Christmas as we know it now is the christian feast that celebrates the birth of Christ. It was placed on December 25th by the Church in the 4th century. This neatly matches the period of Midwinter, the dark time when the old year ends and the new year starts. The similarities in customs and traditions during Christmas and the New Year celebrations can partly be explained this way. Midwinter, and also Joel (Yule), was still a well known name for this feast in the northern Netherlands up until the late 19th century.
For example: Both on the night before Christmas (Christmas Eve) and the night before the start of the new year (New Year’s Eve) it was said that the elder trees and apple trees were blooming, that who stood under these trees would see a clear sky, that the water in wells, pits and brooks changed into wine, that underworld bells were sounding, and that livestock (especially cows) could talk in human speech. In the Hogeland of Groningen (northern Netherlands) they said:
Tussen òl en nij joar ien / Is ale wodder wijn – Between old and new year / all water is wine.
In Staphorst (province of Overijssel, Netherlands), between midnight and one o’ clock in the night, all chickens slept on one leg, all cows laid on their right side, all wood turned into liquorice, and water turned into wine. In Limburg and other areas, one could put a twig of a cherry tree, maythorn, or apple tree in water – it would bloom during Candlemass, six weeks later.
Farmers in Limburg (southern Netherlands) would put the food for their livestock outside during Christmas Eve, that it might be blessed. On the other hand, people would put their tools inside, out of fear that it might be stolen by a spirit called Derk met de Beer, or Derk with the Boar. According to Ter Laan, this might be an echo of the god Fro or Freyr, a Norse god associated with fertility, who road a board or a chariot pulled by boars.
Midwinter is a feast of plenty. Having much food during this feast means you will have much food during the rest of the year – the midwinter meal becomes magical in a sense. This in Staphorst, Christmas Eve is known as ‘Dikkevretsavond’, which can be translated into ‘Fat-eat-evening’. The same goes for giving presents – the person who received presents will have good luck in the new year.
InTwente (eastern Netherlands), a curious ritual was held to see if the coming rye harvest would be a good one. On Christmas Night, a table was brought in, under which a never before used birch broom was placed – though just the broom without thetable was fine, too. table was fine, too. The next morning the number of rye grains that were fallen near the table and the broom would be counted – the higher the number, the better the harvest. Here we see here the use of divination to predict the new harvest year. Another prediction can be seen in the following rhyme:
Kerstmis helder en klaar/geeft een goed honingjaar. – Christmas bright and clear / gives a good honey year.
More divination: In Friesland, on Christmas Eve twelve sliced of onion were sprinkled with salt – this was said to predict the humidity of the coming twelve months. And if one would sit by the hearth with their shirt on inside out, one could see either their future spouse or a coffin, meaning they would never marry.
Christmas is a time for sharing. On the island of Ameland on Second Christmas Day, the boys each invited a girl and they all came together, celebrating with drinks, food and music, the boys bringing brandywine and the girls bringing coffee and cakes. In Limburg, children could get a piece of bread at the miller’s on Second Christmas Day. They would walk through the villages of Merkelbeek, Brunsum and Oordbeek, shouting “Heio!” while nuts and apples were thrown in their direction. This tradition is not particular to Christmas – it’s also in use during All Hallows and New Years Day. A special Christmas bread is the Christmas horse, made of dough for white bread and decorated with pretzel garlands. This is said to stem from a Scandinavian custom – the Yule horse
Fire is another important aspect for this feast, that is celebrated during the darkest time of year. The Yule log is well known in many parts of Northwest Europe. It was important to find good wood to keep the fire burning for at least a couple of days. The large log in the back of the hearth was especially meant for this purpose. In the northern Netherlands, it was called ‘’t achteraanstuk’ (the piece in the back) in Friesland, or ‘het Kerstblok’/ ‘de Kersttobbe’ (Christmaslog) in Groningen.
Another well known tradition, the Christmas tree, is often thought to be a remnant of ancient heathen religion. This may well be true, but no evidence of it has been found so far. In Germany, it is said to be the May tree incorporated into the feast of Midwinter. The oldest German Christmas tree mentioned stems from 1521, in Schlettstadt in the Elzas. Only in 1737 do we find the first source for adorning the tree with lights, although from the early 17th century on mention is made of adorning the German trees with decorations of paper and sweets. The Christmas tree came to the Netherlands through Germany in the 19th century. It is quite safe to say that the use of the Christmas tree as we now know it was in fact more of an elite tradition and became only a part of folk ‘memory’ when Romantic folklorists incorporated it in their writings.
Midwinter was a sacred time, during which mundane acts of labor wee often temporarily ignored and even frowned upon. Thus we hear the rather strange story of Berend van Galen, bishop of Munster, who in 1667 laid claim to Gelderland, Overijssel and Groningen. He went marauding on Midwinter’s Day. In folkore from that area he is now known as Beerneken van Gölen, the man in the moon. When he didn’t catch anything, he stole a bunch of branches. From then on, every Midwinter’s Day he travels through the air with his dogs. When people hear birds flying over, doesn’t matter during which season, they sometimes call it ‘Berndekesjacht’ (Berndeke’s Hunt). This seems a reference to the Wild Hunt (a phenomenon that deserves a page on its own), which takes place during Midwinter.
Ending with this eerie tale, it can be said that Midwinter is a feast during which we aknowledge the darkness, but look forward to a fertile new year while we celebrate with warmth and food, surrounded by our loved ones.
K. ter Laan. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Utrech: Het Spectrum. 2005 (3rd edition).