As long as people have been around there have been superstitions. And when the weather grows colder and the year’s work is done, Christmas is a ripe time for the imagination to conjure beliefs in supernatural influences, omens and luck.
In Slovakia it is believed that putting fish scales under dinner plates will bring good luck. 1 In Ireland, legend has it that honey bees celebrate Christmas by singing a song of praise to Christ. However, only those free of sin can hear the tune.Some even believe that during the festive season all animals can talk, but that it is bad luck to test the theory. 2
Generosity and gift-giving at Christmas
Across Europe, where the old tradition of Christmas carolling sees groups of singers go to people’s houses to sing festive songs for them, it is considered bad luck to turn carollers away without having given them some food, money or a drink. Abstain from such charity, and it is said you will suffer bad luck for the rest of the year. 3
Generosity has always been a hallmark of the Christmas season. One of the most obvious traditional references can be found in the New Testament, when baby Jesus received the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the three wise men. Yet, one need not be the son of God to receive presents. As well as demonstrating charity to Christmas carollers, it was considered traditional to give a “Christmas-box” of gifts to servants on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, as a thank you for good service throughout the year. It is for this reason that in the United Kingdom, and some countries that previously formed part of the British Empire, this day is commonly referred to as Boxing Day.4
As for friends and family, the exchange of gifts is brimming with traditional belief. For the superstitious it would be unthinkable to present shoes to a loved one for Christmas. The belief is that, in doing so, that particular person may walk out of your life – either of their own accord, or by dying.5
Even one of the traditional methods of gift-giving, the hanging of stockings over the fireplace, has a story attached to it. An old tale of St. Nicholas has him drop gold down a chimney to provide dowries for an impoverished old man’s three daughters. The gold, according to the tale, magically landed in the three sisters’ stockings, which had been left drying by the fire. By recreating this scene and hanging our own stockings for gifts, we do so in the hope that we too may benefit from St. Nicholas’ generosity. 6
Feasting and abundance
Whilst many diverse superstitions and traditions exist, some Christmas time beliefs might have developed simply as an excuse for gluttony. One example of this is a Polish belief that the more you eat of the twelve traditional dishes at Christmas, the more pleasure you will store up for the coming new year. 7 In England, where mince pies have been eaten in one form or another since the time of the Crusades, it is said that one should eat as many of the traditional sweet and spiced pies as possible on Christmas Eve and afterward, as the amount you eat will determine how much luck you will have in the next year. 8
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Such indulgences are for many a traditional trait of the Christmas season. Certainly, this merry holiday has long been associated with feasting and abundance. In Roman times, gambling, drinking and sensual excesses were a common element of the festive period. Then, in pre-Christian times, Christmas was known as Saturnalia – a festival held in celebration of the Roman God Saturn. Only after the celebration became attached to the birth of Christ did it acquire a relatively tamer appearance. 9
Christmas and the future
Regardless of it religious meanings, Christmas is a time when people relax and think of the future. For this reason, divination is one of the many mystical aspects of the Christmas season. Some superstitions suggest that the coming new year is revealed, and even determined by, the events that occur around Christmas.
In Greece, traditional belief would have people burn their old shoes in an attempt to bring good luck in the upcoming year. 10
In the old port city of Bari in Italy, a statue of St. Nicholas, the saint who is widely considered to have inspired the image of Santa Claus, is taken from the basilica which holds his bones in a ceremonial procession down to bless the sea for the coming year. 11
One old tradition has people testing the theory that the following year can be revealed during Christmas by leaving a small heap of salt on the table for Christmas Eve. Should it be undisturbed the following morning then all would be well the following year. However, if the pile was altered, or worse dissolved, it could mean death approaches next year. 12
In some parts of Ireland, a darker test of the future is traditionally performed on Twelfth Night. The family of a given house sits together around a table, with each of them lighting a candle to place it in a round cake. The order in which each of the candles burns out represents the order in which each member of the household will die.13
Superstition and Christmas decorations
Some festive decorations, of which many are still commonly put up, are also said to serve a magical function. Most notable are the holly wreaths hung on front doors at Christmas-time. Holly has traditionally been considered a sacred and powerful plant with the ability to protect a home from witches and lightning. And, if one were to find a holly wreath loaded with red berries, this would be regarded as even more powerful and able to bring plentiful good luck into the home. This was because holly laden with red berries was associated with Jesus’ crown of thorns, with the red berries denoting drops of Christ’s blood. Sinisterly, however, if holly is brought indoors, it is believed to invert its powers, turning on the household and potentially foreshadowing death. 14
Another plant which is commonly seen during Christmas, also thought to bring good luck and health to the household, is mistletoe. Traditionally, it is hung up inside the house so that when one stands underneath it, a berry is eaten and a kiss is had. When all the berries are gone, the kissing stops as well. And, if one were to have been overzealous and have eaten too many berries, then one might discover that more than just the kissing stops, for in large quantities mistletoe berries can be lethal.
Mistletoe’s association with good-health extends to pre-Christian England, where druids believed the plant to have magical abilities.15 Oddly enough, the poisonous and parasitic mistletoe does have many health benefits when administered properly, with modern science discovering that the druids were not wrong in thinking of the plant as magical. Today, festive mistletoe is used to treat epilepsy, cancer and other illnesses. 16
The lighting of candles at Christmas is a widely practised tradition. Serving a practical and decorative purpose, candles are also associated with luck. For the superstitious, it is vital that candles are kept burning and undisturbed from the time they are lit on Christmas Eve until they are put out on Christmas day. 17 For those who take a candle to Church, it is considered bad luck to bring the candle home. 18
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Thus, traditionally, decorations – contrary to what one might think – very rarely served a simple aesthetic function. As well as being thought of as having magical properties, decorations also help to define the Christmas season as distinct from the rest of the year. Certainly, leaving one’s decorations up after Twelfth Night was believed to invite the devil into one’s home. 19
Christmas, life and death
Christmas is a special and separate time of year. As the nights grow colder and darker, this separateness has fostered a belief that the world does indeed become a more mystical and mysterious place. Perhaps strangely, thoughts of death and the afterlife are commonplace in many cultures at this time of year. Telling ghost stories on Christmas, for example, has been a tradition for hundreds of years.
In Ireland, the power of Christmas is so manifest that it is thought that the gates of Heaven open on Christmas Eve, providing both saints and sinners with automatic entry through the Pearly Gates should they die on that day.20
Death and life are thought to go hand in hand during this time. For if one were to die blessed, it was also thought a child born during Christmas would lead a charmed life. In reality, many born on or around this day tend to have their birthdays forgotten or overlooked. 21
These are but a few of the superstitions and traditions which, over the centuries, have been created, believed and celebrated by countless people. These beliefs are what help make this time of year significant. For when the cold weather descends and the nights are dark, the world stands still, leaving the mind free to contemplate all that is mysterious and envisage all that is to come when the green of life returns to the earth.
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