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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



Horse Customs of St. Stephen's Day—The Swedish St. Stephen—St. John's Wine—Childermas and its Beatings.

The three saints’ days immediately following Christmas—St. Stephen's (December 26), St. John the Evangelist's (December 27), and the Holy Innocents’ (December 28)—have still various folk-customs associated with them, in some cases purely secular, in others hallowed by the Church.

St. Stephen's Day.

In Tyrolese churches early in the morning of St. Stephen's Day there takes place a consecration of water and of salt brought by the people. The water is used by the peasants to sprinkle food, barns, and fields in order to avert the influence of witches and evil spirits, and bread soaked in it is given to the cattle when they are driven out to pasture on Whit Monday. The salt, too, is given to the beasts, and the peasants themselves partake of it before any important journey like a pilgrimage. Moreover when a storm is threatening some is thrown into the fire as a protection against hail. 15-1

The most striking thing about St. Stephen's Day, however, is its connection with horses. St. Stephen is their patron; in England in former times they were bled on his festival in the belief that it would benefit them, 15-2 and the custom is still continued in some parts of Austria. 15-3 In Tyrol it is the custom not only to p. 312 bleed horses on St. Stephen's Day, but also to give them consecrated salt and bread or oats and barley. 15-4

In some of the Carinthian valleys where horse-breeding is specially carried on, the young men ride into the village on their unsaddled steeds, and a race is run four or five times round the church, while the priest blesses the animals, sprinkling them with holy water and exorcizing them. 15-5

Similar customs are or were found in various parts of Germany. In Munich, formerly, during the services on St. Stephen's Day more than two hundred men on horseback used to ride three times round the interior of a church. The horses were decorated with many-coloured ribbons, and the practice was not abolished till 1876. 15-6 At Backnang in Swabia horses were ridden out, as fast as possible, to protect them from the influence of witches, and in the Hohenlohe region men-servants were permitted by their masters to ride in companies to neighbouring places, where much drinking went on. 15-7 In Holstein the lads on Stephen's Eve used to visit their neighbours in a company, groom the horses, and ride about in the farmyards, making a great noise until the people woke up and treated them to beer and spirits. 15-8 At the village of Wallsbüll near Flensburg the peasant youths in the early morning held a race, and the winner was called Steffen and entertained at the inn. At Viöl near Bredstadt the child who got up last on December 26 received the name of Steffen and had to ride to a neighbour's house on a hay-fork. In other German districts the festival was called “the great horse-day,” consecrated food was given to the animals, they were driven round and round the fields until they sweated violently, and at last were ridden to the blacksmith's and bled, to keep them healthy through the year. The blood was preserved as a remedy for various illnesses. 15-9

It is, however, in Sweden that the “horsy” aspect of the festival is most obvious. 15-10 Formerly there was a custom, at one o'clock on St. Stephen's morning, for horses to be ridden to water that flowed northward; they would then drink “the cream of the water” and flourish during the year. There was a violent race to the water, and the servant who got there first was rewarded by a drink of something stronger. Again, early that morning one p. 313 peasant would clean out another's stable, often at some distance from his home, feed, water, and rub down the horses, and then be entertained to breakfast. In olden times after service on St. Stephen's Day there was a race home on horseback, and it was supposed that he who arrived first would be the first to get his harvest in. But the most remarkable custom is the early morning jaunt of the so-called “Stephen's men,” companies of peasant youths, who long before daybreak ride in a kind of race from village to village and awaken the inhabitants with a folk-song called Staffansvisa, expecting to be treated to ale or spirits in return.

The cavalcade is supposed to represent St. Stephen and his followers, yet the saint is not, as might be expected, the first martyr of the New Testament, but a dauntless missionary who, according to old legends, was one of the first preachers of the Gospel in Sweden, and was murdered by the heathen in a dark forest. A special trait, his love of horses, connects him with the customs just described. He had, the legends tell, five steeds: two red, two white, one dappled; when one was weary he mounted another, making every week a great round to preach the Word. After his death his body was fastened to the back of an unbroken colt, which halted not till it came near Norrala, his home. There he was buried, and a church built over his grave became a place of pilgrimage to which sick animals, especially horses, were brought for healing.

Mannhardt and Feilberg hold that this Swedish St. Stephen is not a historical personage but a mythical figure, like many other saints, and that his legend, so bound up with horses, was an attempt to account for the folk-customs practised on the day dedicated to St. Stephen the first martyr. It is interesting to note that legendary tradition has played about a good deal with the New Testament Stephen; for instance an old English carol makes him a servant in King Herod's hall at the time of Christ's birth:—

“Stephen out of kitchen came,
With boarës head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stand.”

p. 314 Thereupon he forsook King Herod for the Child Jesus, and was stoned to death. 15-11

To return, however, to the horse customs of the day after Christmas, it is pretty plain that they are of non-Christian origin. Mannhardt has suggested that the race which is their most prominent feature once formed the prelude to a ceremony of lustration of houses and fields with a sacred tree. Somewhat similar “ridings” are found in various parts of Europe in spring, and are connected with a procession that appears to be an ecclesiastical adaptation of a pre-Christian lustration-rite. 15-12 The great name of Mannhardt lends weight to this theory, but it seems a somewhat roundabout way of accounting for the facts. Perhaps an explanation of the “horsiness” of the day might be sought in some pre-Christian sacrifice of steeds.

We have already noted that St. Stephen's Day is often the date for the “hunting of the wren” in the British Isles; it was also in England generally devoted to hunting and shooting, it being held that the game laws were not in force on that day. 15-13 This may be only an instance of Christmas licence, but it is just possible that there is here a survival of some tradition of sacrificial slaughter.

St. John's Day.

An ecclesiastical adaptation of a pagan practice may be seen in the Johannissegen customary on St. John's Day in many parts of Catholic Germany and Austria. A quantity of wine is brought to church to be blessed by the priest after Mass, and is taken away by the people to be drunk at home. There are many popular beliefs about the magical powers of this wine, beliefs which can be traced back through at least four centuries. In Tyrol and Bavaria it is supposed to protect its drinker from being struck by lightning, in the Rhenish Palatinate it is drunk in order that the other wine a man possesses may be kept from injury, or that next year's harvest may be good. In Nassau, Carinthia, and other regions some is poured into the wine-casks to preserve the precious drink from harm, while in Bavaria some is kept for use as medicine in sickness. p. 315 In Syria St. John's wine is said to keep the body sound and healthy, and on his day even babes in the cradle are made to join in the family drinking. 15-14

It appears that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a great drinking on St. John's Day of ordinary, as well as consecrated, wine, often to excess, and scholars of that time seriously believed that Weihnacht, the German name for Christmas, should properly be spelt Weinnacht. 15-15 The Johannissegen, or Johannisminne as it was sometimes called, seems, all things considered, to be a survival of an old wine sacrifice like the Martinsminne. That it does not owe its origin to the legend about the cup of poison drunk by St. John is shown by the fact that a similar custom was in old times practised in Germany and Sweden on St. Stephen's Day. 15-16

Holy Innocents’ Day.

Holy Innocents’ Day or Childermas, whether or not because of Herod's massacre, was formerly peculiarly unlucky; it was a day upon which no one, if he could possibly avoid it, should begin any piece of work. It is said of that superstitious monarch, Louis XI. of France, that he would never do any business on that day, and of our own Edward IV. that his coronation was postponed, because the date originally fixed was Childermas. In Cornwall no housewife would scour or scrub on Childermas, and in Northamptonshire it was considered very unlucky to begin any undertaking or even to do washing throughout the year on the day of the week on which the feast fell. Childermas was there called Dyzemas and a saying ran: “What is begun on Dyzemas Day will never be finished.” In Ireland it was called “the cross day of the year,” and it was said that anything then begun must have an unlucky ending. 15-17

In folk-ritual the day is remarkable for its association with whipping customs. The seventeenth-century writer Gregorie mentions a custom of whipping up children on Innocents’ Day in the morning, and explains its purpose as being that the memory of Herod's “murther might stick the closer; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the crueltie again in kind.” 15-18

p. 316 This explanation will hardly hold water; the many and various examples of the practice of whipping at Christmas collected by Mannhardt 15-19 show that it is not confined either to Innocents’ Day or to children. Moreover it is often regarded not as a cruel infliction, but as a service for which return must be made in good things to eat.

In central and southern Germany the custom is called “peppering” (pfeffern) and also by other names. In the Orlagau the girls on St. Stephen's, and the boys on St. John's Day beat their parents and godparents with green fir-branches, while the menservants beat their masters with rosemary sticks, saying:

“Fresh green! Long life!
Give me a bright thaler [or nuts, &c.].”

They are entertained with plum-loaf or gingerbreads and brandy. In the Saxon Erzgebirge the young fellows whip the women and girls on St. Stephen's Day, if possible while they are still in bed, with birch-rods, singing the while:

“Fresh green, fair and fine,
Gingerbread and brandy-wine”;

and on St. John's Day the women pay the men back. At several places in the Thuringian Forest children on Innocents’ Day beat passers-by with birch-boughs, and get in return apples, nuts, and other dainties. Various other German examples of the same class of practice are given by Mannhardt. 15-20

In France children who let themselves be caught in bed on the morning of Holy Innocents’ came in for a whipping from their parents; while in one province, Normandy, the early risers among the young people themselves gave the sluggards a beating. The practice even gave birth to a verb—innocenter. 15-21

There can be little doubt that the Innocents’ Day beating is a survival of a pre-Christian custom. Similar ritual scourging is found in many countries at various seasons of the year, and is by no means confined to Europe. 15-22 As now practised, it has p. 317 often a harsh appearance, or has become a kind of teasing, as when in Bohemia at Easter young men whip girls until they give them something. Its original purpose, however, as we have seen in connection with St. Martin's rod, seems to have been altogether kindly. The whipping was not meant as a punishment or expiation or to harden people to pain, but either to expel harmful influences and drive out evil spirits or to convey by contact the virtues of some sacred tree.

p. 318 p. 319 p. 320 p. 321 

Next: Chapter XV. New Year's Day