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´╗┐Title: Myths and Legends of Christmastide
Author: Herrick, Bertha F.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           BERTHA F. HERRICK


                             SAN FRANCISCO



     The following article originally appeared in one of the
     Christmas editions of the _San Francisco Chronicle_ and is
     now reprinted by permission from that journal.


    "Lo! now is come our joyful'st feast,
    Let every man be jolly.
    Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
    And every post with holly.
    Now all our neighbors' chimneys smoke,
    And Christmas blocks are burning;
    Their ovens they with bak't meats choke,
    And all their spits are turning."

The celebration of Christmas, which was considered by the Puritans to
be idolatrous, has for many centuries been so universal that it may
prove of interest to contrast the rites, ceremonies and quaint beliefs
of foreign lands with those of matter-of-fact America.

Many curious customs live only in tradition; but it is surprising to
find what singular superstitions still exist among credulous classes,
even in the light of the twentieth century.

In certain parts of England the peasantry formerly asserted that, on
the anniversary of the Nativity, oxen knelt in their stalls at
midnight,--the supposed hour of Christ's birth; while in other
localities bees were said to sing in their hives and subterranean
bells to ring a merry peal.

According to legends of ancient Britain cocks crew lustily all night
on December 24th to scare away witches and evil spirits, and in
Bavaria some of the countrymen made frequent and apparently aimless
trips in their sledges to cause the hemp to grow thick and tall.

In many lands there is still expressed the beautiful sentiment that
the gates of heaven stand wide open on Christmas Eve, and that he
whose soul takes flight during its hallowed hours arrives straightway
at the throne of grace.

A time-honored custom in Norway and Sweden is that of fastening a
sheaf of wheat to a long pole on the barn or house-top, for the wild
birds' holiday cheer; and in Holland the young men of the towns
sometimes bear a large silver star through the snowy streets,
collecting alms from pedestrians for the helpless or the aged sick.

Russia has no Santa Claus or Christmas tree, although the festival is
celebrated by church services and by ceremonies similar to those of
our Hallowe'en.

In some of the villages in Wales a Christmas pudding is boiled for
each of the disciples, with the exception of Judas, and in the rural
districts of Scotland bread baked on Christmas Eve is said to
indefinitely retain its freshness.

"The Fatherland" is the home of the Christmas tree, which is thought
to be symbolical of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil," in
the Garden of Eden; and candles were first used to typify the power of
Christianity over the darkness of paganism, being sometimes arranged
in triangular form to represent the Trinity.

Pines and firs being unattainable in the tropical islands of the
Pacific, the white residents sometimes cut down a fruit tree, such as
an orange or a guava, or actually manufacture a tree from wood,
covering the bare, stiff boughs with clinging vines of evergreen.

In the Holy Land at this season the place of greatest interest is
naturally the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, erected on the
supposed location where Christ was born. It is said to be the oldest
Christian church in existence, having been built more than fifteen
centuries ago by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. Repairs
were made later by Edward IV of England; but it is now again fast
falling into decay. The roof was originally composed of cedar of
Lebanon and the walls were studded with precious jewels, while
numerous lamps of silver and gold were suspended from the rafters. The
Greeks, Latins and Armenians now claim joint possession of the
structure, and jealously guard its sacred precincts. Immediately
beneath the nave of the cathedral is a commodious marble chamber,
constructed over the spot where the far-famed stable was said to have
stood and reached by a flight of stone steps, worn smooth by the tread
and kisses of multitudes of worshippers. The manger is represented by
a marble slab a couple of feet in height, decorated with tinsel and
blue satin and marked at the head with a chiseled star, bearing above
it the inscription in Latin, "Here was Jesus Christ born of the Virgin
Mary." At the foot are several altars, on which incense is ever kept
burning and from which mass is conducted, while a score of hanging
lamps shed a fitful light over the apartment.

Many theories have been advanced as to the explanation of the
mysterious "Star in the East" which guided the wondering shepherds,
but it is now thought to have been Venus at the height of its

The early Christians decorated their churches with evergreens out of
respect to the passage of Scripture in Isaiah--"The glory of Lebanon
shall come unto thee; the fir tree, the pine tree and the box together
to beautify the place of my sanctuary"--and the pagans believed them
to be omens of good, as the spirits of the woods remained in their

Holly is known in Germany and Scandinavia as "Christ's thorn," and is
emblematic everywhere of cheerfulness, forgiveness, "peace on earth
and good will to men."

The oak mistletoe or "missel" was held in high veneration by the
ancient Druids, who, regarding its parasitic character as a miracle
and its evergreen nature as a symbol of immortality, worshipped it in
their temples and used it as a panacea for the physical ailments of
their followers. When the moon was six days old, the bunches were
ceremoniously cut with a golden sickle, by the chief priest of the
order and received with care into the spotless robes of one of the
company, for if they fell to the unholy ground, their virtues were
considered lost.

Then, crowned with oak leaves and singing songs of thanksgiving, they
bore the branches in solemn procession to the altars, where two white
oxen were sacrificed to the gods.

The custom of "kissing under the mistletoe" dates back to the days of
Scandinavian mythology, when the god of darkness shot his rival, the
immortal Apollo of the North, with an arrow made from its boughs. But
the supposed victim being miraculously restored to life, the mistletoe
was given into the keeping of the goddess of affection, as a symbol of
love and not of death, to those who passed beneath it. A berry was
required to be picked with every kiss and presented to the maiden as
a sign of good fortune, the privilege ceasing when all the berries
were gathered.

One of the most beautiful legends of the Black Forest, in Germany, is
that of the origin of the chrysanthemum, or "Christ-flower." On a
dark, stormy Christmas Eve a poor charcoal-burner was wending his way
homeward through the deep snow-drifts under the pine trees, with a
loaf of coarse black bread and a piece of goat's-milk cheese as
contributions to the holiday cheer. Suddenly, during a brief lull in
the tempest, he heard a low, wailing cry, and, searching patiently, at
length discovered a benumbed and half-clad child, but little more than
an infant in years or size. Wrapping him snugly in his cloak, he
hurried onward toward the humble cottage from which rays of light
streamed cheerfully through the uncurtained windows. The good
"hausmutter" sat before the fire with her little ones anxiously
awaiting her husband's return; and when the poor, frozen waif was
placed upon her knee, her heart overflowed with compassion, and before
long he was comfortably warmed and fed, while the children vied with
each other in displaying the attractions of the pretty fir tree, with
its tiny colored tapers and paper ornaments.

All at once a mist appeared, enveloping the timid stranger, a halo
formed around his brow and two silvery wings sprang magically from his
shoulders. Gradually rising, higher and higher, he finally disappeared
from sight, his hands outspread in benediction, while the
terror-stricken family fell upon their knees, crossing themselves, and
murmuring in awestruck whispers, "_The Holy Christ-Child!_"

The next morning the father found, on the bleak, cold spot where the
child had lain, a lovely blossom of dazzling white, which he bore
reverently homeward and named the chrysanthemum, or "flower of
Christ," and each succeeding festival season some starved and
neglected orphan was bidden to his frugal board in memory of the time
when he entertained "an angel unawares."

In "Merrie England" Christmas was the chief event of the entire year,
and was sometimes celebrated for nearly a month. The tables of the
wealthy literally groaned with plenty, but the poor without their
gates were not forgotten, for--

    "Old Christmas had come for to keep open house,
    He'd scorn to be guilty of starving a mouse."

During the reign of Elizabeth the boar's head was the favorite holiday
dish, and was served with mustard (then a rare and costly condiment),
and decorated with bay-leaves and with rosemary, which was said to
strengthen the memory, to clear the brain and to stimulate affection.
Boars were originally sacrificed to the Scandinavian gods of peace and
plenty, and many odes were composed in their honor.

That remarkable compound known as "wassail" was composed of warm ale
or wine, sweetened with sugar and flavored with spices, and bearing
upon its surface floating bits of toast and roasted crabs and apples.
The huge bowl, gaily decorated with ribbons, was passed from hand to
hand around the table, each guest taking a portion of its contents, as
a sign of joviality and good-fellowship.

But the triumph of the pastry cook's art was "the rare minced pie,"
the use of which is of great antiquity. The shape was formerly a
narrow oblong, representing the celebrated manger at Bethlehem, and
the fruits and spices of which it was composed were symbolic of those
that the wise men of the Orient brought as offerings to their new-born
King, while to partake of such a pie was considered a proof that the
eater was a Christian and not a Jew.

All sorts of games were immensely popular with the English, whether
king or serf, aristocrat or pauper, merchant or apprentice.

    "A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
    The poor man's heart thro' half the year."

Every one has heard of the matchless "Lord of Misrule" (also known as
the "Abbot of Unreason" and the "Master of Merry Disports"), who,
attended by his mock court, king's jester and grotesquely masked
revelers, visited the castles of lords and princes to entertain them
with strange antics and uproarious merriment. His reign lasted until
Twelfth Night, during which period he was treated as became a genuine
monarch, being feted and feasted, with all his train, and having
absolute authority over individuals and state affairs.

The great event of the evening, after the holiday feast, was the
bringing in of the famous yule log, which was often the entire root of
a tree. Much ceremony and rejoicing attended this performance, as it
was considered lucky to help pull the rope. It was lighted by a person
with freshly washed hands, with a brand saved from the last year's
fire, and was never allowed to be extinguished, as the witches would
then come down the chimney.

The presence of a barefooted or cross-eyed individual or of a woman
with flat feet was thought to foretell misfortune for the coming year.

The games of "snap dragon" and "hot cockles" are supposed to be relics
either of the "ordeal by fire" or of the days of the ancient
fire-worshippers. The former consists of snatching raisins from a
bowl of burning brandy or alcohol, and the latter of taking frantic
bites at a red apple revolving rapidly upon a pivot in alternation
with a lighted taper.

Christmas carols are commemorative of the angels' song to the
shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem, and are seldom heard in America
save by the surpliced choirs of the Episcopal churches. The English
"waits," or serenaders, who sang under the squires' windows in hopes
of receiving a "Christmas box," unconsciously add a touch of romance
and picturesqueness to the associations of the season. For upon the
frosty evening air arose such strains as--

    "Awake! glad heart! arise and sing!
    It is the birthday of thy King!"


    "God rest you, merry gentlemen!
    Let nothing you dismay,
    For Jesus Christ, our Savior,
    Was born upon this day."

Most of the old-time favorites are too well known for repetition. The
mere mention of their names recalls the scent of evergreens, the
pealing of the organ, the tinkle of sleigh bells and the music of the
Christmas chimes. "Hark! The herald angels sing!" "While shepherds
watched their flocks by night," "Gloria in Excelsis" and many others
embody the very spirit of the season, and will live till time shall
cease to be.

    "Sing the song of great joy that the angels began,
    Sing of glory to God and of good will to man!
    While joining in chorus,
    The heavens bend o'er us,
    The dark night is ending and dawn has begun."

                               --BERTHA F. HERRICK.


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