Associated with Christmas and the New Year are many of the popular superstitious rites and ceremonies of former times, the relics of which yet remain in some countries. The circumstance of the birth of the Savior is not the only one connected with the season: originally the Gothic Pagan feast of Yule or Jul, was celebrated in honor of the sun at the winter solstice, and at the present day the Greenlanders keep a Sun-feast about this time, to rejoice at the return of the sun, and the expected renewal of the hunting season. The Goths used to sacrifice a boar on the occasion of the season, an animal which according to their mythology was sacred to the sun. A few sketches drawn from olden times, will not be out of place at this season.
The vulgar have a great many ridiculous notions with regard to Christmas Eve; and, on this night, observe a number of superstitious ceremonies. It is extensively believed, “frae Maidenkirk to Johnny Groat’s” that if we were to go into a cow-house at twelve o’clock at night, all the cattle would be found kneeling. Many also firmly believe that bees sing in their hives on Christmas Eve, to welcome the approaching day.
On this evening, women will not venture to leave any flax or yarn on their wheels, apprehending that the evil one would assuredly reel it for them before morning. Women, in a single state, assign another reason for this custom–their rocks would otherwise follow them to church on their marriage day. If any flax be left on the rock, they salt it, in order to preserve it from Satanic power, and if yard be accidentally left on a reel, it must not be taken off in the usual way, but be cut off.
In some parts of Scotland, he who first opens the door on Yule day, expects to prosper more than any other member of the family, during the future year, because, as the vulgar expresses it, “he lets in Yule.” The door being opened, it is customary with some to place a table or chair in the door way, covering it with a clean cloth; and, according to their own language, to “set on it bread and cheese to Yule.” Early in the morning, as soon as any one of the family gets out of bed, a new besom is set behind the outer door–the design being “to let in Yule,” –superstitions which are clearly of heathen origin–Yule being not only personified by treated as a Deity, and receiving an offering. It is also common to have a table covered in the house from morning until evening, with bread and drink upon it, that everyone who calls may take a portion, and it is deemed especially ominous, if any one comes into a house and leaves it without participation. Whatever number of persons may call on this day, all must partake of the good cheer.
A similar superstition prevails on this subject in the north of England; but on New Year’s day,–it is that of the first foot–the name applied to the person who first enters a house in the New Year; this is regarded by the superstitious and credulous as influencing the fate of the family, especially the fair portion of it, for the remainder of the year. “To exclude all suspected or unlucky persons, it is customary for one of the damsels to engage beforehand some favored youth, who, elated with so signal a mark of female distinction, gladly comes early in the morning, and never empty handed.”
The custom of saluting the apples trees at Christmas with a view to their produce another year, yet exists in the west of England. In some places, the parishioners walk in procession, visiting the principal orchards in the parish. In each orchard one tree is selected as the representative of the rest; this is saluted with a certain form of words, having in them the air of incantation. They then either sprinkle the tree with cider, or dash a bowl of cider against it, to ensure its bearing plentifully the ensuing year.
Candles of a particular kind are in some places made for this season: for the candle is lighted on Christmas Day, must be so large as to burn from the time of its being lighted till the day be done, otherwise it would be a bad omen to the family for the subsequent year. There is no reason to doubt that this custom has been transmitted from the times of heathenism.
The Christmas Log, or Yule, or Yull Clog, is another superstition of the period: this is a large block or log of wood, laid on the fire on Christmas Eve, and, if possible, kept burning all the following day, or longer. A portion of the old clog of the preceding year, is sometimes saved to light up the new block at the next Christmas, and to preserve the family from harm, in the meanwhile: during the time, too, that this log lasts, the servants in farm houses are entitled, by custom, to ale at their meals.
The Holy Innocents, or Childermass Day (December 28), commemorates the slaughter of the Jewish children by Herod. This was formerly a day of unlucky omen, and an apprehension is still entertained by the superstitious, that no undertaking can prosper which is begun on that day of the week on which Childermass last fell.
In the south of Scotland, on the morning of the New Year (January 1,) the instant the clock has struck the midnight hour, one of the family goes to the well as quickly as possible, and carefully skims it: this they call getting “the scum or cream of the well.”
“Twall struck–twa neebour hizzies raise
Au’ liltin, gaed a sad gate:
The flower o’ the well to our house gaes,
Au’ I’ll the boniest lad get.”
This flower o’ the well signifies the first pailful of water, and the girl who is so fortunate as to obtain that prize is supposed to have more than a double chance of gaining the most accomplished young man in the parish. As they go to the well they chant over the two last of the above lines.
Many persons make a point of wearing new clothes on New Year’s Day, and esteem any omission of this kind extremely unlucky. The salutations of this day are of remote antiquity, as well as the custom of “New Year’s Gifts.”