“ ‘I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
‘You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,’ Scrooge pursued. ‘Is that so, Spirit?’
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.”
(from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol)
To mark Christmas Eve—which is probably my favorite winter holiday, simply because it’s the one I’ve always celebrated and the one I’ve always found most magical—I thought today I’d put up a few of the many fortune-telling techniques employed at this time. While many of these are not specifically New World, they are often quite ethnically linked and so are found in a variety of ethnic communities both in the “Old Country” and the New.
(you can read more about these customs here)
- Girls who grind poppy seeds on Christmas Eve can expect a swift marriage
- After dinner on Christmas Eve, a girl will leave the house and listen for a dog bark. Wherever it comes from is the direction from which her future husband will arrive.
- A maiden could go down to the river on Christmas Eve and dip her hand in the water, pulling out the first object she touched. Wood meant her future husband might be a carpenter, leather a cobbler, iron a blacksmith, etc.
- Straws could be placed under the tablecloth at dinner, then pulled by guests to foretell the future. A green straw meant marriage, a yellow straw meant spinsterhood, a short straw meant an early grave.
(you can read more about these customs here)
- Every member of the family lays some bread on the floor, after which the dog is called in. Whose bread the dog eats will go on a journey in the next year (or in some variations, be dead by that time).
- Melted lead is dropped into cool water, and the shapes are used to interpret the future. For example a sheep-shaped piece might indicate a future job in agriculture, or perhaps peace and rest in the near future. I’ve heard of tin being substituted, and I imagine candle wax would be a reasonable replacement, too, if you lack the means to melt metal in your home.
- Lighted candles could be placed in walnut shells, then floated in the bathtub. Whoever had the shell which went the farthest would be making a long and important journey soon.
- After dinner, guests take an apple and cut it crosswise. If it reveals a star-shape, good fortune awaits the subject. If it shows a cross, illness or death is coming.
- Walnuts can also be cracked to reveal the future. A kernel that is big and sweet reveals happiness and prosperity, while a shriveled or bitter kernel foretells sorrow or sickness.
- A sheep’s shoulder-blade could be “read” to indicate the future. After the lamb was eaten at Christmas dinner, its shoulder would be scraped clean without using iron (preferably by the teeth or a wooden implement), and the spots left at the thinnest parts of the blade would show shapes to the reader indicating the future.
- In a very grave ceremony, a round cake would be baked (sometimes of ashes or even cow dung) and a candle would be placed in it for each member of the family. The order in which the candles burned out indicated the order in which family members would die.
- The neighing of horses on Christmas Eve indicated whether there would be peace or war in the coming year.
- A girl going to a well just before midnight on Christmas Eve could see her future spouse in the calm waters.
- A girl could knock at a hen-house door on this night, and if the cock crowed, she would soon marry. If not, she would remain celibate.
- Whoever lit the new Yule log with a piece of the previous year’s Yule log would have good fortune all year. This concept was immortalized in verse by Robert Herrick’s poem, “The Yule Log.”
- The plow was to be brought in and kept under the table all through the twelve days of Christmas in order to ensure good luck. If you had a plow, that is.
- A girl could place a sprig of hawthorn in a glass of water and if it sprouted on Christmas Eve, she would be sure to soon marry.
- Each member of the family puts a heap of flour on the table and leaves the room. The head of the family then comes in and stashes different presents or charms in the flour piles, and the family returns to find their fortune for the year based on the charm they received.
- If Christmas Eve is moonlit, there will be bad fruit in the coming year.
- A man in costume standing on the church steps can watch for those who attempt to enter the church on Christmas Eve but find themselves unable to do so. The man then identifies those who did not make it into the church as witches.
- Those born on Christmas Eve are thought to become either werewolves or witches, depending on their gender.
- Anyone who invokes the Devil before a mirror on Christmas Eve may become a witch (not really divination, but I thought it was interesting anyway!).
If you have Christmas Eve fortune-telling or divination customs, we’d love to hear them! I know this barely scratches the surface of all the various cultures which partake in a little bit of magic on Christmas Eve, but I must stop here. I still have a few presents to wrap, and I think I may need to track down some lead, a plow, and maybe a mirror.
Have the very best of holidays, everyone! Thank you all so much for reading, and all my wintry blessings go out to our readers! May the light find you, wherever you are.