Posted tagged ‘traditions’

Blog Post 112 – 5…4…3…2… (New Year’s Traditions)

December 29, 2010

With one set of holidays just behind us, we still have a little more celebration left before the deep, dark, quiet winter sets in.  Today, I’ll be sharing some of the New Year’s traditions from North America (and to some extent, from around the world).  New Year’s has a lot of obvious components: a sense of rebirth, optimism, setting goals for improvement, and even a little romance.  Let’s look at some of the big traditions associated with this glittering and festive affair.

1)      Fireworks – These are a common component of New Year’s festivals worldwide, including the Chinese New Year which occurs later in the winter.  Aside from being a celebratory demonstration of light and wonder, the noise and fire from these explosives may serve to frighten away any lingering demons or bad spirits.  And, of course, they help keep everyone awake until the crucial midnight hour.  This also ties into other noise-making activities on New Year’s Eve, such as singing, banging cymbals, and other loud demonstrations of the party spirit.

In the Appalachians, this sometimes mixed with the mumming traditions of the Christmas season and became something known as a Shanghai Parade.  Gerald Milnes describes the practice in his book, Signs, Cures, & Witchery:

“The shanghai tradition once included music played on violins, flutes, horns, and drums in the Valley [of Greenbriar Co., West Virginia].  There is even a fiddle tune called ‘Shanghai’ that is known in West Virginia and may be connected to the shanghai ritual…people also cross-dress and put on exotic, mostly homemade costumes.  Reversal is a theme, and they generally whoop it up in the spirit of old midwinger revelry” (p. 192)

Jack Santino also describes similar uses of noise-makers, including guns, in his All Around the Year:  “In Hawaii, the custom involves the traditional beliefs of the native Hawaiians, who say that the fireworks scare off demons.  In Ohio, they are used as noisemakers, often instead of a gun, since ‘shooting in the New Year’ is the tradition” (p. 13).

2)      Kissing at Midnight – This tradition is related to others more regionally or culturally specific (such as “First Footing,” discussed below), but has become a broader practice among Occidental celebrants of the New Year.  The Snopes.com page on New Year’s superstitions has this to say on the subject:

“We kiss those dearest to us at midnight not only to share a moment of celebration with our favorite people, but also to ensure those affections and ties will continue throughout the next twelve months. To fail to smooch our significant others at the stroke of twelve would be to set the stage for a year of coldness.”

The idea of setting the stage for the coming year based on what one does on New Year’s Day ties into a lot of the other superstitions and customs related to this holiday.  With kissing, the idea seems to be that if you start the New Year off with someone you love, or at least by kissing someone attractive, you will invite positive romance into your life over the coming year.

3)       First Footing – To those of Scottish extraction, this is probably a very familiar practice.  The Scottish New Year is called Hogmany, and involves several key rituals, including house-cleaning, preparing traditional meals (see “New Year’s Food” below), and First Footing.  Sarah at Forest Grove has written an excellent entry on the Hogmany traditions, and describes First Footing thusly:

“First footing is a divinatory folk tradition where the first person who sets foot in your house in the wee hours of the New Year determines the luck and happenings of the year ahead. A man is preferred over a woman, and a man of dark hair and eye over a man of light hair and blue or green eyes. Redheads are especially unlucky to be the first to set foot across your threshold in some areas of Scotland.”

In some cases this practice requires that the first-footer be not of the household.  We received several pieces of lore in our Winter Lore Contest related to the New Year, including a bit about First Footing from listener/reader Akia: “Some of her [grandmother’s} holiday superstitions included: not letting anyone out of the house or enter until an unrelated male came into the house on New Years Day.”

4)      New Year’s Food – There are a lot of traditions about just what to eat on New Year’s Day.  Some of the most common components of a New Year’s meal are:

      • Black-Eyed Peas
      • Cabbage
      • Collard Greens
      • Ham or Pork
      • Lentils
      • Whiskey (or good, strong booze in general)
      • Potato Pancakes

Most of the foods associated with the New Year are related to prosperity and wealth in some way.  For instance, lentils and potato pancakes are shaped like coins.  Black-eyed peas have fertility and abundance going for them.  Cabbage and collards look like wads of bills waiting to be spent, etc.  Some folks recommend the addition of non-edible components to the meal, such as coins for prosperity.  Patrick W. Gainer says, “It will bring good luck if on New year’s Day you cook cabbage and black-eyed peas together and put a dime in them” (p.123).   Listener and podcaster Aria Nightengale shared her New Year’s food lore during our recent contest, saying, “[W]e always eat pork and cabbage on new year’s day.  According to my Momaw, we eat pork because pigs eat moving forward not backwards, so pork will help you move forward through the new year.  I don’t know the specific purpose of the cabbage…but Momaw cooks it with a silver dollar in it for prosperity.”

There’s a distinctly Southern dish called Hoppin’ John made from black-eyed peas, onions, and ham which can usually be found simmering away on most stovetops during the New Year.  It’s so important to our traditions that many restaurants also offer some version of it on New Year’s Day.  My wife and I have a tradition of going to one specific restaurant every year where we can get good potato pancakes and hoppin’ john to help bring in the New Year with a couple of our friends.  It makes for a nice way to spend the day, and ensures that we get our black-eyed pea requirement taken care of.

There are still many more traditions we could discuss (and I hope to!), such as cleaning practices, taboos, whether or not to give gifts, etc.  But for now, I hope this has been a nice introduction to the wonderfully lore-rich practices of New Year’s celebration.  Here’s wishing you a great day, and a great ending to the year!

All the best, and thanks for reading,

-Cory

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Blog Post 110 – The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

December 24, 2010

“ ‘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.

Polish Customs
(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.

Czech Customs
(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.

Irish Customs
(you can read more about these customs here, here and here)

  • 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.

British Customs
(you can read more about these customs here and here)

  • 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.

Italian Customs
(you can read more about these customs here, here, and here)

  • 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.

-Cory

Blog Post 109 – Holidays in the Mountains

December 23, 2010

Hi there, everyone!

Today, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of holiday lore from the mountains, both the Ozarks and the Appalachians (to those readers wondering when I’ll start including the Rockies, I promise I’ll get there one day!  I’m just woefully ignorant of the traditions from that area).  There are a number of pieces of folklore associated with the winter holidays in the mountains.  Often, storytelling and family visits were the primary entertainment in the financially poor but folklore-and-culturally-rich mountains once the cold weather set in.  Christmas was not always celebrated, especially during the early years of settling, largely because many Protestants settling in the Appalachians viewed the holiday with suspicion and regarded it as a Catholic celebration.  One source records that the penalty for observing Christmas during the Puritan era was a “fine of five shillings” (WG&S, p.28).  Over time, however, as more people of mixed backgrounds settled the area, Christmas became a social holiday.  Patrick Gainer records that holidays in the mountains included:

  • Fireworks and noisemaking
  • Very little decorating prior to the widespread introduction of electricity (most homes didn’t have a Christmas tree)
  • School Christmas parties
  • Costumed visits to friends and neighbors (called “Belsnickling”—more on that in a minute)
  • Toys for children, though almost entirely homemade ones

Belsnickling

The tradition of Belsnickling is particularly interesting.  It seems to be a mumming tradition in the vein of similar British activities, but is really practiced by only the Germanic settlers in the Appalachians.  It relates to the Belsnickle (whose name may come from pelz Nicholas, or “furry Nick”), a devilish traveling companion to good St. Nick during his holiday visits who would punish the wicked children in the same way that the saint rewarded the good ones.  In some variations, it was not St. Nick who traveled with Belsnickle, but Kriss Kringle (likely a derivation from the Germanic kriskindl, or “Christ-child”).   Gerald Milnes describes the practice thusly:

“To people in the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing the belsnicklers’ identities…Sometimes treats were offered to the belsnicklers, and sometimes belsnicklers offered treats to the household” (SC&W, p.186)

Milnes also offers a variety of pranks and tricks related to this practice:

  • Candy would be thrown on the floor, and when children dove for it, they would have their fingers switched by the belsnicklers
  • Bands of belsnicklers would wander through the countryside hooting and yelling all through the night
  • People in costume would tap on the windows of houses and scare the children inside
  • Firecrackers would be lit and thrown into people’s homes

He also relates this practice back to something deeply witchy—the Wild Hunt:

“Belsnickling and similar activities, as group practices, have obscure beginnings, but they may well go back to the old Teutonic concept of the wild hunt.  In Scandinavian and German versions of this myth, a huntsman with dogs, accompanied by spirits, hunts the wild woman.  In some versions, the huntsman, a lost soul, leads a band of wild spirits to overrun farms at Christmas time (the winter solstice)” (SC&W, p. 186).

Christmas Dinner in the Mountains

Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a feast in modern minds, but the table offerings were not quite the same for every family.  Often, up in the mountains in the early-to-midwinter, the meal would consist on the wild meat that was available rather than anything domestically raised.  In Foxfire 12, informant John Huron describes a most particular holiday meal:

“Groundhogs aren’t bad eatin’ either if you cook them right…baked and layered with onions and sweet potatoes.  That was what Charlie’s daughter, Margaret, would fix him for Christmas dinner every year.  They invited me and my wife, Sandy, and my son, Jay, over for Christmas dinner one time, and that’s what we had.  A groundhog is a lot cleaner animal than a chicken.  When you get right down to it, a chicken is a nasty critter” (FF12, p.248)

Signs and Omens on Christmas

There are a number of superstitions which have sprung up around the holiday season, too.  Often, weather and luck are intimately tied to Christmas, though sometimes the date shifts a little between December 25th (“New” Christmas) and January 6th (“Old” Christmas).  Some of the signs and omens from the Appalachians and Ozarks include:

  • It will be a fruitful year if the eaves of the house drip on Christmas (SC&W)
  • Children born on Christmas Day can understand the speech of animals (WG&S and OM&F)
  • Being the first to say “Christmas Gift” to another on Christmas Day yielded good luck (WG&S)
  • On Christmas Eve at midnight, all farm animals will bow down and speak to acknowledge Christ’s birth (SC&W and OM&F)
  • Those with the “second sight” make predictions most accurately on Christmas Eve (IaGaM)
  • “A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard” – warm weather at Christmas will lead to many deaths over the coming year (OM&F)
  • On Old Christmas, the sun actually rises twice instead of just once (OM&F)
  • Bees buzz so loudly on Old Christmas they can be heard for miles away (OM&F)
  • Elderberries always sprout on Old Christmas, no matter what the weather (OM&F)

Even with its rather slow, Puritanical start, Christmas in the mountains has become one of the most magically charged times of the year.  From eating groundhogs to playing rowdy pranks to witnessing the miraculous behavior of animals, this is certainly one of the most interesting times of the year.  And, in my humble opinion, one of the most magical.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 21 – Winter Lore

December 9, 2010

-SHOWNOTES FOR EPISODE 21-

Summary

In this episode, we share some of the winter lore we received in our recent contest.  We look at the various wonderful traditions from around the continent (and the world), and share some of our own holiday practices.  Plus, we have a special guest!  We also discuss reclaiming the holiday season, and we have the winners of our contest!  Thank you to all who contributed!

Play:

Download:  New World Witchery – Episode 21
-Sources-
Most of our lore comes from either us or our listeners this time around. But if you’re looking for some good books on holiday customs and traditions, I can recommend:
All Around the Year, by Jack Santino
The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, by Caitlin & John Matthews
The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice, by Carolyn M. Edwards
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, by Ronald Hutton
Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide, by Christian Ratsch
Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.
Promo 1 – Borealis Meditations
Promo 2 – Forest Grove Botanica
Promo 3 – Appalachian Witch Doctor Tales

Quick Update – Holiday Lore Contest Reminder

December 2, 2010

Hello everybody!

This is just a quick reminder that we’ve got our Winter Lore Contest on right now, but time is running out to get your entry in.  We’re looking for information centered around the winter holidays, specifically local or family:

  • Practices
  • Customs
  • Traditions
  • Songs
  • Recipes
  • Stories
  • Crafts

Please make sure you tell us what area you are from (generally), and if you would like us to use your name on the blog/podcast.

You have until midnight (Central Time) on Monday, December 6th to submit your lore via blog comment or email, so don’t delay!  You can still get an additional entry if you tweet, blog, or otherwise spread the word about the contest and send us the link.

The prizes are:
Two Runner-up Prizes – Signed copy of Judika Illes’ latest book, The Weiser Field Guide to Witches

One Grand Prize – A Compass & Key Hoodoo Starter Kit, with a selection of oils, botanicals, curios, and other products for budding rootworkers.

We’ve gotten a number of excellent entries, but we still would love to get some more, so please submit before time runs out!

Thanks for reading (and sharing)!

-Cory


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