Introduction: In this article – the second in a series of four – Jessica Edwards describes some more superstitions our ancestors had about Christmas, focusing in this article on holiday meals and decorations. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 30,400 people to her family tree!
In this series of four articles, I’m describing some Christmas superstitions that may be mentioned by relatives in their diaries and journals – or that family members may still practice today – that have been handed down from their ancestors. Things changed over time and people began to see these beliefs as fallacies. However, some people still follow them either for fun or for tradition’s sake. Do you do any of these practices, or did your ancestors?
Next, let’s look at the meals served either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
One superstition holds that Christmas dinner should consist of nine dishes, including soups, potato salad, bread with honey, fruits, desserts, etc. – and no matter what, alcohol should not be consumed on the eve of Christmas.
Further, Christmas feast should be set for an even number of guests, because having an odd number of people for the dinner is bad luck. Another superstition is that an extra plate should be kept ready, to even out the number of people in case some unexpected guest arrives at the time of Christmas dinner.
A two-part superstition says that all lights should be completely turned off before the stars come out – and then, only after the first star is sighted, can dinner be served on the table.
Another superstition says that the chair of the dining table that has its back to the door should be kept empty, because sitting in such a position may enrage good luck and it may give the house a miss the following year.
Another says that the legs of the dining table should be tied with a rope, in order to safeguard the house from thieves or burglars in the coming year.
Before beginning Christmas dinner, if you want good luck in the coming year, you should drink three sips of saltwater. Another belief involving water (this from the Swiss for single males) is that on Christmas Eve, drink the water from nine different wells before midnight and then run to the church to see if your future love is waiting for you on the steps.
Some superstitions that deal with what is placed on or under the table (besides dishes, utensils, and food) include fish scales under dinner plates, a bowl of garlic under the table, and mushrooms on the table. The fish scales will bring luck to the people of the household, a bowl of garlic ensures protection and strength, and mushrooms are for good health and strength in the coming years.
In some regions, every person sitting at the table after dinner is given an apple and asked to cut it half-length wise. If the core of the apple appears in the shape of a star, then the person is predicted to join the company of others safely without any troubles next year. But if the apple core is shaped differently, that person’s death is predicted within the coming 12 months. If a four-point cross appears after the apple is cut, it is considered to be a bad omen.
Some cultures believe that the first person to leave the dining table after having finished their food will be the first to die in the forthcoming year – so everyone should finish their dinner and leave the table together.
Even what is done after you finish and are cleaning up has superstitions! Depending on the culture, what you do with any food leftovers (including scrapings from the plates) dictates your actions and what will happen in the coming year. In several areas you are expected to bury leftovers around the nearby trees so that they may bear lots of fruit in the coming year, while other regions say the leftovers must be fed to the animals in the area around the house so that no living being goes hungry on the holy occasion of Christmas.
Now let’s look at some of the superstitions concerning Christmas decorations. First up is what is an absolute must for most people: the Christmas tree.
Some cultures forbid a Christmas tree being brought into the house before Christmas Eve. There are people who believed that if a Christmas tree is not decorated, it attracts evil spirits and brings bad luck to the family. It is also believed that not decorating a tree causes the delay of spring. Generally, these same cultures also have the belief that trees should only be decorated after the children are put into bed (actually, doing this may allow the tree to be decorated faster, in my experience).
One decoration tradition which originated in Germany is that of hiding an ornament in the shape of a pickle somewhere on the tree. The child that finds the ornament in the morning receives a special present.
Another must in tree decorations is an angel or a star on the topmost portion of the Christmas tree, which is thought to remind people of the host of angels, or the star of Bethlehem from the Nativity. So, the inclusion of it on the tree means you are letting God know that you remember “the reason for the season,” which ensures His protection in the next year.
To be continued…
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Note on the header image: a candle on a Christmas tree. Credit: Malene Thyssen; Wikimedia Commons.