By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
We all know that Christmas is on December 25, but do you know why? It wasn’t necessarily because it was the date of the birth of Jesus (most biblical scholars think he was born in March, BTW). The pagan winter solstice observances were bigger and more wide-spread, more popular and considered more important to most non-Christian cultures. The Catholic church wanted to promote Christianity (and get rid of pagan religions) so the celebration of Christ’s Mass was chosen to be on December 25 and promoted as the birth of Christ.
The “sol” in Solstice is Latin for sun and the “stice” part comes from the Latin verb for standing still. We, in the modern age know about the solstices that happen twice a year and the equinoxes that occur twice a year as well (the equinoxes are when day and night are equal in length, which is what equinox means in Latin). Cultures from the past weren’t aware of the reason for this phenomenon and so it took on a religious meaning. The nights got longer and the days got shorter. The longer nights got colder, generally, and plants died in the cold and dark. Is it any wonder that older cultures created ceremonies to bring back the sun and the warmth and the growing season? The northern pagans burned huge logs that last the midwinter celebrations, sometimes even saving a small last bit of the Yule log to burn in the next winter’s fire. The ashes of the fire on the longest night became so special many claimed it had healing properties. The livestock, cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals were often slaughtered around this time—they often would not make it through the harsh winter and much of the meat was preserved in salt. They had huge meals; sometimes it was the last of the vegetables as well as the meats, to celebrate the return of the sun. Often the winter months brought famine to some parts of Europe.
A little history…
Saturnalia was a Roman holiday, a festival that started off somber but became more and more raucous. In Scandinavia this festival was called Jul or Yule. The huge log burned to keep the long night lit became the Yule log. (And in a roundabout way we now have a fabulous holiday desert called the Buc de Noel, which is shaped like a log. It is made from chocolate cake, often decorated with marzipan mushrooms and covered in chocolate sauce. Very decadent and it has been around for hundreds of years.) Saturnalia was replaced with Christmas by the Catholic Church, to make it less pagan and to make it more solemn. It took centuries, but Christmas eventually became so raucous that it was outlawed in the new world of America.
Another rival to Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Mithra, a sun god whose birth was celebrated by Romans all over the empire on December 25. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun” or Mithra in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations. In 273, the Christian church selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and by 336, this Roman feast day was Christianized.
In Scandinavia, Yule is celebrated when the dark half of the year starts to get shorter and the days start lasting a little longer. The sun’s rebirth was celebrated with much joy. From this day forward, the days would become longer. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were wished good health with toasts of spiced cider. The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder’s land, or given as a gift… it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze by a piece of last year’s log.
Caroling, wassailing the trees, burning the Yule log, decorating the Yule tree, exchanging of presents, kissing under the mistletoe were all activities that are still part of our Christmas traditions that came from celebrating the solstice. Even the foods that we associate with solstice celebrations are similar. Cider, spiced cider, ginger tea, eggnog, fall fruits and other spiced breads and cookies.
Interested in celebrating the solstice? Try some of these ideas to start your own traditions of celebrating the rebirth of the sun.
- Many people make a winter solstice tree by hanging food to feed the animals when their food supplies have become scarce on the winter solstice.
- Make sun and or star ornaments to hang on your Christmas Tree to symbolize the return of the sun’s light.
- Some people celebrate by staying up all night on the night of the solstice to be awake to welcome back the light.
- Many people choose to not use electricity on the night of the solstice and instead enjoy the darkest night of the year by candlelight. Some people carry this tradition through to Christmas Eve. Consider inviting friends and family over for a candlelight feast!
- Eat, drink, and be merry! You can find recipes for wassail online, either spiked or unspiked to serve with your meal.
- You could burn a bigger log than normal in the fire place. You can also find a Yule Log online and watch it burn on your computer. There are even videos you could purchase to have a crackling fire on cold winter nights.
If you don’t have one, consider making a cake Yule Log. The Buche de Noel is stunning and delicious. Try some of these recipes:
- Consider writing down everything that you would like to release or change in the new year onto scraps of paper, then throw them in the fire or burn them carefully in a safe container.
- You could also write down your intentions for the new year, similar to a resolution.
And just to throw this in, in the southern hemisphere, they celebrate the summer solstice. Here are some of the things they do that you might want to incorporate in the summer or the winter.
In the past, people in the Southern hemisphere celebrated renewal, life, fertility, and the potential for a good harvest on the summer solstice. Today, many people often celebrate the arrival of summer with outdoor feasts, singing, dancing, and bonfires. You might want to bathe in sunlight; make a flower wreath to wear; start a garden or spend time tending your garden and celebrate rebirth and renewal; visit a local farm, have a festival and feast; throw a bonfire and dance; do yoga or meditation; get outside and connect with nature.
In other countries there are many traditions to celebrate the solstice. Here are a few of the most interesting. Revelers come to Hollabrunn, Austria to watch people dressed up like Krampus scare the crowd. They dress to look like Krampus and carry soft whips that they use on the crowds. Doesn’t sound like fun to me, though.
In Japan, they like to soak in hot baths outside with fruits tossed into the water that are believed to bring good health. Often the zoos do the same thing for the animals (those that like water, that is.) The macaques and hippos sure do like it!
In Korea, the meal to eat is red bean porridge. It’s believed to keep the evil spirits away.
- Winter solstice by Rosemund Pilcher (F PIL)
- Winter solstice by Elin Hildenbrand (F HIL)
- Krampus: the Yule lord by Brom (F BRA)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice (astronomical)
- http://time.com/5060889/winter-solstice-rituals/ – Japan is interesting
by Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
The Russians got used to not celebrating Christmas during the Soviet years; they celebrated New Year’s Day just like we celebrate Christmas. Luckily for them there was a legendary figure who fit the bill as a Santa Claus figure to help celebrate New Year, and now also Christmas. He’s known as Grandfather Frost (definitely not to be confused with Frosty the Snowman). In Russian, he’s called Ded Moroz, “d’ed” being Grandfather, “moroz” being frost. He is often accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. In Russian Snegurochka (just FIY – sneg is the Russian word for snow.) And truly these are not modern figures made to help celebrate (and sell) a modern Christmas holiday. They are ancient mythological figures.
Grandfather Frost predates Christianity. In the pagan days, before the Russian tsar sent out envoys to compare the various religions in the area and chose the Greek Orthodox Church (choosing to differentiate their own version as Russian Orthodox), the peasants worshiped nature. Frost and snow were very important in their lives, so they made a name for the frost lord. He is a winter wizard who brought the frost and snow and he could be helpful if treated nicely, but vindictive if treated badly. Winter was a powerful figure in Russia; just look at what happened to both Napoleon and Hitler…
Frost is considered to be around 2,500 years old. He usually wears a long red wool or fur robe and boots, but no belt. He has a long bushy beard and sometimes wears a wreath of holly and sometimes a hat similar to our Santa Claus. He has also been shown wearing a crown. And he has powers. He often carries a staff which he might use for magic spells and to help him walk through the snow drifts. He doesn’t travel down chimneys either, he comes in through the front door. He travels around in a troika; that’s a carriage driven by three horses (troika means three in Russian…). Even though there are caribou in some parts of Russia, they are not widespread enough for the legend of flying reindeer. Though his troikas have been known to fly as well.
In 2002, a tradition was started between Finland and Russia where Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) crossed the border to greet Ded Moroz. They hand out gifts to all, the crowd of children dance and then they all go inside and have fun. We know that this Santa Summit was still taking place in 2016. Perhaps it still is.
The Snow Maiden is not as old a character as Grandfather Frost. She first appeared in a collection of folktales published in the 1860s by Alexander Afanasyev. He eventually collected three volumes of Russian folktales. No one knows if the story of the snow maiden goes back further, though, since he was the first to collect the stories. In her tale, she longs to be able to love her foster parents but has no heart since she is made of snow. She is granted a heart by her mother and father but melts away as she joins other children jumping over the fire. Grandfather Frost is considered her grandfather and the two of them bring joy and beauty to the snowy Russian winter.
In 1998, the Moscow Mayor proposed to officially make Veliky Ustyug the residence of Ded Moroz, The residence, which is a resort promoted as his estate, is a major tourist attraction. The town also has a post office there that answers children’s mail to Ded Moroz. Between 2003 and 2010, the post office in Veliky Ustyug received nearly 2,000,000 letters from all over Russia and worldwide. On January 7, 2008, Vladimir Putin visited the estate for the Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve celebration.
Santa Claus made some inroads in Russia during the 1990s, but Russia’s resurgence has brought a renewed emphasis on the basic Slavic character of Ded Moroz. The Russian Federation has even sponsored classes about Ded Moroz every December. People playing Ded Moroz and Snegurochka now typically make appearances at children’s parties during the winter holiday season, distributing presents and fighting off the wicked witch, Baba Yaga, who children are told wants to steal their gifts.
In November and December 2010, Ded Moroz was even one of the candidates in the running for consideration as a mascot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Read the rest of this entry
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
WARNING! Dangerous, do not approach. If seen, call Santa immediately.
**The Rogues Gallery is the cast of colorful and numerous Recurring Characters that show up to torment the heroes week after week.**
Zwarte Piet, (aka. Black Pete)
Active Areas: Belgium, Netherlands
Bio: He was formerly a Moorish servant from Spain, or a Turkish orphan, or Ethiopian Slave rescued by Saint Nick and now attending Saint Nick as a helper
M.O.: A Prankster who might whip naughty children with birch wood rods or put coal in their shoes. However, those especially naughty he could stuff in his sack and carry them off to Spain.
Père Fouettard, (aka. “Father Whipper”)
Active Areas: France
Bio: This rouge’s chilling past involves his killing and cooking three wealthy children who stayed at his inn. Saint Nicolas ended up resurrecting the three children and bringing Fouettard to repentance. Fouettard then became St. Nick’s helper.
M.O.: For those untouched by the good will of St. Nicolas, Fouettard doles out whippings to children who misbehave.
Active Areas: Austria, Germany
Bio: Thought to be from a nature goddess who affects humans only during Christmas. She rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.
M.O.: Good children might receive a silver piece in their shoes, while naughty children would receive something much, much worse. She would take out their insides by slitting open their bellies, and replace their entrails with garbage, straw and rocks which are sewn up to cause grievous pain. Oh for a mere lump of coal!
Active Areas: Alsace; Lorraine France
Bio: Trapp was supposedly a real man who was exiled into the forest where he would disguise himself as a straw-stuffed scarecrow and cannibalize children. He was struck down with lightening by the Lord.
M.O.: Trapp accompanies Santa to punish naughty children with beatings.
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: She is a giant ogress who has powers that let her detect children who misbehave. Her favorite food is a stew of rebellious children.
M.O.: She is full of mischief and trouble, and likes to eat children who disobey their parents.
The Yule Cat
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: The Yule Cat is ogress Gryla’s pet. And she is likewise dangerous and threatening.
M.O.: The Yule Cat encourages hard work. Children who do not work hard and are lazy will be eaten by the Yule Cat.
Active Areas: Germany
Bio: Belsnickel is from the word belzen meaning “to wallop,” along with nickel referring to St. Nicholas.
M.O.: He is a wandering man dressed in tattered furs wearing a mask and carrying a switch to frighten children into good behavior. He rewards good behavior with candy.
Active Areas: Found especially throughout the Alpine region and including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia
Bio: The half goat, half demon appearance of Krampus seems most likely to have grown out of early Alpine traditions related to the Horned God of the Witches of the region. Krampus eventually becomes a “side kick” of St. Nicholas in a rogue sort of way.
M.O.: He especially punishes unruly children with birch switches. But for really bad children Krampus might put them in a basket, drown them in a stream, and then devour them.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood. Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season. This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.
The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years. Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.
The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.
So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.
We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.
We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas. So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.
- Songs of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown
 Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Library Assistant
- Mood Music. Attend a concert of seasonal music by artists like Hannah and Esther DeLadurantey and the Eleganza Strings presenting a Family Christmas Concert on harp and violin.
- Come and see Santa with your family, and be sure to bring your cameras for that special photo.
- Enjoy a holiday musical like this year’s production of “Cindy’s Magic Snow Globe.”
- Take in a holiday movie on the Library’s Big Screen selected Friday Mornings and Thursday evenings.
- Save money by borrowing books from the library; and that includes electronic books.
- Need a holiday recipe? Take advantage of the library’s entire of wall of cookbooks as well as using our Zinio connection to read cooking magazines free online.
- What about some DIY Crafts for that personal touch in gifts? Attend a craft class in making bead bracelets or Christmas tree ornaments. You might also want to see the good DIY books, ready to borrow for your special project.
- Tech Tune-up! Take time out to learn more about computers and technology by attending classes like Microsoft Word, Excel, or our “Appy Hour:” where we learn about choosing the best apps for your tablet or Ipad.
- It’s family time. Learn about your family history in a class taught by library archivists called, “Introduction to Ancestry.com.”
- Enjoy the special activities for teens, like the Teen Cookie Decorating Party.
- Learn French (or German, or Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and more) for your next vacation or just for fun with the library’s free online language program called “Powerspeak.”
Bonus: Find a perfect holiday gift at a reasonable price from the Library’s Academy Park Press. Available at the main library circulation desk are the children’s book, Bucky and Bonnie’s Library Adventure, and the recently published: Bullets and Bayonets: A Battle of Franklin Primer.