Eva Večeřová, Věra Frolcová - European Christmas in the Traditions of Folk Culture

ZIMA 2011 Ostatní English
obálka čísla

In the European cultural tradition many ancient pre-Christian ideas are tied to Christmas. Perhaps most of the folk superstitions, riddles and magical doings are connected to Christmas Eve and to the night before Christmas. People believed that during those times it would be possible to look into the future and influence it by using some magical doings. How did they do it and how is it practiced at the present time? We shall find some partial answers to this question in several selected excerpts from an unusual book that we have selected for you. We provided the texts with subtitles and abbreviated the narrative at certain marked places. We left out indices concerning sources and related literature.

Flowering Branches
Blossoms reflect at Christmas the miraculous revival of nature at the time of the Savior’s blessed birth. The so-called barborky, sprigs of a cherry or sour cherry tree, are placed in a vase with water at the beginning of Advent (St. Barbara’s day, December 4, or a little sooner on St. Andrew’s, or a bit later on St. Lucia’s) so that they would blossom on Christmas Eve. This custom is still observed in the Czech lands even to this day. We find the same tradition in Austria, Slovenia, Poland, Lithuania, Belgium and Holland and in the Ukraine as well. It was also customary to mark each branch with a person’s name. The one whose sprig blossomed first could expect much happiness in the coming year. One could obtain the desired outcome by watering the twig with water that was placed in one’s mouth. We also find mention of this custom in Moravian Wallachia.

A blossoming branch could also mean early marriage, a good fruit harvest, good health in the family and a favorable year. It was also believed that if one looked through a coiled sprig of a sour cherry during Mass on Christmas Day one could see witches: they would stand with their backs to the altar. […]

Foretelling the Future
Predictions about marriage, length of life, sickness and death were done using cinder and ashes in the fireplace, various noises and sounds outside, shadows and other “signs.” Generally known is the melting of wax and lead, predictions from the sounds of domestic fowl, from the barking of dogs, counting logs in the fireplace and from various pictures and formations on water surfaces.

Experienced women, fortune tellers and diviners often helped young girls to interpret the various pictures and formations produced by melted lead or wax in water. In the Swiss canton Vaud bumps of wax on the water surface meant sorrow, troubles, while flat or slightly sloping surfaces meant happiness, joy and merriment. An indentation or a “basin” or “bowl” meant death. Sometimes a girl tried to decipher in the pictures the initials of her bridegroom. Melting lead was very popular in Finland. The master of the house tried his luck first followed by his wife and by other members of the household. A formation of a “bag” meant good harvest, a key predicted improvement in social standing, many “bubbles” meant money and black spots meant sorrow. The last piece of lead was poured for the spirit who was supposed to reveal his positive or negative relationship to the house. The water used for pouring the lead had also special powers. If a girl dunked her kerchief in it and then put it under her pillow at night, she would see the face of her bridegroom in her sleep. […]

Predictions with apples and nuts
Apples and nuts were used in divination in many countries. Whoever cut an apple horizontally and found a cross formed by the seeds would die within the year. If the seeds remained undisturbed or if they formed a star, that meant good health for the coming year. This custom can be found in many European countries. Cracked nuts were used in similar “fortunetelling“. A healthy seed meant health, a dry, rotten or black one predicted sickness and death. A healthy seed in an apple or nut meant, by analogy, health and a good life in the coming year. Apples and nuts were not selected by chance, they both were always considered symbols of fertility. Playing with nuts was a popular pastime to stay awake before midnight Mass, for example, in eastern France in Dauphine or in Savoy. Over time such customs turned into children’s games but in the past they were considered having divining and magical powers. Also apple peels were used to predict the future. Let us mention here, for example, the Swiss canton Jura. If a girl would threw an apple peal with her left hand over her right shoulder, it would form the first letter of her bridegroom’s name on the ground. The same custom was practiced for example in Trebetin (central Bohemia) or in the community Lipovec in Slovakia.

Predictions by drawing lots
People liked to find out about their future even from the haphazard selection of various symbolic objects placed under bowls or into drinks. There are many variations of such games. Whoever found a ring in his bowl in Scotland could expect an early marriage. A button signified a single life, a sixpence predicted losing a husband or a wife. In Austrian Carinthia a ring meant a marriage, a wreath or ashes predicted death, gold foretold riches.

In northern Italy they used to hide three objects under a plate: a comb meant complications in the family, a key meant good news for the lady of the house, and a ring meant an upcoming wedding. In Poland a piece of coal under a plate meant a funeral, a ring meant engagement, mirth foretold a wedding, bread meant plenty of food, salt was sorrow in the house. In Serbia (Boljevac), coins or rings under a bowl meant a marriage with a rich partner, a mirror predicted a good-looking bride or bridegroom, bread, salt or wool signified a rich husband. Girls in Sardinia who were anxious to get married would put five bowls in front of the fireplace. They were filled with water, ashes, grain sprouts and wood chips, and one of them was empty. The girls would be blindfolded and had to pick one of the bowls: an empty bowl meant a poor husband, others meant, according to content, a miller, farmer or cabinetmaker… This kind of foretelling was very popular among the Slavs. In Russia it even became a part of songs for the New Year called pobljudnyje. In later times these games lost much of their “fatefulness” and were considered as interesting pastimes which had a certain amount of thrill and excitement.

Evropské vánoce v tradicích lidové kultury (European Christmas in The Traditions of Folk Culture) Praha, Vyšehrad 2010, 518 pages, 165x240 mm. Cover by Magdalena Říčná. First edition, hard-covered with a book jacket, richly illustrated. Recommended price 598 Kč, ISBN 978-80-7429- 006-0; internet store at: www. ivysehrad. cz. At the internet store the book is available with a discount of 15%. Details about shipping or time of picking it up in person may be arranged beforehand by e-mail at info@ivysehrad.cz

While reading this book which is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and most complete work, provided with very valuable pictorial documents about Christmas and available in the Czech Republic. I realized again how little we know about each other coming from different countries. And how much similarity there actually is among us Europeans and our fellow-travelers from the Euro-American part of the civilization, in spite of our cultural differences. All of us whose roots of our great-great-ancestors reach deeply into Pre-Christian times. Furthermore we have a common Christian European past of more than two thousand years. You do not believe it? Read this large book: it is the first one of such scope in all of Europe – and you will be convinced!

The book title sounds a bit scholarly, but do not be afraid. This scientific work was written for all inquisitive readers who are longing for deeper understanding and who are searching for and finding connectedness. The authors, Eva Večerková from the Ethnographic Institute of the Moravian Museum and Věra Frolcová from the Ethnological Institute, Academy of Sciences, in Brno, Czech Republic, describe and analyze step by step Christian traditions of Western and Eastern Europe. As you will observe in our excerpt, they write about the history of the traditions in a dispassionate and scholarly way; they explain what preceded them, what used to belong to them and what still does belong. You will find out about Christmas customs and proceedings, also about colorful Nativity scenes (crèches), about Christmas trees, carols, dining, Christmas dishes and much more. A part of the book also deals with other holidays and special days that are somehow related to Christmas or that are actually part of Christmas which may not be known to many atheists. Starting with the four preliminary fasting Sundays of the Advent brightened by the St. Nicholas Day and his presents for children, we proceed through Christmas Day and other holidays to the New Year and to the Epiphany (Three Kings Day).

According to experts, the exposition about Christmas carols and other Christmas songs in the framework of Europe is quite remarkable and unique. The ethnomusicologist Věra Frolcová loves them all. We find here an extremely interesting presentation of many kinds of carols, discussion about their origin and content, often complemented by a music score, by original texts even with Czech translations. Therefore those who read music can also sing the included songs, even the very unusual orthodox ones. It is to be hoped that this musical part would be published separately together with music recordings at some future date. So far this part is an adornment of the whole volume which is carefully edited, richly illustrated and graphically beautiful. The attached pictures are taken from the book itself. You will find several colored pictures from it on page 32, which we dedicated to Christmast.

Eva Střížovská

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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