The holiday season is synonymous with shopping malls and tv specials, but this time of year used to be full of mystery and superstition. For our ancient ancestors, the middle of December marked the arrival of winter and the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice. The long nights meant that evil spirits had more time to roam the earth, so traditions were created to keep them at bay.
Combine evil spirits with Santa mythology, and you’ve got a bunch of truly odd and wonderful holiday customs.
This tradition comes from either Victorian Germany or Civil War era America, depending on who you ask. On Christmas Eve, a pickle is hidden in the ornaments on the Christmas tree. The first child to spot it on Christmas morning receives an extra present from Santa Claus. Another tradition states that the first adult to spot the pickle will have good fortune in the coming year. Today, you can purchase glass ornaments in the shape of pickles, but in previous decades a real pickle would have been used.
Ghosts & Spirits of Yuletide
Goofy as Jacob Marley
Traditionally, the holiday season is a time for ghosts and spirits. This is because our modern holiday has its roots in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, when spirits were said to visit the living. In Finland, families visit cemeteries on Christmas Eve. They light candles and sing carols at the graves of family members, much like the Mexican Day of the Dead. One of the most popular Christmas stories today, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” prominently features ghosts.
The Krampus is a creature in German mythology who accompanies Santa on Christmas Eve. While Santa leaves presents for good children, the Krampus punishes naughty boys and girls. Sometimes, if a child is really bad, he takes them back to his lair and eats them for Christmas dinner. The Krampus looks like a devil, with horns and hooved feet… which must scare the sh*t out of kids. You can purchase Krampus ornaments that are supposed to ward off the evil creature. It would also seriously piss off your conservative Christian relatives, if you’re into passive aggressiveness.
A great addition to any angel be-decked tree.
Christmas Eve is the one night of the year when animals can talk like people. Some traditions specify barn animals only are gifted with speech because they were present at the birth of that Jesus guy. Other traditions state that only cats can talk. I prefer the cat tradition myself. The only catch is that you’re not allowed to test this superstition; if you do, you’ll have bad luck for the next year.
a La Befana card.
In Italy, Santa doesn’t deliver presents, a witch called La Befana does. She rides around on her broom with a sack full of gifts for good girls and boys.
In Norway, Christmas Eve is a time when evil witches go out looking for brooms. To keep witches out of the house, all the brooms are hidden and guns are fired in the yard to ward off evil spirits.
Women in the Czech Republic practice Christmas divination. They stand with their backs to the door and throw a shoe out into the yard. If the shoe lands with the toe pointing toward the door, the woman will be married in the New Year.
Traditionally, holly & mistletoe were put up at Christmas to protect a household from witches. In modern times, capital “W” Witches use holly and mistletoe in the same way the Ancient Celts did: the plants are strung up at Yule to promote love, healing and renewal.
Dumb cake was baked at midnight on Christmas Eve in order to divine the future. Victorian girls would bake a cake in complete silence and carve their initials into the top. They’d each eat a piece of the cake and then walk backwards to their beds. During the night they would dream of their future husbands.
Excuse me while I go get the cat to read my tarot cards while I silently bake a cake and hang pickles on the tree…