Saturday, December 9, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 9 - Christmastime Animal Stories and Superstitions

Christmas and the winter solstice is traditionally a magical time in all three of the Baltic countries, and nowhere is this magic more evident than in the natural world and the Baltic customs surrounding animals.

The Deer Mother (who represented the “life-giving-mother-deity”) was a center figure in Winter solstice celebrations in ancient and primitive cultures; she flew across the earth on the longest, darkest day of the year carrying the sun within her antlers to usher in the return of the sun and resume the fertility of the land. In Lithuania, the Devyniaragis (a white deer with nine antler points) carried the sun and moon within its antlers. Read more about Lithuanian traditions in Daiva Venckus’s post from last year’s series!

In ancient Latvia, Ziemassvētki celebrated the rebirth of the Sun Maiden. Traditional celebrations included participating in ķekatas (also known as budēļi & kaļadas, similar to mumming), when people dressed up costumes and went from house to house singing, dancing, and playing games. The traditional costumes varied, but popular choices were animals such as a horse, bear or crane. The ķekatas are believed to bring luck to the households that they visit, scaring away evil spirits in the process with the loud singing and carousing, and are warmly welcomed with food and drink. More on the budeļi tradition in Imanta’s post A Baltic Christmas Day 4 – Čigāni!

The Lithuanian winter solstice celebrations also included many superstitions concerning animals. For example, sprinkling wheat and peas in the barn was thought to ensure the health of your animals, while taking all the milk pots outside and placing around the farmstead after dinner was so that the cows would give more milk in the next year. If you want your horses to be good looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses, and to keep wolves from carrying away animals, mention wolves while eating.

There are a couple of traditions that some people still follow, such as taking Christmas bread to domestic animals in the barn and hay to the forest animals. In Lithuania, much attention was paid to the animals on Christmas Eve, as their health and fertility depended on it. However, be careful not to stay in the barn too long… In Latvia and Lithuania, animals were believed to gain the ability to speak like humans at midnight on Christmas Eve. This is a widespread superstition throughout Europe, and although in some cases the animals use this gift to help humans, in most cases overhearing the animals is bad luck. For Latvians it wasn’t only the animals that gained human characteristics; Christmas Night in the Kitchen by Margarita Stāraste Barvika tells the tale of everyday objects coming to life in addition to the old Dachshund gaining the power of speech.

Fortune telling was an important part of the winter solstice celebrations. An old Latvian superstition states that if you carried a black cat around the church on Christmas Eve, you would be rich. Concerning marriage in the upcoming year, the windows would be covered after supper, and a rooster and hen were pulled out from under the stove and tied together by the tails. Superstition said that if the rooster pulls the hen to the door, there will be a wedding; however if he pulls the hen back under the stove, there will not be a wedding that year.

In Estonia, fortune telling also often involved the animals. For example, the chances of a young woman getting married were predicted by giving corn to roosters; the rooster was then observed to see which grain it would eat first. Tradition also dictated that domestic animals in the barn were offered bread on Christmas Eve. And during the holidays, noisy activities such as horse-driving were not allowed, because they could disturb the good ghosts.

The magic of Christmas Eve also extended to the insects. Lithuanian tradition was for the beekeeper to take honey and bees to his poor neighbors, and so that bees would not swarm on Christmas Eve night, the beekeeper took the first harvest grain sheaf around the orchard. Meanwhile the Latvian custom involved going to a neighbor’s barn to shear a sheep, and placing that wool in the hives; this was thought to guarantee the health of the bees.

Many of these old traditions were incorporated into new ones with the advent of Christianity, and although we are not tying the tails of roosters and hens together to reveal the chances of a wedding in the upcoming year, you will find customs such as budeļi and extra care of animals around the holidays still practiced. A century ago, the trip to church was by horse-drawn sleigh accompanied by the jingling of tiny bells on the horse’s harness. Although these days the ride is more often in a vehicle, the jingling of those bells can still be heard on the wind on a magic Baltic Christmas Eve.

I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Day 10 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas, on a world Scouting tradition - The Peace Light from Bethlehem.

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