Thursday, December 17, 2009

December & mistletoe

As a writer fascinated by history I thought it might be interesting to look back and discover where some of the customs we take for granted actually originated. In doing so I have learned a lot.
For example, December used to be the tenth month of the Roman year. Its name comes from decem meaning ten.

I never knew there was a patron saint of thunderstorms, fire, gunpowder and loud noises. Her name is Saint Barbara and her Feast day is celebrated on 4th December.

6th December is the Feast day of St Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) in the 4th century AD. In many European countries this is the night when St Nicholas traditionally brings sweets and gifts to well-behaved children. Dutch settlers took this tradition with them to the USA where St Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus, who then came back across the Atlantic to merge with the British Father Christmas.

The pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice – also known as Yule – on 21st December is one of the oldest celebrations in the world. It marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere.

A Winter Solstice tradition carried out by Celtic priests was the cutting of mistletoe, especially that growing on oak trees as oaks were considered sacred and the white berries of the mistletoe symbolised the continuation of life during the dark winter months.

The Yule log is traditionally lit on the evening of the Solstice and burned for 12 hours throughout the night to banish evil spirits and bring good fortune in the coming year. Flames from the burning Yule log banish darkness and symbolise belief that the sun will return.

28th December is Holy Innocents Day or Childermas, and commemorates the murder by King Herod of all boy children under two years of age as he attempted to kill the baby Jesus.

On 31st December, New Year’s Eve, the old year ends and the New Year is welcomed in. I remember my grandfather always stepping outside the house just before midnight. The door would be closed. As the clock struck twelve he would knock on the door and, carrying a small piece of coal, a piece of bread and a few coins, (symbolising warmth, food and prosperity) he would be welcomed in and everyone would drink to his health and each other’s.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas and good health, peace of mind, and prosperity in 2010.
Jane Jackson.


Nicola Cornick said...

Fascinating stuff, Jane. Thank you. I rather like the sound of Saint Barbara! And the traditions surrounding Yule are very interesting. I love the idea of all the pagan and Christian beliefs gradually mingling over the centuries.

kate tremayne said...

Fantastic post, Jane. Lots of seasonal facts some new and interesting for me. I love the folklore and old traditions kept alive today, and feel the solstice reminds us of our earth connections which were so much a part of our heritage. Christmas is a time of birth and celebration and above all of drawing families closer and happy memories of loved ones no longer with us. The new year fires us up with good intentions and resolutions which hopefully will stay with us for some months ahead.

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Jane Jackson said...

Thank you Nicola, Kate and "Term papers" for your generous comments.
Looking back at this past year I see I achieved more than I expected if less than I hoped. But a new year lies ahead, a clean page. Anticipation and excitement are stirring...
I wish you the same joy.

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