Based on previous discussions, I would say that the folklore of Christmas and New Year is a good one. I grew up hearing hundreds of superstitions about both. Among the topics that might appear here are things like "Serenading" (and it doesn't have anything to do with singing Xmas carols!) and "first footers." Then, there are "dumb suppers," and a belief that the cattle in the barn got down on their knees on Christmas Eve night and the bees always hummed the 100th Psalm at midnight. Okay, let's get started!
Yes, driving off evil spirits is part of it. When I went "seranading" as a child, we rubbed soot on our faces and the boys wore dresses and the girls word overalls. We carried a tin tub, a hammer and a shotgun and went under cover of darkness to a neighbor's house. On a given cue, we screamed, yelled, beat the tin tub and fired the shotgun. The neighbors got up and turned the lights on and invited us in for stack cake and cider. Only later did I understand that the neighbors knew we were coming. It was a ritual and everybody had a part to play. I understand that the local law enforcement agency outlawed "seranading" back in the 60's as dangerous. I used to think that some of these pranks were just left over from Halloween, but I was wrong. The noise and the fires are definitely associated with December and the shortest days (and longest nights) of the year.
Years later, I read that the things that we did dated back to Ireland over a thousand years. Originally, they had carried torches and burned huge brush piles. All of this was supposed to make the "sun wheel" keep turning.
There was an ancient belief that it stopped in winter on the shortest days of the year. All that noise and fire was a kind of sympathetic magic. The wheel would start turning again and another year would come.
And yes, the forces of evil are supposed to be driven away by noise and light. There is a speech in the first scene of Hamlet where a watchman stands in the dark of a December night and talks about how on Christmas night, "the bird of dawning sings all night" and that during this holy night, no evil has power. I guess that proves that Shakespeare was familiar with the rituals that took place on Christmas Eve.
I have a marvelous set of books called "The Silver Bough" that describes all of the lost rituals of Christmas that used to take place in Ireland .... and Appalachia.
Sounds great. I'd love to read it.
So the "burning of the greens" and the symbolic "renewal" that came from the ashes is also an Irish custom--and perhaps the bonfires is an evolution of the idea of burning the greens in the fireplace?
I'm not sure about the "burning of the greens." What do you mean? I do know of a tradition in which a piece of the old Christmas fire log was kept to be used to start the fire the following Christmas. In that way, I guess it was (symbolically) the same fire all the time. I knew a farmer who always rolled up a chunk of the fire log in an old rag and stuck it in the eaves of the barn where it stayed until the following Christmas.
Great post. In my old age, I am developing a passion for the heritage that got mixed together in Appalachia. "Serenading" was a term also used when people got married. There was something about using dynamite and sometimes putting it in trees. When set off, after the newly weds were in their house, it made a noise and, of course, blew up the tree. Did this come from the Christmas tradition? Or, did celebrating mean "serenading" was needed to mark the ocassion?
Yeah, your wedding ritual and a dynamited tree sound a lot like a different kind of ritual that was called something like "shivaree" or "chivaree." Several years ago, I ran into some folks that still remembered some of these lost rituals and told me about stuff down in the piedmont and coast area that I had never heard of. I still remember something called the Huntington Horse and a little strange play enacted on Christmas Day that was much like a mummer's play.
When we get to Christmas folklore, I have to say that most of what I've heard is actually just what I've read. I don't have firsthand experience with shooting guns at Christmas, but I have read that was commonly done in Appalachia. Those of you who really grew up here might have personal recollection or recollections of others' recollections.
Because of my ghost obsession, I've always wanted to see every production ever made of Dickens's CHRISTMAS CAROL, even though his ghosts are not what I usually think of as ghosts. I particularly liked the ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, because he wore a black robe and hood, was faceless, had a long, pointed finger, and was the one who took Scrooge skulking around the graveyard.
However, I have to admit that my knowledge about ghosts as a Christmas phenomenon is weak. And other than the well-known Santa Claus myths (comes down the chimney, gives toys only if you're good) and some history about how the Santa myth evolved from Norse, German, and other cultures, I don't know a whole lot, and would like the rest of you to enlighten me.
Having said that, I do love to read about the origins of Santa Claus. You probably all know about Saint Nicholas of Myra, who gave to the poor. And then along came the influence of Odin, the Germanic god, who preceded Christianity. During Yule he would lead a hunting party through the sky. He drove an eight-legged horse. You can see where that's going.
I won't fill up the space here with the history of Santa, because that information is widely available. But in writing this, I see how much I love the way myths melt and meld into each other, and I believe we should always remember that our ideas, including our religious ones, are not now what they once were, and are always becoming.
You would definitely be interested in the old "dumb suppers" since they often took on a supernatural quality.
I won't retell the whole ritual unless there is some interest in it, but it was a Christmas - New Years ritual in which a group of young women would prepare a "mini-supper" consisting of a cake of cornbread which they prepared at midnight while walking backwards around the stove. It was called a dumb supper because the girls did not speak while carrying out this ritual. The purpose was to "see the face of the man you would marry" which would appear in the plates on the table after the little slices of cornbread had been consumed ... on the stroke of midnight. On occasion, if circumstances were favorably disposed, a specter of the bridegroom-to-be would appear in the doorway. Sometimes, this specter behaved erratically. I once heard a story in Avery County about how the specter of one unfortunate girl entered the room, seized the knife that had been used to cut up the cake of bread and vanished. Years later, the girl was found dead with that knife in her heart. Oh, my!
Oh my is right! I've never heard of Dumb Suppers-very interesting. Something I should write about on my blog. My family has been know to shoot shotguns on Christmas-but I never really gave much thought to the reason. It just seemed to be a way of letting the world in on your Merry making. Really neat discussion from you all.