– an excursion to some less known midwinter and christmas traditions of Germany –
When people decorate their home with evergreens for Christmas, very few know, that many customs, related to Christmas nowadays originally had been acts, by which the goddess of life had been worshipped.
Long before fir has become the favourite choice for Christmas decoration, women brought green twigs of holly, yew, boxwood and sometimes juniper into their home to festoon the house as an invitation to Mother Hulda, Perchte, Frau Holle. All these are names for the same goddess, who rules over the cycles of life, death and rebirth, sowing, growing and harvest, the weather and the seasons.
When the evening sky is coloured in fiery red and shining gold Mother Hulda is baking bread; when she is shaking the pillows in her heavenly home soft feathery snowflakes tumble down to cover the silent earth with a white blanket, which protects the seeds in the soil from the icy bite of frost.
Folklore in some parts of southern Germany still has processions with masked figures, dressed up as Perchte. But the once powerful goddess is presented as an evil witch or the embodiment of the dark powers of winter, which are chased away.
Not only evergreens were used for decoration. In some regions twigs of hazel, willow, apple tree and birch were brought into the house, too. Those were cut in November to come into leaf at Christmas. These green boughs of life were decorated with apples, nuts and sweets and given as presents to each other.
In the region of the Alps young women cut twigs of cherry and pears on the day of St. Lucia. If these were blossoming at Christmas, this was seen as a good omen for the girls’ wishes to be fulfilled in the course of the following year.
In some parts of Southern Germany a green bough with an apple skewered on it’s top presented the bough of life.
In Bavaria fruit trees were decorated with ribbons and candles, and people danced around these “midwinter trees”.
In Swabia people had a “tree” of St. Barbara instead of the Christmas tree. That tree of Barbara consisted of twigs, which had been cut and brought into the house on St. Barbara’s names day, the 4th of December. These twigs were decorated with apples, pears, nuts, ginger bread, cookies and marzipan.
It was not before the early 16th century that fir twigs as christmas decorations appear in the chronicles.
The “Narrenschiff”, a book published in 1494, mentions the folk belief that one who did not decorate his home with fir at christmas would not survive the following year.
The Christmas tree had nearly fully replaced the blooming boughs as Christmas decoration in Germany approximately at the beginning of the 19th century.
It is interesting to see, that blooming boughs as Christmas decorations were mainly used in the regions, which had been part of the Roman Empire for a long time.
The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia between December 17th and December 23rd. The date referred to the founding of the temple of Saturn in Rome, and the feast had been celebrated with public free meals, a lot of partying and giving little presents to each other.
During processions men dressed up as Satyrs, spirits of vegetation. They hit the spectators with green twigs, thus conveying the powers of fertility and growth.
We may find all these elements of the Saturnalia in Christmas traditions along the Alps and along the rivers Donau and Rhine, whereas the further one travels north different traditions to celebrate Christmas had developed.
In the east of Westphalia, in and along the Teutoburger Forest, the rural population decorated the outside of doors of stables and homes with fir twigs, whereas inside the house bouquets, wreaths and garlands of boxwood, juniper, holly and yew adorned the family’s home, which was not decorated with other green twigs before Easter.
As wreaths and garlands of fresh flowers are woven in spring to honour the awakening of vegetation, so wreaths and garlands of evergreens are hung up at midwinter to honour the rebirth of light after the dark season. At midwinter the rebirth of the sun, of light without which no life can exist, is celebrated. In spring people revel the awakening life of vegetation.
Long before the advent wreath with it’s four candles has been invented, people had wreaths of evergreens hung under the ceiling.
With the foundation of monasteries and churches in Westphalia by Charlemagne Christmas traditions were imported and melted with local customs.
An example for this is the Christmas procession, during which the village’s maidens accompanied a virgin, dressed in white garments and wearing a white veil. They went from door to door, and the lady in white had been presented as the Christ child*, bringing little presents to the children of the household.
A group of young men, led by one, wearing dark garments and a hood, hiding his face was also part of the procession.
Doesn’t the young lady in white remind us of the goddess, blessing every house she enters in these days?
And doesn’t the image of the hooded man and his friends in her entourage echo forth the ancient memory of the antlered lord of the wildwood, called “Herne” by the Anglo-Saxon tribes and “Herme” by those Saxon tribes, who settled along the TeutoForest, when Charlemagne fought against these still pagan tribes in the 8th century AD?!
In the early days of Christianity the day for giving presents to the children had been the day of St. Nikolaus**. After the reformation in the 16th century in protestant regions the giving of presents had been adjourned to the 24th of December.
Banqueting had been an important part of Christmas celebrations (and still is for some people nowadays). Although one may think, that this tradition has it’s roots in the public banquets of the Saturnalia, that is not true. Indeed we may find the tradition of midwinter banquets all over Northern Europe, where never a Roman had set his foot and where Christian missionaries had been successful comparatively late.
These banquets were held to honour the gods. It was thought, that wandering Odin and his warrior band might visit the house. As one’s ancestors might be members of that band of warriors, too, the honouring of the God was also an act of honouring the ancestors, who were thought to reside in Valhalla.
The nature spirits were honoured with special offerings, too. In many regions of Northern Europe even nowadays a dish with sweet semolina pudding is placed behind the house as an offering for the nature spirits.
In some parts of Germany crumbles of the Christmas bread were thrown into the fire as an offering for the spirit of the house. All crumbles, that had fallen under the table were also thought to be food for the spirit of the house. Children were prohibited to sit under the table, as that place was said to be around midwinter a mysterious entrance into the Otherworld, to which children, kidnapped by unfriendly local spirits were thought to be brought.
That place under the table – being especially magical in the days between the years – was also used to place household tools there to be blessed by the spirits of the earth.
If you take a close look on the crips, which are in these days build up in churches and households, you may detect some animals assembled around baby Jesus.
And indeed it is part of christmas tradition to take special care for the well being of cattle, bees, pets and the animals of the wilderness.
When the cattle was fed on christmas, sacred and healing herbs were part of their meal and all animals on the farm, including the bees, were informed, that jesus is born as a blessing for all sentient beings.
Folklore says, that on christmas between midnight and 1 o´clock all cattle can speak in human language.
As the Wild Hunt was riding through the land in these days, some of it´s participants became part of christmas traditions, too.
So people had thought, that sometimes the Wild Hunter left one of his hounds at one or the other farm to be fed and cared for. After a year he takes his dog back. If the family, who had been entrusted with the care, had been nice to the dog, they were blessed with health and success for the rest of their life.
At midwinter farmers brought the sheaf of crop, which had been the one, cut and bound at the end of the harvest into the empty field as an offering to the horse of the Wild Hunter.
As the animals of the wilderness were fed, too, on this day, mongers for deer and fallow deer were filled with fresh food, as the deers must be strong to draw the sleigh of the christkind… Isn´t tthat explanation a beautiful example for the mix of pagan and christian elements in folklore?!
If you visit TeutoForest in these days and if you go for a midwinter walk in the morning after a frosty night, you may see the twines of wild hops –genus lumulus- covered from hoarfrost in midwinter, hanging down from hazel and willow, and you will know for sure, that Mother Hulda has passed, as she left some of her moon stallion´s silvery bridle behind as a visible sign of Her presence and Her divine blessing…
In this spirit i am sending good wishes and midwinter greetings to all, who read my blog.
Happy Solstice and blessed Yule!
*In some parts of Germany it is still the “christkind” – baby Jesus and not Father Christmas, who brings presents.
**Nicholas of Myriotes had lived in the 6th century AD. He had been bishop of Myra in Turkey. According to legend he had been killed during a prosecution of Christians in his region.
The idea of him as a figure giving presents to children had risen from the legend about him, that tells how he gave three lumps of gold to the three unmarried daughters of a man, who otherwise had sold the girls to a brothel, as he wasn’t able to feed them, and without a dowry they would not have got a husband in those times.