Dead birds, a mouse riding a lobster, goblins and devils tormenting some guy. What could possibly be more festive? A sampling of curious Christmas and New Year greetings from the Edwardian and Victorian era:
On Christmas morning the first to awaken should open the door and shout “Welcome Father Christmas.” This will allow any evil spirits in the house out. Someone should soon after sweep the front door threshold in order to sweep away any trouble.
An old Northants superstition is that is any dead buried at a crossroads will rise up and walk again on Christmas Eve.
If you receive shoes as a Christmas gift, the giver will walk out of your life.
Gifts given in Morocco should not be colored pink, violet or yellow as these are associated with death.
Any animal who screams on Christmas Eve will go mad before the year is over. Sadly, many animals were killed soon after on these grounds.
Those born on Christmas day will never see a ghost, nor be bothered by spirits. In addition to this, the Christmas born will never die from either drowning or hanging. On the other hand, some believe that those born on Christmas day will be ghosts in the afterlife. The only way to remedy this is from 11 P.M. on Christmas Eve until dawn of Christmas morning, you must count holes in a sieve.
For every dropped pine needle from the Christmas tree that is left in the home after the tree is disposed of, this number of goblins you can expect to encounter in the coming year.
On Christmas night be sure to take note of each person’s shadow. If any shadow cast is missing a head, this person will die in the coming year.
For some, it is believed that at the stroke of Midnight on Christmas Eve animals will momentarily gain the ability to speak. Woe to any human who overhears the animals talk, for it will guarantee his death soon after.
Here we have another character who accompanies gift bringer, St. Nicholas. The most common legend of Le Père Fouettard first appeared in 1150 and depicts him as a butcher. Fouettard and his greedy wife live in a small village in France near a parochial school which caters to wealthy families. One day, the couple come upon three young boys who are students at the school. Anticipating the gold the boys may be carrying in their pockets, the Fouettards lure them into the shop where the wife serves the children poisoned sweets. Père slits their throats, then puts his butchering skills to use by cutting up the children and placing their remains in barrels.
St. Nicholas learns of this vile act and arrives to resurrect the children. He forces Père Fouettard into his eternal service as his sidekick. Fouettard now dispenses coal and floggings to those who have been naughty.
Photo Source: The Hans Trapp character in a 1953 photograph taken in Wintzenheim, Alsace.
A hallmark of Christmas is the music of the season. We are all too familiar with the thematic elements of the overly cute, romantic, sentimental and of course, sacred songs of the holiday season.
When you think about it, it isn’t terribly difficult to find curiously macabre songs and carols among the pack. After all, even by Christian standards, this is the celebration of a figure who was always been linked to death, beginning with a king provoked to slaughter every infant male in his realm. All of this then crowned with magical and mysterious pagan rites.
1) Down In Yon Valley
Down under that bed there runs a flood
Bells of heaven I hear them ring
Half run in water, half run in blood
There are a number of different versions of this song, passed down through various cultures through the years. Like so many songs an early version was carried over to the US from Europe and for the most part, passed on and preserved by the people of the Appalachians, where a particularly disturbing version was collected, believed to reference the ancient custom of every few years draining the blood out of one’s king onto the soil to ensure its continuing fertility. I guess it’s not so great to be King.
2) The Coventry Carol
This carol was originally contained within a mystery play, retelling the Christmas story. This song is sung by the mothers of the little boys under the age of two, who are destined to be brutally murdered by King Herod’s men. In the last lines, they say goodbye to their children.
A haunting and heartbreaking piece, sure to bring you close to tears if you happen to be a mother.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
3) The Holly and the Ivy
By far, one of the most popular Christmas songs, The Holly and the Ivy. Although burdened with the stamp of Christianity, maintains it’s pagan fertility imagery – so obvious, there is no need to explain. It’s Christmas Sexy-Time!
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower…
(I love me some Maddy Prior)
4) We Three Kings
One of the most popular Christmas songs. Little kids sing it at school, it plays over the speakers at the grocery story. We all know it.
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
5) I Wonder as I Wander
Composer and ethnomusicologist, John Jacob Niles, was in attendance at fundraising meeting held by evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the police, most likely to collect songs. In his autobiography, he writes the following:
A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.
It was from this fragment that Niles composed I Wonder As I Wander.
6) Bethlehem Down
Composer Peter Warlock was experiencing financial difficulties. He had recently befriended poet and party boy Bruce Blunt. The first account of their mutual company was from a press report detailing their arrests for being “drunk and disorderly.” Lack of funds to fuel the party life prompted their collaboration on Bethlehem Down, which, in turn, won them the Daily Telegraph’s annual christmas carol writing contest. The prize money funded an “immoral carouse” on Christmas Eve in 1927.
When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
Here are some more contemporary Christmas fare that deal in death and the macabre:
7) Christmas With The Devil
I cannot resist including this cover of Spinal Tap’s Christmas With The Devil from Judith Owen. It’s been a favorite for years. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do. The lyrics are great.
The elves are dressed in leather
And the angels are in chains
The sugar plums are rancid
And the stockings are in flames
There’s a demon in my belly
And a gremlin in my brain
There’s someone up the chimney hole
And Satan is his name.
8) Justice Delivers It’s Death
Sufjan Stevens putting all that gift giving, Back Friday stuff into perspective.
Oh, I’m getting old
Everyone wishes for youth
How I have wasted my life
Trusting the pleasure it gives
Here on Earth.
9) Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
I know you’re saying, “I know this one already!” and you do, but I have a feeling you might like this version by The Uncommon Houseflies much better.
10) The Murder Of The Lawson Family
On Christmas, 1929 Charlie Lawson took his family (37-year-old wife Fannie and their children: Arthur, 16; Marie, 17; Carrie, 12; Maybell; 7, James, 4; Raymond, 2; and Mary Lou, 4 months) into town to buy new clothes and to have a family portrait taken. Since they were far from wealthy, this seemed unusual. The new clothes ultimately became burial outfits. On that day he began the slaughter with his daughters, Carrie and Maybell, who were setting out to their uncle and aunt’s house. Lawson waited for them by the tobacco barn; when they were in range, he shot them with a shotgun, then ensured that they were dead by bludgeoning them. He then placed the bodies in the tobacco barn.
Afterwards, he returned to the house and shot Fannie, who was on the porch. As soon as the gun was fired, Marie, who was inside, screamed, while the two small boys, James and Raymond, attempted to find a hiding place. Lawson shot Marie and then found and shot the two boys. Lastly, he killed the baby, Mary Lou. It is thought that she was bludgeoned to death. After the murders, he went into the nearby woods and, a few hours later, shot himself. The only survivor was his eldest son, 16 year-old Arthur, whom he had sent on an errand just before starting his deadly work. The bodies of the family members were found with their arms crossed and rocks under their heads. The gunshot signaling Charlie Lawson’s own suicide was heard by the many people who learned of the gruesome event on the property and had already gathered there. [From Wikipedia]
11) Christmas Tree On Fire
Holly Golightly left her tree up long after it dried out and died, even after her boyfriend warns her to take it down. Her trailer catches on fire and her vain attempts to beat the fire down with a tube sock prove fruitless. She dies. Or so we assume. I have been informed by more than one person this will likely be my fate.
12) Another Lonely Christmas
PRINCE, ya’ll. What more needs to be said? Really though, Prince’s contribution to the Christmas lineup is all about death. Christmas death.
Baby you promised me you’d never leave, Then you died on the 25th day of December.
Ain’t that a bitch? You can listen to a bit of it on iTunes
13) 1913 Massacre
Another, but lesser known murder ballad that took place at a Christmas Eve gathering for copper miners and their families. When it was all over seventy three were dead, almost all of them children. Read more about the tragic event here.
Profound and powerful magical charm that gets us drunk
in the present on the restored past! Baudelaire – The Flowers Of Evil
A day originally named for pagan Sun-God or Forest Father, Silvanus and like so many other things, was usurped by Christians and stamped with the name of St. Sylvester, is celebrated on December 31st.
The word, sylvan comes from the Latin meaning “wood” or “wooded.” Sylvester is also known as the Keeper Of The Woods. It is in his honor that a feast is celebrated with wild partying, drunkeness and the more magical aspects of protection and fertility rituals.
Branches are cut and woven into large circles to be placed on homes to protect the structure from fires in the coming year. Differing varieties of corn are mixed together with wild clover and fed to the animals to ward off witches. Stolen cabbages are fed to horses to ensure their good health in the new year. Finally, in hopes of making the fruit trees fertile, little sacks of peas are made to beat the trees with.
To maintain your own family’s heath or predict it, numerous things can be done. Precisely at midnight if you put a broth made of wild pears on the threshold, death cannot enter your home. Plant oracles could reveal what the year will hold as well -“During Sylvester night, you put an evergreen leaf on a plate filled with water. If it remained green the following night, health could be expected the following year. But stains prophesied illness – and blackness – death itself.” – Hiller 1989
Even in these modern times, all over the world with the first stroke of midnight, bringing in the new year, the air is filled with a cacophony of noise from fireworks, to pot banging to gun shots. This is all done in order to frighten away the bad spirits, ghosts, demons and witches away. The noise was also expected to “wake up” the sleeping seeds below the earth.
I found this charming video created by some German youths, celebrating the “resurrection of the sylvan god!” in rituals, feasting (are those furry apples?!), and it even includes some stop motion animation – enjoy!
Photo by Andreas Praefcke
“I want a feast…I want a bean feast!” Veruca Salt
No doubt, American fans of Willy Wonka recall Veruca Salt’s outgrageous demands and have asked themselves, what exactly is a bean feast?
The Bean Feast, like so many other Christmastime traditions had it’s roots in ancient magic and spells.
Beans, which were considered to be heavily influenced by Saturn, played a large role in Saturnalia celebrations and various ancient mystery cults in ancient Rome. These traditions were carried to other countries and cultures around Europe throughout the centuries. Practices reached their height during the Medieval era on the 12th day of Christmas, Epiphany – January 6th. During rituals to recognize the coming reawakening of nature, “Erotic Bean Feasts” were held, where there was an abundance of drinking, partying and sexing. Beans were considered so erotic and so strong an aphrodisiac they were outlawed in some places during the seventeenth century:
“Bean soup had a reputation for being so erotic that it was forbidden in the convent of San Jeronimo in order to prevent conditions that might result in indecent arousal. But that order no longer stands, since the nuns gave up that habit.” – Allende, 1988
In the book, Beans, A History, (yes, seriously), author Ken Albala relates how beans were regarded as just big troublemakers all around and that Aristotle himself spoke out frequently against The Evils Of Beans. Aristotle wrote that beans are just like testicles and that they are, a gateway to Hades. The proof? It is the only plant that has no joints.
It didn’t help matters when Porphyry went around telling everyone about that time Pythagoras did that magic trick where he planted some beans in a pot and ninety days later they looked exactly like a ladies’ downstairs mixup….which then transformed into a human head that was for sure someone’s poor soul caught in transit.
There are so many crazy claims attached the the poor bean – such as, if you bite a bean and leave it in the sun it will smell exactly like the blood of a murdered person, (there’s a difference?) Or, the belief in it’s magical powers of warding off ghosts – in some places around the time of the winter solstice the male head of household would emerge from the home, barefoot and toss beans around the house while repeating nine times, “Shades of my ancestors, depart,” while they rest of the family banged on pots and pans and stomped on the ground. This was all done to protect the family from ghosts who were there to snatch the souls of the living. The beans were believed to hold souls and were thrown out as a decoy in hopes the soul hungry ghosts would be satisfied with the beans and leave the family alone.
The modern day bean feast has transformed quite a bit. Although plenty of drinking and revelry is a hallmark, the bean really only plays into the feast by way of being baked into a cake. A cake is made for the feast containing a single bean. Whomever in the party gets the piece of cake containing the bean is awarded the title of “Bean King” and must preside over the evenings festivities.
This painting by Jakob Jordaens created around 1645 shows a bean feast in full swing – note the exposed chesticle of one guest and the guy vomiting on the left. Clearly, the bean feat was a good time.
Albala, Ken, Beans, A History (2007)
Duyff, Roberta Larson, Food Folklore: Tales and Truths About What We Eat (1999)
Ratsch, Christian, Muller-Ebeling, Pagan Christmas (2000)
In many parts of Europe, witches are a common and popular figure of the Christmas season. Prior to the Christian church taking over January 6th as Epiphany or Three Kings night, this was the holy night of Berchta, goddess of winter, witchcraft and animals. Many countries have adapted Berchta to their own cultures and she goes by many different names and personas, but the further you go back in history, the more fearsome she gets.
In more modern times, she is associated with the fairy tale figure of Mother Holle, with her enormous teeth, doling out punishments for the lazy and responsible for making it snow upon the earth by shaking out her feather beds and pillows. In Italy she is known as La Befana and in Russia, Baboushka. In these incarnations the old woman is the epitome of a type A personality. She is overly obsessed with order and cleanliness, so when the three kings pass by on their way to visit the christ child and invite her to come along, she declines the offer as she hasn’t finished her sweeping. Soon after they leave, Baboushka comes to her senses, packs a basket of freshly baked cookies and goes out to find them, but they are too far ahead for her to catch up. Now, come each January 6th, like some sort of residual haunting, she packs up her cookies and sets off on a broomstick to find them. She looks in the house of every child and leaves a cookie behind.
Urbania has laid claims to the home of the original Befana. Here, they hold a great festival where hundreds of women dress in stereotypical witchy garb and flood the streets, juggling, dancing, singing and greeting all the children.
In Italy, you can catch a glimpse of witches in storefronts everywhere and even see her “flying” on her broom from the tops of the tallest church towers, throwing candies and treats to excited children below.
The traditional centerpiece of a goose for Christmas dinner is even tied to witchcraft. Berchta is often referred to as Perchta, a sinister figure appearing as a half witch woman half demon with a goose or swan’s foot. It was believed that witches rubbed their bodies with goose fat, which enabled them to fly. People left the fat in a pot outside as an offering to witches on Christmas night where they would take nightly flights, called grease flights, over the twelve days of Christmas.
Perchta roams the earth this January night, rewarding those who are hard working and generous and punishing the idle, greedy and (oh dear) the curious. Children and adults alike are vulnerable to Perchta’s wrath. Her punishment of choice involves slashing open your stomach so she may violently rip out your intestines, which are then replaced by straw, rocks and garbage. Being an adept seamstress she’d sew you right back up again and then be on to the next victim. In many places Perchta rides with a throng of demonic looking helpers, who love to partake of the feast offerings left out for them by people hoping for Perchta’s blessings of wealth and health in the new year.
In Switzerland Perchta’s demon sidekicks, straggele, get to dole out the punishments themselves and aren’t terribly discerning as they “…rob all bad children and tear them to pieces in the air.” That must make quite a mess. I doubt La Befana would approve.