Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
All Saints and All Souls Days, their Relation to a New Year Festival—All Souls Eve and Tendance of the Departed—Soul Cakes in England and on the Continent—Pagan Parallels of All Souls—Hallowe'en Charms and Omens—Hallowe'en Fires—Guy Fawkes Day—“Old Hob,” the Schimmelreiter, and other Animal Masks—Martinmas and its Slaughter—Martinmas Drinking—St. Martin's Fires in Germany—Winter Visitors in the Low Countries and Germany—St. Martin as Gift-bringer—St. Martin's Rod.
In the reign of Charles I. the young gentlemen of the Middle Temple were accustomed to reckon All Hallow Tide (November 1) the beginning of Christmas. 8-1 We may here do likewise and start our survey of winter festivals with November, in the earlier half of which, apparently, fell the Celtic and Teutonic New Year's Days. It is impossible to fix precise dates, but there is reason for thinking that the Celtic year began about November 1, 86 8-2 and the Teutonic about November 11. 8-3
On November 1 falls one of the greater festivals of the western Church, All Saints—or, to give it its old English name, All Hallows—and on the morrow is the solemn commemoration of the departed—All Souls. In these two anniversaries the Church has p. 190 preserved at or near the original date one part of the old beginning-of-winter festival—the part concerned with the cult of the dead. Some of the practices belonging to this side of the feast have been transferred to the season of Christmas and the Twelve Days, but these have often lost their original meaning, and it is to All Souls Day that we must look for the most conscious survivals of that care for the departed which is so marked a feature of primitive religion. Early November, when the leaves are falling, and all around speaks of mortality, is a fitting time for the commemoration of the dead.
The first clear testimony to All Souls Day is found at the end of the tenth century, and in France. All Saints Day, however, was certainly observed in England, France, and Germany in the eighth century, 8-5 and probably represents an attempt on the part of the Church to turn the minds of the faithful away from the pagan belief in and tendance of “ghosts” to the contemplation of the saints in the glory of Paradise. It would seem that this attempt failed, that the people needed a way of actually doing something for their own dead, and that All Souls Day with its solemn Mass and prayers for the departed was intended to supply this need and replace the traditional practices. 8-6 Here again the attempt was only partly successful, for side by side with the Church's rites there survived a number of usages related not to any Christian doctrine of the after-life, but to the pagan idea, widespread among many peoples, that on one day or night of the year the souls of the dead return to their old homes and must be entertained.
All Souls Day then appeals to instincts older than Christianity. How strong is the hold of ancient custom even upon the sceptical and irreligious is shown very strikingly in Roman Catholic countries: even those who never go to church visit the graves of their relations on All Souls Eve to deck them with flowers.
The special liturgical features of the Church's celebration are the Vespers, Matins, and Lauds of the Dead on the evening of November 1, and the solemn Requiem Mass on November 2, with the majestic “Dies irae” and the oft-recurrent versicle, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat p. 191 eis,” that most beautiful of prayers. The priest and altar are vested in black, and a catafalque with burning tapers round it stands in the body of the church. For the popular customs on the Eve we may quote Dr. Tylor's general description:—
“In Italy the day is given to feasting and drinking in honour of the dead, while skulls and skeletons in sugar and paste form appropriate children's toys. In Tyrol, the poor souls released from purgatory fire for the night may come and smear their burns with the melted fat of the soul light on the hearth, or cakes are left for them on the table, and the room is kept warm for their comfort. Even in Paris the souls of the departed come to partake of the food of the living. In Brittany the crowd pours into the churchyard at evening, to kneel barefoot at the grave of dead kinsfolk, to fill the hollow of the tombstone with holy water, or to pour libations of milk upon it. All night the church bells clang, and sometimes a solemn procession of the clergy goes round to bless the graves. In no household that night is the cloth removed, for the supper must be left for the souls to come and take their part, nor must the fire be put out, where they will come to warm themselves. And at last, as the inmates retire to rest, there is heard at the door a doleful chant—it is the souls, who, borrowing the voices of the parish poor, have come to ask the prayers of the living.” 8-7
To this may be added some further accounts of All Souls Eve as the one night in the year when the spirits of the departed are thought to revisit their old homes.
In the Vosges mountains while the bells are ringing in All Souls Eve it is a custom to uncover the beds and open the windows in order that the poor souls may enter and rest. Prayer is made for the dead until late in the night, and when the last “De profundis” has been said “the head of the family gently covers up the beds, sprinkles them with holy water, and shuts the windows.” 8-8
The Esthonians on All Souls Day provide a meal for the dead and invite them by name. The souls arrive at the first cock-crow and depart at the second, being lighted out of the house by the head of the family, who waves a white cloth after them and bids them come again next year. 8-9
In Brittany, as we have seen, the dead are thought to return at p. 192 this season. It is believed that on the night between All Saints and All Souls the church is lighted up and the departed attend a nocturnal Mass celebrated by a phantom priest. All through the week, in one district, people are afraid to go out after nightfall lest they should see some dead person. 8-10 In Tyrol it is believed that the “poor souls” are present in the howling winds that often blow at this time. 8-11
In the Abruzzi on All Souls Eve “before people go to sleep they place on the table a lighted lamp or candle and a frugal meal of bread and water. The dead issue from their graves and stalk in procession through every street of the village.... First pass the souls of the good, and then the souls of the murdered and the damned.” 8-12
In Sicily a strange belief is connected with All Souls Day (jornu di li morti): the family dead are supposed, like Santa Klaus in the North, to bring presents to children; the dead relations have become the good fairies of the little ones. On the night between November 1 and 2 little Sicilians believe that the departed leave their dread abode and come to town to steal from rich shopkeepers sweets and toys and new clothes. These they give to their child relations who have been “good” and have prayed on their behalf. Often they are clothed in white and wear silken shoes, to elude the vigilance of the shopkeepers. They do not always enter the houses; sometimes the presents are left in the children's shoes put outside doors and windows. In the morning the pretty gifts are attributed by the children to the morti in whose coming their parents have taught them to believe. 8-13
A very widespread custom at this season is to burn candles, perhaps in order to lighten the darkness for the poor souls. In Catholic Ireland candles shine in the windows on the Vigil of All Souls, 8-14 in Belgium a holy candle is burnt all night, or people walk in procession with lighted tapers, while in many Roman Catholic countries, and even in the Protestant villages of Baden, the graves are decked with lights as well as flowers. 8-15
Another practice on All Saints and All Souls Days, curiously p. 193 common formerly in Protestant England, is that of making and giving “soul-cakes.” These and the quest of them by children were customary in various English counties and in Scotland. 8-16 The youngsters would beg not only for the cakes but also sometimes for such things as “apples and strong beer,” presumably to make a “wassail-bowl” of “lambswool,” hot spiced ale with roast apples in it. 8-17 Here is a curious rhyme which they sang in Shropshire as they went round to their neighbours, collecting contributions:—
Shropshire is a county peculiarly rich in “souling” traditions, and one old lady had cakes made to give away to the souling-children up to the time of her death in 1884. At that period the custom of “souling” had greatly declined in the county, and where it still existed the rewards were usually apples or money. Grown men, as well as children, sometimes went round, and the ditties sung often contained verses of good-wishes for the household practically identical with those sung by wassailers at Christmas. 8-19
The name “soul-cake” of course suggests that the cakes were in some way associated with the departed, whether given as a reward for prayers for souls in Purgatory, or as a charity for the benefit of the “poor souls,” or baked that the dead might feast upon them. 87 It seems most probable that they were relics of a feast once laid out for the souls. On the other hand it is just possible that they were originally a sacrament of the corn-spirit. p. 194 A North Welsh tradition recorded by Pennant may conceivably have preserved a vague memory of some agricultural connection: he tells us that on receiving soul-cakes the poor people used to pray to God to bless the next crop of wheat. 8-20
Not in Great Britain alone are soul-cakes found; they are met with in Belgium, southern Germany, and Austria. In western Flanders children set up on All Souls Eve little street altars, putting a crucifix or Madonna with candles on a chair or stool, and begging passers-by for money “for cakes for the souls in Purgatory.” On All Souls morning it is customary, all over the Flemish part of Belgium, to bake little cakes of finest white flour, called “soul-bread.” They are eaten hot, and a prayer is said at the same time for the souls in Purgatory. It is believed that a soul is delivered for every cake eaten. At Antwerp the cakes are coloured yellow with saffron to suggest the Purgatorial flames. In southern Germany and Austria little white loaves of a special kind are baked; they are generally oval in form, and are usually called by some name into which the word “soul” enters. In Tyrol they are given to children by their godparents; those for the boys have the shape of horses or hares, those for the girls, of hens. In Tyrol the cakes left over at supper remain on the table and are said to “belong to the poor souls.” 8-21
In Friuli in the north-east of Italy there is a custom closely corresponding to our “soul-cakes.” On All Souls Day every family gives away a quantity of bread. This is not regarded as a charity; all the people of the village come to receive it and before eating it pray for the departed of the donor's family. The most prosperous people are not ashamed to knock at the door and ask for this pane dei morti. 8-22
In Tyrol All Souls is a day of licensed begging, which has become a serious abuse. A noisy rabble of ragged and disorderly folk, with bags and baskets to receive gifts, wanders from village to village, claiming as a right the presents of provisions that were originally a freewill offering for the benefit of the departed, and angrily abusing those who refuse to give. 8-23
The New Year is the time for a festival of the dead in many parts of the world. 8-24 I may quote Dr. Frazer's account of what p. 195 goes on in Tonquin; it shows a remarkable likeness to some European customs 88:—
“In Tonquin, as in Sumba, the dead revisit their kinsfolk and their old homes at the New Year. From the hour of midnight, when the New Year begins, no one dares to shut the door of his house for fear of excluding the ghosts, who begin to arrive at that time. Preparations have been made to welcome and refresh them after their long journey. Beds and mats are ready for their weary bodies to repose upon, water to wash their dusty feet, slippers to comfort them, and canes to support their feeble steps.” 8-25
In Lithuania, the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity, heathen traditions lingered long, and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travellers give accounts of a pagan New Year's feast which has great interest. In October, according to one account, on November 2, according to another, the whole family met together, strewed the tables with straw and put sacks on the straw. Bread and two jugs of beer were then placed on the table, and one of every kind of domestic animal was roasted before the fire after a prayer to the god Zimiennik (possibly an ancestral spirit), asking for protection through the year and offering the animals. Portions were thrown to the corners of the room with the words “Accept our burnt sacrifice, O Zimiennik, and kindly partake thereof.” Then followed a great feast. Further, the spirits of the dead were invited to leave their graves and visit the bath-house, where platters of food were spread out and left for three days. At the end of this time the remains of the repast were set out over the graves and libations poured. 8-26
The beginning of November is not solely a time of memory of the dead; customs of other sorts linger, or until lately used to linger, about it, especially in Scotland, northern England, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, and the West Midlands. One may conjecture that these are survivals from the Celtic New Year's Day, for most of them are of the nature of omens or charms. Apples and nuts are prominent on Hallowe'en, the Eve of All p. 196 Saints; 89 they may be regarded either as a kind of sacrament of the vegetation-spirit, or as simply intended by homoeopathic magic to bring fulness and fruitfulness to their recipients. A custom once common in the north of England 8-27 and in Wales 8-28 was to catch at apples with the mouth, the fruit being suspended on a string, or on one end of a large transverse beam with a lighted candle at the other end. In the north apples and nuts were the feature of the evening feast, hence the name “Nutcrack night.” 8-29
Again, at St. Ives in Cornwall every child is given a big apple on Allhallows Eve—“Allan Day” as it is called. 8-30 Nuts and apples were also used as means of forecasting the future. In Scotland for instance nuts were put into the fire and named after particular lads and lasses. “As they burn quietly together or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.” 8-31 On Hallowe'en in Nottinghamshire if a girl had two lovers and wanted to know which would be the more constant, she took two apple-pips, stuck one on each cheek (naming them after her lovers) and waited for one to fall off. The poet Gay alludes to this custom:—
In Nottinghamshire apples are roasted and the parings thrown over the left shoulder. “Notice is taken of the shapes which the parings assume when they fall to the ground. Whatever letter a paring resembles will be the initial letter of the Christian name of the man or woman whom you will marry.” 8-33
p. 197 Hallowe'en is indeed in the British Isles the favourite time for forecasting the future, and various methods are employed for this purpose.
A girl may cross her shoes upon her bedroom floor in the shape of a T and say these lines:—
Then let her get into bed backwards without speaking any more that night, and she will see her future husband in her dreams. 8-34
“On All Hallowe'en or New Year's Eve,” says Mr. W. Henderson, “a Border maiden may wash her sark, and hang it over a chair to dry, taking care to tell no one what she is about. If she lie awake long enough, she will see the form of her future spouse enter the room and turn the sark. We are told of one young girl who, after fulfilling this rite, looked out of bed and saw a coffin behind the sark; it remained visible for some time and then disappeared. The girl rose up in agony and told her family what had occurred, and the next morning she heard of her lover's death.” 8-35
In Scotland 8-36 and Ireland 8-37 other methods of foreseeing the future are practised on Hallowe'en; we need not consider them here, for we shall have quite enough of such auguries later on. (Some Scottish customs are introduced by Burns into his poem “Hallowe'en.”) I may, however, allude to the custom formerly prevalent in Wales for women to congregate in the church on this “Night of the Winter Kalends,” in order to discover who of the parishioners would die during the year. 8-38 East of the Welsh border, at Dorstone in Herefordshire, there was a belief that on All Hallows Eve at midnight those who were bold enough to look through the windows would see the church lighted with an unearthly glow, and Satan in monk's habit fulminating anathemas from the pulpit and calling out the names of those who were to render up their souls. 8-39
p. 198 Again, there are numerous Hallowe'en fire customs, probably sun-charms for the New Year, a kind of homoeopathic magic intended to assist the sun in his struggle with the powers of darkness. To this day great bonfires are kindled in the Highlands, and formerly brands were carried about and the new fire was lit in each house. 8-40 It would seem that the Yule log customs (see X) are connected with this new lighting of the house-fire, transferred to Christmas.
In Ireland fire was lighted at this time at a place called Tlachtga, from which all the hearths in Ireland are said to have been annually supplied. 8-41 In Wales the habit of lighting bonfires on the hills is perhaps not yet extinct. 8-42 Within living memory when the flames were out somebody would raise the cry, “May the tailless black sow seize the hindmost,” and everyone present would run for his life. 8-43 This may point to a former human sacrifice, possibly of a victim laden with the accumulated evils of the past year. 8-44
In North Wales, according to another account, each family used to make a great bonfire in a conspicuous place near the house. Every person threw into the ashes a white stone, marked; the stones were searched for in the morning, and if any one were missing the person who had thrown it in would die, it was believed, during the year. 8-45 The same belief and practice were found at Callander in Perthshire. 8-46
Though, probably, the Hallowe'en fire rites had originally some connection with the sun, the conscious intention of those who practised them in modern times was often to ward off witchcraft. With this object in one place the master of the family used to carry a bunch of burning straw about the corn, in Scotland the red end of a fiery stick was waved in the air, in Lancashire a lighted candle was borne about the fells, and in the Isle of Man fires were kindled. 8-47
Probably the burning of Guy Fawkes on November 5 is a survival of a New Year bonfire. There is every reason to think that the commemoration of the deliverance from “gunpowder p. 199 treason and plot” is but a modern meaning attached to an ancient traditional practice, for the burning of the effigy has many parallels in folk-custom. Dr. Frazer 8-48 regards such effigies as representatives of the spirit of vegetation—by burning them in a fire that represented the sun men thought they secured sunshine for trees and crops. Later, when the ideas on which the custom was based had faded away, people came to identify these images with persons whom they regarded with aversion, such as Judas Iscariot, Luther (in Catholic Tyrol), and, apparently, Guy Fawkes in England. At Ludlow in Shropshire, it is interesting to note, if any well-known local man had aroused the enmity of the populace his effigy was substituted for, or added to, that of Guy Fawkes. Bonfire Day at Ludlow is marked by a torchlight procession and a huge conflagration. 8-49 At Hampstead the Guy Fawkes fire and procession are still in great force. The thing has become a regular carnival, and on a foggy November night the procession along the steep curving Heath Street, with the glare of the torches lighting up the faces of dense crowds, is a strangely picturesque spectacle. 90
On All Souls Day in Cheshire there began to be carried about a curious construction called “Old Hob,” a horse's head enveloped in a sheet; it was taken from door to door, and accompanied by the singing of begging rhymes. 8-50 Old Hob, who continued to appear until Christmas, is an English parallel to the German Schimmel or white horse. We have here to do with one of those strange animal forms which are apparently relics of sacrificial customs. They come on various days in the winter festival season, and also at other times, and may as well be considered at this point. In some cases they are definitely imitations of animals, and may have replaced real sacrificial beasts taken about in procession, in others they are simply men wearing the head, horn, hide, or tail of a beast, like the worshippers at many p. 200 a heathen sacrifice to-day. (Of the rationale of masking something has already been said in VI)
The mingling of Roman and non-Roman customs makes it very hard to separate the different elements in the winter festivals. In regard particularly to animal masks it is difficult to pronounce in favour of one racial origin rather than another; we may, however, infer with some probability that when a custom is attached not to Christmas or the January Kalends but to one of the November or early December feasts, it is not of Roman origin. For, as the centuries have passed, Christmas and the Kalends—the Roman festivals ecclesiastical and secular—have increasingly tended to supplant the old northern festal times, and a transference of, for instance, a Teutonic custom from Martinmas to Christmas or January 1, is far more conceivable than the attraction of a Roman practice to one of the earlier and waning festivals.
Let us take first the horse-forms, seemingly connected with that sacrificial use of the horse among the Teutons to which Tacitus and other writers testify. 8-51 “Old Hob” is doubtless one form of the hobby horse, so familiar in old English festival customs. His German parallel, the Schimmel, is mostly formed thus in the north: a sieve with a long pole to whose end a horse's head is fastened, is tied beneath the chest of a young man, who goes on all fours, and some white cloths are thrown over the whole. In Silesia the Schimmel is formed by three or four youths. The rider is generally veiled, and often wears on his head a pot with glowing coals shining forth through openings that represent eyes and a mouth. 8-52 In Pomerania the thing is called simply Schimmel, 8-53 in other parts emphasis is laid upon the rider, and the name Schimmelreiter is given. Some mythologists have seen in this rider on a white horse an impersonation of Woden on his great charger; but it is more likely that the practice simply originated in the taking round of a real sacrificial horse. 8-54 The Schimmelreiter is often accompanied by a “bear,” a youth dressed in straw who plays the part of a bear tied to a pole. 8-55 He may be connected with some such veneration of the animal as is suggested by the custom still surviving at Berne, of keeping bears at the public expense.
To return to Great Britain, here is an account of a so-called p. 201 “hodening” ceremony once performed at Christmas-time at Ramsgate: “A party of young people procure the head of a dead horse, which is affixed to a pole about four feet in length, a string is tied to the lower jaw, a horse-cloth is then attached to the whole, under which one of the party gets, and by frequently pulling the string keeps up a loud snapping noise and is accompanied by the rest of the party grotesquely habited and ringing hand-bells. They thus proceed from house to house, sounding their bells and singing carols and songs.” 8-56
Again, in Wales a creature called “the Mari Llwyd” was known at Christmas. A horse's skull is “dressed up with ribbons, and supported on a pole by a man who is concealed under a large white cloth. There is a contrivance for opening and shutting the jaws, and the figure pursues and bites everybody it can lay hold of, and does not release them except on payment of a fine.” 8-57 The movable jaws here give the thing a likeness to certain Continental figures representing other kinds of animals and probably witnessing to their former sacrificial use. On the island of Usedom appears the Klapperbock, a youth who carries a pole with the hide of a buck thrown over it and a wooden head at the end. The lower jaw moves up and down and clatters, and he charges at children who do not know their prayers by heart. 8-58 In Upper Styria we meet the Habergaiss. Four men hold on to one another and are covered with white blankets. The foremost one holds up a wooden goat's head with a movable lower jaw that rattles, and he butts children. 8-59 At Ilsenburg in the Harz is found the Habersack, formed by a person taking a pole ending in a fork, and putting a broom between the prongs so that the appearance of a head with horns is obtained. The carrier is concealed by a sheet. 8-60
In connection with horns we must not forget the “horn-dance” at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, held now in September, but formerly at Christmas. Six of the performers wear sets of horns kept from year to year in the church. 8-61 Plot, in his “Natural History of Staffordshire” (1686, p. 434) calls it a “Hobby-horse Dance from a person who carried the image of a horse between his legs, made of thin boards.” 8-62
p. 202 In Denmark, Sweden, and Norway creatures resembling both the Schimmelreiter and the Klapperbock are or were to be met with at Christmas. The name Julebuk (yule buck) is used for various objects: sometimes for a person dressed up in hide and horns, or with a buck's head, who “goes for” little boys and girls; sometimes for a straw puppet set up or tossed about from hand to hand; sometimes for a cake in the form of a buck. People seem to have had a bad conscience about these things, for there are stories connecting them with the Devil. A girl, for instance, who danced at midnight with a straw Julebuk, found that her partner was no puppet but the Evil One himself. Again, a fellow who had dressed himself in black and put horns on his head, claws on his hands, and fiery tow in his mouth, was carried off by the Prince of Darkness whose form he had mimicked. 8-63 The association of animal maskings with the infernal powers is doubtless the work of the Church. To the zealous missionary the old heathen ritual was no mere foolish superstition but a service of intensely real and awful beings, the very devils of hell, and one may even conjecture that the traditional Christian devil-type, half animal half human, was indirectly derived from skin-clad worshippers at pagan festivals.
Between All Souls Day and Martinmas (November 11) there are no folk-festivals of great importance, though on St. Hubert's Day, November 3, in Flemish Belgium special little cakes are made, adorned with the horn of the saint, the patron of hunting, and are eaten not only by human beings but by dogs, cats, and other domestic animals. 8-64 The English Guy Fawkes Day has already been considered, while November 9, Lord Mayor's Day, the beginning of the municipal year, may remind us of the old Teutonic New Year.
Round Martinmas popular customs cluster thickly, as might be expected, since it marks as nearly as possible the date of the old beginning-of-winter festival, the feast perhaps at which Germanicus surprised the Marsi in A.D. 14. 8-65
The most obvious feature of Martinmas is its physical feasting. p. 203 Economic causes, as we saw in VI, must have made the middle of November a great killing season among the old Germans, for the snow which then began rendered it impossible longer to pasture the beasts, and there was not fodder enough to keep the whole herd through the winter. Thus it was a time of feasting on flesh, and of animal sacrifices, as is suggested by the Anglo-Saxon name given to November by Bede, Blot-monath, sacrifice-month. 8-66
Christmas does not seem to have quickly superseded the middle of November as a popular feast in Teutonic countries; rather one finds an outcome of the conciliatory policy pursued by Gregory the Great (see VI) in the development of Martinmas. Founded in the fifth century, it was made a great Church festival by Pope Martin I. (649-654), 8-67 and it may well have been intended to absorb and Christianize the New Year festivities of the Teutonic peoples. The veneration of St. Martin spread rapidly in the churches of northern Europe, and he came to be regarded as one of the very chief of the saints. 8-68 His day is no longer a Church feast of high rank, but its importance as a folk festival is great.
The tradition of slaughter is preserved in the British custom of killing cattle on St. Martin's Day—“Martlemas beef” 8-69 —and in the German eating of St. Martin's geese and swine. 8-70 The St. Martin's goose, indeed, is in Germany as much a feature of the festival as the English Michaelmas goose is of the September feast of the angels.
In Denmark too a goose is eaten at Martinmas, and from its breast-bone the character of the coming winter can be foreseen. The white in it is a sign of snow, the brown of very great cold. Similar ideas can be traced in Germany, though there is not always agreement as to what the white and the brown betoken. 8-71
At St. Peter's, Athlone, Ireland, a very obviously sacrificial custom lasted on into the nineteenth century. Every household would kill an animal of some kind, and sprinkle the threshold with its blood. A cow or sheep, a goose or turkey, or merely a cock or hen, was used according to the means of the family. 8-72 It seems that the animal was actually offered to St. Martin, apparently as p. 204 the successor of some god, and bad luck came if the custom were not observed. Probably these rites were transferred to Martinmas from the old Celtic festival of Samhain. Again, in a strange Irish legend the saint himself is said to have been cut up and eaten in the form of an ox. 8-73
In the wine-producing regions of Germany Martinmas was the day for the first drinking of the new wine, and the feasting in general on his day gave the saint the reputation of a guzzler and a glutton; it even became customary to speak of a person who had squandered his substance in riotous living as a Martinsmann. 8-74 As we have seen survivals of sacrifice in the Martinmas slaughter, so we may regard the Martinsminne or toast as originating in a sacrifice of liquor. 8-75 In the Böhmerwald it is believed that wine taken at Martinmas brings strength and beauty, and the lads and girls gather in the inns to drink, while a common German proverb runs:—
Here, by the way, is a faint suggestion that Martinmas is regarded as the beginning of the year; as such it certainly appears in a number of legal customs, English, French, and German, which existed in the Middle Ages and in some cases in quite recent times. It was often at Martinmas that leases ended, rents had to be paid, and farm-servants changed their places. 8-77
There is a survival, perhaps, of a cereal sacrifice or sacrament in the so-called “Martin's horns,” horseshoe pastries given at Martinmas in many parts of Germany. 8-78 Another kind of sacrifice is suggested by a Dutch custom of throwing baskets of fruit into Martinmas bonfires, and by a German custom of casting in empty fruit-baskets. 8-79 In Venetia the peasants keep over from the vintage a few grapes to form part of their Martinmas supper, and as far south as Sicily it is considered essential to taste the new wine at this festival. 8-80
Bonfires appear at Martinmas in Germany, as at All Hallows tide in the British Isles. On St. Martin's Eve in the Rhine p. 205 Valley between Cologne and Coblentz, numbers of little fires burn on the heights and by the river-bank, 8-81 the young people leap through the flames and dance about them, and the ashes are strewn on the fields to make them fertile. 8-82 Survivals of fire-customs are found also in other regions. In Belgium, Holland, and north-west Germany processions of children with paper or turnip lanterns take place on St. Martin's Eve. In the Eichsfeld district the little river Geislede glows with the light of candles placed in floating nutshells. Even the practice of leaping through the fire survives in a modified form, for in northern Germany it is not uncommon for people on St. Martin's Day or Eve to jump over lighted candles set on the parlour floor. 8-83 In the fifteenth century the Martinmas fires were so many that the festival actually got the name of Funkentag (Spark Day). 8-84
On St. Martin's Eve in Germany and the Low Countries we begin to meet those winter visitors, bright saints and angels on the one hand, mock-terrible bogeys and monsters on the other, who add so much to the romance and mystery of the children's Christmas. Such visitors are to be found in many countries, but it is in the lands of German speech that they take on the most vivid and picturesque forms. St. Martin, St. Nicholas, Christkind, Knecht Ruprecht, and the rest are very real and personal beings to the children, and are awaited with pleasant expectation or mild dread. Often they are beheld not merely with the imagination but with the bodily eye, when father or friend is wondrously transformed into a supernatural figure.
What are the origins of these holy or monstrous beings? It is hard to say with certainty, for many elements, pagan and Christian, seem here to be closely blended. It is pretty clear, however, that the grotesque half-animal shapes are direct relics of heathendom, and it is highly probable that the forms of saints or angels—even, perhaps, of the Christ Child Himself—represent attempts of the Church to transform and sanctify alien things which she could not suppress. What some of these may have been we shall tentatively guess as we go along. Though no grown-up person would take the mimic Martin or Nicholas p. 206 seriously nowadays, there seem to be at the root of them things once regarded as of vital moment. Just as fairy-tales, originally serious attempts to explain natural facts, have now become reading for children, so ritual practices which our ancestors deemed of vast importance for human welfare have become mere games to amuse the young.
On St. Martin's Eve, to come back from speculation to the facts of popular custom, the saint appears in the nurseries of Antwerp and other Flemish towns. He is a man dressed up as a bishop, with a pastoral staff in his hand. His business is to ask if the children have been “good,” and if the result of his inquiries is satisfactory he throws down apples, nuts, and cakes. If not, it is rods that he leaves behind. At Ypres he does not visibly appear, but children hang up stockings filled with hay, and next morning find presents in them, left by the saint in gratitude for the fodder provided for his horse. He is there imagined as a rider on a white horse, and the same conception prevails in Austrian Silesia, where he brings the “Martin's horns” already mentioned. 8-85 In Silesia when it snows at Martinmas people say that the saint is coming on his white horse, and there, it may be noted, the Schimmelreiter appears at the same season. 8-86 In certain respects, it has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden. 8-87 It is perhaps not without significance that, like the god, he is a military hero, and conceived as a rider on horseback. At Düsseldorf he used to be represented in his festival procession by a man riding on another fellow's back. 8-88
At Mechlin and other places children go round from house to house, singing and collecting gifts. Often four boys with paper caps on their heads, dressed as Turks, carry a sort of litter whereon St. Martin sits. He has a long white beard of flax and a paper mitre and stole, and holds a large wooden spoon to receive apples and other eatables that are given to the children, as well as a leather purse for offerings of money. 8-89
In the Ansbach region a different type of being used to appear—Pelzmärten (Skin Martin) by name; he ran about and frightened the children, before he threw them their apples and nuts. In several places in Swabia, too, Pelzmärte was known; p. 207 he had a black face, a cow-bell hung on his person, and he distributed blows as well as nuts and apples. 8-90 In him there is obviously more of the pagan mummer than the Christian bishop.
In Belgium St. Martin is chiefly known as the bringer of apples and nuts for children; in Bavaria and Austria he has a different aspect: a gerte or rod, supposed to promote fruitfulness among cattle and prosperity in general, is connected with his day. The rods are taken round by the neatherds to the farmers, and one is given to each—two to rich proprietors; they are to be used, when spring comes, to drive out the cattle for the first time. In Bavaria they are formed by a birch-bough with all the leaves and twigs stripped off—except at the top, to which oak-leaves and juniper-twigs are fastened. At Etzendorf a curious old rhyme shows that the herdsman with the rod is regarded as the representative of St. Martin. 8-91
Can we connect this custom with the saint who brings presents to youngsters? 92 There seems to be a point of contact when we note that at Antwerp St. Martin throws down rods for naughty children as well as nuts and apples for good ones, and that Pelzmärte in Swabia has blows to bestow as well as gifts. St. Martin's main functions—and, as we shall see, St. Nicholas has the same—are to beat the bad children and reward the good with apples, nuts, and cakes. Can it be that the ethical distinction is of comparatively recent origin, an invention perhaps for children when the customs came to be performed solely for their benefit, and that the beating and the gifts were originally shared by all alike and were of a sacramental character? We shall meet with more whipping customs later on, they are common enough in folk-ritual, and are not punishments, but kindly services; their purpose is to drive away evil influences, and to bring to the flogged one the life-giving virtues of the tree from which the twigs or boughs are taken. 8-92 Both the flogging and the eating of fruit may, indeed, be means of contact with the vegetation-spirit, the one in p. 208 an external, the other in a more internal way. Or possibly the rod and the fruit may once have been conjoined, the beating being performed with fruit-laden boughs in order to produce prosperity. It is noteworthy that at Etzendorf so many head of cattle and loads of hay are augured for the farmer as there are juniper-berries and twigs on St. Martin's gerte. 8-94
Attempts to account for the figures of SS. Martin and Nicholas in northern folk-customs have been made along various lines. Some scholars regard them as Christianizations of the pagan god Woden; but they might also be taken as akin to the “first-foots” whom we shall meet on January 1—visitors who bring good luck—or as maskers connected with animal sacrifices (Pelzmärte suggests this), or again as related to the Boy Bishop, the Lord of Misrule and the Twelfth Night King. May I suggest that some at least of their aspects could be explained on the supposition that they represent administrants of primitive vegetation sacraments, and that these administrants, once ordinary human beings, have taken on the name and attributes of the saint who under the Christian dispensation presides over the festival? In any case it is a strange irony of history that around the festival of Martin of Tours, the zealous soldier of Christ and deadly foe of heathenism, should have gathered so much that is unmistakably pagan.
p. 209 p. 210 p. 211