As many of us are counting down the days until Christmas, Hanukkah or other winter holiday (or just counting down the days until some well-deserved time off), we’ve been decorating, baking, wrapping presents, and more. As we count down the days, I took a look at some more holiday traditions with early modern histories!
The Feast of Saint Nicholas:
While many think Saint Nick and Santa Claus are one and the same, the real Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 3rd-century bishop known for his good deeds, most notably giving anonymously to children and the needy. He was recognized as a saint in the 9th century and his feast day on December 6th was celebrated by Catholics in France in the 13th century. During the Reformation, the celebration of Saint Nicholas waned but remained alive in the Netherlands, where children would leave carrots or hay for Sinterklaas (the Dutch name for the saint) and his horse and St. Nicholas would bring small gifts and candies for the children. Today, the tradition is still popular throughout Europe and North America as children leave their shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts.
The Feast of Saint Lucy:
Each year on December 13th, the Feast of Saint Lucy is celebrated widely in Scandinavia and Italy. Saint Lucy, or Lucia, was a 4th century martyr who brought food and help to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, lighting her way with a candle-lit wreath on her head. Prior to calendar reforms, her feast day coincided with the shortest day of the year and is still widely celebrated as a festival of light. In Italy, St. Lucy is the patron saint of Syracuse, Sicily and legend holds that a famine ended on her feast day when ships loaded with grain arrived in the harbor. The tradition became to eat whole grains on December 13th, such as in the form of cuccia, a dish of boiled wheat berries mixed with ricotta and honey. In Scandinavia, the day is a celebration of light during the long dark winters. St. Lucy is celebrated by electing a girl to portray Lucia. The young girl dresses in a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles. A special baked bun, Lussekatt, is made with saffron, the yellow color symbolizing light, and served for the feast day.
Prior to the celebration of Saint Lucia day on December 13th, the Swedish celebrated Luccinatta, during which Lussi, an evil female witch-like being was said to ride through the air with her followers. Between Lussi Night and Yule, it was believed that trolls and evil spirits were especially active and Lussi Night was especially dangerous. The similarities between Lussi and Lucia and the date of her festival suggests that the two separate traditions may have been brought together in modern-day Scandinavia.
While not widely celebrated outside the British Commonwealth, Boxing Day occurs on December 26th and originated in the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages. The day after Christmas, the alms boxes at the churches were opened and their contents were distributed to the poor and needy in the community. This was also the day servants were traditionally given the day off to celebrate the holidays with their families. This day also coincides with the Feast of Saint Stephen, during which traditionally special offerings were given. The exact reason it is called Boxing Day has many possible sources: the first being the alms boxes, or also Christmas boxes of money which were collected by tradesmen the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This was also linked with employers giving each servant a box to take home with gifts, good, and money for their family celebration on the 26th.