed, breakfast was taken, the room being lighted by many candles. The domestic animals p. 222 were not forgotten on this day, but were given special portions. A peculiar feature of the Swedish custom is the presence of lights on Lussi's crown. Lights indeed are the special mark of the festival; it was customary to shoot and fish on St. Lucy's Day by torchlight, the parlours, as has been said, were brilliantly illuminated in the early morning, in West Gothland Lussi went round the village preceded by torchbearers, and in one parish she was represented by a cow with a crown of lights on her head. In schools the day was celebrated with illuminations. 9-51
What is the explanation of this feast of lights? There is nothing in the legend of the saint to account for it; her name, however, at once suggests lux—light. It is possible, as Dr. Feilberg supposes, that the name gave rise to the special use of lights among the Latin-learned monks who brought Christianity to Sweden, and that the custom spread from them to the common people. A peculiar fitness would be found in it because St. Lucia's Day according to the Old Style was the shortest day of the year, the turning-point of the sun's light. 9-52
In Sicily also St. Lucia's festival is a feast of lights. After sunset on the Eve a long procession of men, lads, and children, each flourishing a thick bunch of long straws all afire, rushes wildly down the streets of the mountain village of Montedoro, as if fleeing from some danger, and shouting hoarsely. “The darkness of the night,” says an eye-witness, “was lighted up by this savage procession of dancing, flaming torches, whilst bonfires in all the side streets gave the illusion that the whole village was burning.” At the end of the procession came the image of Santa Lucia, holding a dish which contained her eyes. 95 In the midst of the piazza a great mountain of straw had been prepared; on this everyone threw his own burning torch, and the saint was placed in a spot from which she could survey the vast bonfire. 9-53
In central Europe we see St. Lucia in other aspects. In the Böhmerwald she goes round the village in the form of a nanny-goat with horns, gives fruit to the good children, and threatens to rip open the belly of the naughty. Here she is evidently related p. 223 to the pagan monsters already described. In Tyrol she plays a more graceful part: she brings presents for girls, an office which St. Nicholas is there supposed to perform for boys only. 9-55
In Lower Austria St. Lucia's Eve is a time when special danger from witchcraft is feared and must be averted by prayer and incense. A procession is made through each house to cense every room. On this evening, too, girls are afraid to spin lest in the morning they should find their distaffs twisted, the threads broken, and the yarn in confusion. (We shall meet with like superstitions during the Twelve Nights.) At midnight the girls practise a strange ceremony: they go to a willow-bordered brook, cut the bark of a tree partly away, without detaching it, make with a knife a cross on the inner side of the cut bark, moisten it with water, and carefully close up the opening. On New Year's Day the cutting is opened, and the future is augured from the markings found. The lads, on the other hand, look out at midnight for a mysterious light, the Luzieschein, the forms of which indicate coming events. 9-56
In Denmark, too, St. Lucia's Eve is a time for seeing the future. Here is a prayer of Danish maids: “Sweet St. Lucy let me know: whose cloth I shall lay, whose bed I shall make, whose child I shall bear, whose darling I shall be, whose arms I shall sleep in.” 9-57
Many and various are the customs and beliefs associated with the feast of St. Thomas (December 21). In Denmark it was formerly a great children's day, unique in the year, and rather resembling the mediaeval Boy Bishop festival. It was the breaking-up day for schools; the children used to bring their master an offering of candles and money, and in return he gave them a feast. In some places it had an even more delightful side: for this one day in the year the children were allowed the mastery in the school. Testimonials to their scholarship and industry were made out, and elaborate titles were added to their names, as exalted sometimes as “Pope,” “Emperor,” or “Empress.” Poor children used to go about showing these p. 224 documents and collecting money. Games and larks of all sorts went on in the schools without a word of reproof, and the children were wont to burn their master's rod. 9-58
In the neighbourhood of Antwerp children go early to school on St. Thomas's Day, and lock the master out, until he promises to treat them with ale or other drink. After this they buy a cock and hen, which are allowed to escape and have to be caught by the boys or the girls respectively. The girl who catches the hen is called “queen,” the boy who gets the cock, “king.” Elsewhere in Belgium children lock out their parents, and servants their masters, while schoolboys bind their teacher to his chair and carry him over to the inn. There he has to buy back his liberty by treating his scholars with punch and cakes. Instead of the chase for the fowls, it was up to 1850 the custom in the Ardennes for the teacher to give the children hens and let them chop the heads off. 9-59 Some pagan sacrifice no doubt lies at the root of this barbarous practice, which has many parallels in the folk-lore of western and southern Europe. 9-60
As for schoolboys larks with their teachers, the custom of “barring out the master” existed in England, and was practised before Christmas 9-61 as well as at other times of the year, notably Shrove Tuesday. At Bromfield in Cumberland on Shrove Tuesday there was a regular siege, the school doors were strongly barricaded within, and the boy-defenders were armed with pop-guns. If the master won, heavy tasks were imposed, but if, as more often happened, he was defeated in his efforts to regain his authority, he had to make terms with the boys as to the hours of work and play. 9-62
St. Thomas's Eve is in certain regions one of the uncanniest nights in the year. In some Bohemian villages the saint is believed to drive about at midnight in a chariot of fire. In the churchyard there await him all the dead men whose name is Thomas; they help him to alight and accompany him to the churchyard cross, which glows red with supernatural radiance. There St. Thomas kneels and prays, and then rises to bless his namesakes. This done, he vanishes beneath the cross, and each Thomas returns to his grave. The saint here seems to have taken over p. 225 the character of some pagan god, who, like the Teutonic Odin or Woden, ruled the souls of the departed. In the houses the people listen with awe for the sound of his chariot, and when it is heard make anxious prayer to him for protection from all ill. Before retiring to rest the house-father goes to the cowhouse with holy water and consecrated salt, asperges it from without, and then entering, sprinkles every cow. Salt is also thrown on the head of each animal with the words, “St. Thomas preserve thee from all sickness.” In the Böhmerwald the cattle are fed on this night with consecrated bayberries, bread, and salt, in order to avert disease. 9-63
In Upper and Lower Austria St. Thomas's Eve is reckoned as one of the so-called Rauchnächte (smoke-nights) when houses and farm-buildings must be sanctified with incense and holy water, the other nights being the Eves of Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany. 9-64
In Germany St. Thomas's, like St. Andrew's Eve, is a time for forecasting the future, and the methods already described are sometimes employed by girls who wish to behold their future husbands. A widely diffused custom is that of throwing shoes backwards over the shoulders. If the points are found turned towards the door the thrower is destined to leave the house during the year; if they are turned away from it another year will be spent there. In Westphalia a belief prevails that you must eat and drink heartily on this night in order to avert scarcity. 9-65
In Lower Austria it is supposed that sluggards can cure themselves of oversleeping by saying a special prayer before they go to bed on St. Thomas's Eve, and in Westphalia in the mid-nineteenth century the same association of the day with slumber was shown by the schoolchildren's custom of calling the child who arrived last at school Domesesel (Thomas ass). In Holland, again, the person who lies longest in bed on St. Thomas's Day is greeted with shouts of “lazybones.” Probably the fact that December 21 is the shortest day is enough to account for this. 9-66
In England there was divination by means of “St. Thomas's onion.” Girls used to peel an onion, wrap it in a handkerchief and put it under their heads at night, with a prayer to the satin p. 226 to show them their true love in a dream. 9-67 The most notable English custom on this day, however, was the peregrinations of poor people begging for money or provisions for Christmas. Going “a-gooding,” or “a-Thomassin,” or “a-mumping,” this was called. Sometimes in return for the charity bestowed a sprig of holly or mistletoe was given. 9-68 Possibly the sprig was originally a sacrament of the healthful spirit of growth: it may be compared with the olive- or cornel-branches carried about on New Year's Eve by Macedonian boys, 9-69 and also with the St. Martin's rod (see VII).
One more English custom on December 21 must be mentioned—it points to a sometime sacrifice—the bull-baiting practised until 1821 at Wokingham in Berkshire. Its abolition in 1822 caused great resentment among the populace, although the flesh continued to be duly distributed. 9-70
We are now four days from the feast of the Nativity, and many things commonly regarded as distinctive of Christmas have already come under notice. We have met, for instance, with several kinds of present-giving, with auguries for the New Year, with processions of carol-singers and well-wishers, with ceremonial feasting that anticipates the Christmas eating and drinking, and with various figures, saintly or monstrous, mimed or merely imagined, which we shall find reappearing at the greatest of winter festivals. These things would seem to have been attracted from earlier dates to the feast of the Nativity, and the probability that Christmas has borrowed much from an old November festival gradually shifted into December, is our justification for having dwelt so long upon the feasts that precede the Twelve Days.
p. 227 p. 228 p. 229