Friday, December 8, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #124: Christmas Traditions Around the World

More than 160 countries around the world celebrate Christmas – that’s a lot of elves on a lot of shelves. Kidding, I’m pretty sure only we do that. Elves on Shelves make me glad my mother raised me without Santa. I have enough problems without worrying that I’m going to be murdered in my sleep by evil toys.

If, like me, you share the opinion that the appearance of Christmas trappings in stores before Halloween is a national tragedy, then don’t go to the Philippines. There, they begin celebrating Christmas on September 1 and continue all the way to Epiphany, January 6. In fact, nowhere in the world is the Christmas season as long as it is in the Philippines. The Christmas season officially begins with a series of nine Masses delivered at dawn, starting on December 16, but carols can be heard and decorations can be season for months beforehand. That’s what happens when you don’t have Thanksgiving.

Christmas lanterns called parols are popular.
~ Image by Keith Baconga from Wikimedia Commons

In Armenia, Christmas is celebrated on January 6, the “old Christmas” celebrated by the Amish and some Appalachians. Christmas used to be celebrated throughout the Christian world on January 6, until the Roman Catholic Church recalibrated their calendar in the late 1500s. But in Armenia, and among Armenian communities in other countries, like Ukraine, Christmas is still celebrated on the January 6, because they rejected the Gregorian calendar.

Armenians combat holiday binge-eating by fasting for the week before Christmas, eschewing meat, dairy, and eggs. Some may refrain from eating anything at all for the three days before Christmas, to purify themselves before they receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion, for you Protestants). Families break this fast with a lighter meal on Christmas Eve, before sitting down to a feast on Christmas Day.

Russia, and other Eastern Orthodox countries, also celebrate Christmas a little later than we’re used to, for similar reasons. Russians celebrate Christmas Day on January 7. Ded Moroz, or Old Man Frost, and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, bring gifts to children on New Year’s Eve. They wear long blue robes, just like Santa before Coke rebranded him.

As we’ve previously discussed, Yule, or jól, was and presumably still is an important holiday for pagan Scandinavians. Generations of Americans have grown up with A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Norwegians ring in Christmas with Disney’s From All of Us to All of You, or the Soviet-era film Three Nuts for Cinderella, whose popularity in Europe has been likened to that of It’s a Wonderful Life in the United States, which I assume means that everyone knows how it ends but no one has actually sat down and watched it. The main day of festivities takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24, which church services and a large family meal on the day of. In the week between December 26 and New Year’s Eve, children may dress up as Yule goats, or Julebukk, and go from house to house, singing songs in exchange for treats, like Halloween but colder and honestly probably scarier.

I think this may be a depiction thereof.

In Sweden, the first major celebration of the Christmas season is St. Lucy’s Day, in honor of a saint martyred in the third century after refusing to give up her virginity to a husband. St. Lucy was Italian, so it doesn’t really make sense that her feast day, December 13, is so widely celebrated in northern Europe, unless it was due to the Christianization of an earlier pagan practice. Her holiday on December 13 does coincide with the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.

A St. Lucy's Day church service.
~ Image by Claudia Grunder from Wikimedia Commons

On this day, oldest daughters dress up in white, and don a crown of lighted candles such as that worn by Lucy to light her way as she carried food to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs. Once they’ve transformed themselves into walking fire hazards, the girls usher in the Christmas season by waking their families with the song “Santa Lucia” and a breakfast of coffee and St. Lucy’s buns. 

The buns in question.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Why I’m Going to See "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Even Though I Hate Star Wars

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out two years ago, I initially wasn’t going to see it. I hate Star Wars, which might surprise some of you, considering that Star Wars is exactly the type of thing I generally like.

I don’t hate the Star Wars franchise because of its (considerable) flaws. When The Phantom Menace came out, I was sixteen. My aunt Martha, who is only ten years older than me, found out that I hadn’t seen any of the original Star Wars movies, so she insisted that I sit down and watch all three of them back-to-back before immediately taking me to the theater so I could watch The Phantom Menace. While I was watching A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, my aunt sat next me, delivering rhetorical analysis and commentary. “See, this is where he redeems his father,” she said as I watched the climactic battle between Luke and Vader.

It was enough to put me off the entire franchise. So, I wasn’t planning on going to see The Force Awakens. But then, shortly before the it came out, or maybe right after it came out, I was talking to my friend Kathryn on the phone and she revealed that she was going to see The Force Awakens.

“I didn’t know you liked Star Wars,” I said, surprised.

“Well, I don’t,” she replied, “but you have to see it. It’s a cultural moment.”


For the record, I didn’t like The Force Awakens, and I didn’t really care for Rogue One either, but I went to see them. I did so partly because I wanted to see if I still hated the Star Wars franchise (I did), but also partly because if you want to participate in society, you have to see the latest Star Wars movie. Everyone else is going to see it, so you have to see it too. I suspect that, like voting or going to work, many of us will do it out of a sense of obligation, but we’ll be miserable the whole time. All I can say is, this one had better not have a damn Death Star in it.

But you know it will.  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #123: Pagan Yule Traditions

Hauling a Yule log, from Robert Chambers' The Book of Days, 1864

Jim suggested this topic because we recently finished the Netflix show, The Last Kingdom, and he’s been reading the books by Bernard Cornwell. He tells me the books go into a lot of detail about Uhtred’s pagan customs. I’ve mentioned the pagan origins of Christmas before, although I once made the mistake of referring to them while in a K-Mart and turned around to find a stranger glaring at me. Today, the term Yule is used in most of the English-speaking world as a synonym for Christmas, but today I want to talk about the pagan Yule traditions that predated our Christian ones.

As you may know, Yule was originally a midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic people who populated Northern Europe and Scandinavia and came to settle in England as well. Those original celebrants of Yule considered the Yuletide period to last about two months, beginning in about mid-November and extending to early January. There’s just something about this time of the year that makes people want to set fires and get drunk. Gee, I wonder why that is.

Pagan Yule traditions included a feast, which customarily took place in a temple, to which farmers would bring livestock for sacrifice. The drinking of ale was mandatory, just like it is today. The sacrificial animals were eaten at the feast, and their blood was sprinkled on the walls and idols of the temple, as well as the men within.

While the midwinter sacrifice in the West European Stone and Bronze Ages may well have had an element of ancestor worship and veneration of the cult of the dead, it’s unclear whether this aspect survived into more recent Germanic pagan times.

Other Yule traditions, such as the Yule log, a massive log that, in the Middle Ages, was burned throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, may also have their origins in Anglo-Saxon paganism. In medieval times, the Yule log was believed to have magical properties, including the ability to ward off lightning, mildew, toothaches, and assorted bad luck. In some parts of Spain and France, the log was believed to “defecate gifts,” according to historian Gerry Bowler.

The origins of the Yule goat do go hark back to pagan traditions. The god Thor is said to ride through the sky in a chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr. The significance of the goat has its roots in the Indo-European god of harvest and fertility, a white goat named Devac or Dazbog. The last sheaf of grain bundled during the harvest was believed to have magical properties and was kept for the Yule celebration; the spirit of the Yule goat was said to visit in the days before Yule to ensure that preparations were being made correctly. Neighbors would prank one another by hiding a wooden or straw Yule goat in one another’s houses; if you found such a goat in your house, you had to get rid of it by hiding it in someone else’s house. No word on what would happen if you didn’t.

A modern Yule goat Christmas ornament.
Image by Pilecka from Wikimedia Commons

Part of the pagan celebration of Yule involved sonargöltr, or the ritual sacrifice of a boar. TheSaga of Hervor Heidrek mentions the swearing of an oath on the bristles of a Yule boar, after which the boar is sacrificed. The blood of this boar could then be used for divination. The sacrificial boar may be the oldest continuing Yuletide celebration. In modern times, it’s echoed in the Boar’s Head Feast, which takes place at Queen’s College, Oxford, Hurstpierpoint College, and at various churches and universities in the U.S. and Canada. The sonargöltr may also be why many consider ham to be the traditional Christmas meat.

King Haakon I of Norway, aka Haakon Haraldsson or Haakon the Good, is credited with the Christianization of the Yule season, and of Norway itself. King Haakon himself was a Christian, but many of his people were pagan, so he decreed that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as Christian Christmas celebration.

Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære by Peter Nicolai Arbo 
The guy in red is King Haakon, I think. I don't know Norwegian.