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December Holidays Asterisks appear next to saintsí names - see Celebrating Saints


December 1 Bona Dea

Roman feast of the "good goddess" whose Greek name translates as "feminine divinity." Bachofen associates her with Themis, the goddess of fate and she is also called Fatua (fate). Another name for her is Fauna (the consort of Faunus--see December 5). In this aspect she governed both fertility and healing. She is depicted as an elderly woman with pointed ears holding a serpent. Her festival was for women only. Men were excluded from the ritual which involved libations of wine (which was referred to as milk and served from a vessel called a "honey-pot"). (Unfortunately, as with many women-only festivals, our information about what happened is sketchy.) Her other major feast day is May 1.

Her name, may be euphemistic, a way of appeasing her, just as the Fairies were referred to as The Kindly Ones. In his book Ecstasies, in which he explores the imagery of the witches' sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg describes evidence for an early shamanic cult centered around a goddess of abundance and the dead. She was known as Herodiade, Diana, Habondia (Abundance), Richessa and simply the Good Goddess. Her followers claimed they flew with her through the night skies, entering the houses of the rich to feast; Ginzburg suggests these journeys were undertaken in trance.

Helen Farias described the

Roman Kalends (first of the month/year) practice of laying tables with abundant food for some supernatural being as a kind of charm to ensure plenty for the coming year. It was mentioned in the fifth century and also in the eleventh, when a German ecclesiastical writer condemned the custom of putting out food, drink and three knives for "those three Sisters whom the ancients in their folly called Parcae," The Parcae were the Roman Fates (originally goddesses of abundance and motherhood--Parcae derives from a word meaning to produce). They were identified with the Three Weird Sisters of England (wyrd is the Anglo-Saxon for destiny) who were stronger than Woden (even Zeus couldn't countermand the Greek Moirae or Fates). In certain medieval French material, according to Lucy Paton, Morgan le Fee and her attendants are met with Tables of Fortune and treated like visiting Fates.

Farias, Helen, "Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights," The Beltane Papers, #2, Samhain 92. <www.thebeltanepapers.net>
Ginzburg, Carlo, trans by Raymond Rosenthal,
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, Pantheon 1991
Paton, Lucy,
Studies in the Fairy Mythology in Arthurian Romance, 2nd edition, NY: Burt Brankling 1960

December 1 Poseidon
The ancient Greek lunar month named in honor of Poseidon begins with the new moon near the end of the year. When the lunar calendar was translated into the fixed solar calendar by the Romans, the first day of December, the day which correlates to the new moon, was set aside in honor of Poseidon, the god of the sea, whose presence is felt in other legends about this time of year (see December 6, St Nicholas). Poseidon claimed to have created the horse, in which form he mated with Demeter, pictured as mare-headed at her shrine in Phigalia. Robert Graves believed this story recorded the Hellenic takeover of Arcadia by warrior-kings who married the Moon priestesses of a rain-making horse-cult. In the legend, Demeter was outraged by the rape, and was worshipped in Arcadia in this aspect, as Demeter Erinys (Demeter the Fury).

Graves, Robert,
The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955

December 1 St Eligius
Patron of jewelers, silversmiths and all workers in metal, because he made a fabulous throne for King Clotaire. He was then appointed the Master of the Mint at Marseille, which is apparently the reason he is patron of collectors of coins and medals. He is also the patron of horses and veterinarians (his emblem is a horseshoe), blacksmiths, auto mechanics and gas station attendants, although I can't find a legend which explains why.

Celebrate his feast day by patronizing your local jeweler, or making jewelry yourself. Or take your car in for a tune-up and tip your local gas station attendant.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

Maypole DanceAll Souls

December 4 St Barbara
The Christian legend says that Barbara was imprisoned in a high tower by her father to discourage her many suitors. But when he found out she had converted to Christianity, he handed her over to his henchmen for torture and eventually beheaded her himself, whereupon he was immediately struck dead by lightning. Therefore she is invoked against lightning, tempests and explosions, and is the patron of artillerymen, miners, architects, builders and stonemasons.

Another legend about Barbara, recounted by Storace, says that she was running through the mountains to get away from her father who wanted her to marry the son of a wealthy and influential family. As she ran, she called out, "Mountains, take my body's elegance, and forests my thick tresses, and you, oleander trees, take my face's loveliness."

In the Levant, Christmas season begins with her feast. Wheat is the symbol of the day and a special dish of kahmie is served. (Grain is an important ingredient in the legends of other December saints--see St Nicholas (December 6) and St Lucy (December 13).) The head of the household tells the story of St Barbara while the wheat cooks. In southern France, especially in Provence, wheat grains are soaked in water, placed in dishes and set to germinate in the warm chimney corner or a sunny window. The grain is carefully tended, since if it grows fast, crops will do well in the coming year. Another folk divination performed on her day is the gathering of cherry branches which are brought into the house and placed in water. They bring good luck in the coming year if they bloom by solstice.

The Greeks invoke her for protection against smallpox. They leave her offerings of honey-cakes, kollyva (boiled wheat sprinkled with cinnamon and almonds) or varvara (boiled wheat broth, pronounced like Barbara in modern Greek) at crossroads (where offerings were left in pagan times for Hecate).

Helen Farias speculates that St Barbara may have been an oak goddess (because of her association with lightning?). Some legends place her inside a mountain, like the Venusberg or the Horselberg, the mountain of the fairy queen.

In the Voudun tradition, she is associated with Shango, the fire-god, whose colors like her are red and white.

Attwater, Donald, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Penguin 2nd edition 1983
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens,
The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Storace, Patricia,
Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996
Teish, Luisah,
Jambalaya, Harper & Row 1985

December 5 Faunus
A Roman festival in honor of Faunus, the consort of Fauna (see December 1). Faunus is the rustic god of woods and flocks, a Roman Pan, the original Green Man. Faunus was the son of Picus, whom Circe turned into a woodpecker for spurning her love. According to Robert Graves, the tomb of Faunus on Crete bore the inscription "Here lies the woodpecker who was also Zeus." Pan, the Greek god of the wild woods, and Hermes were also both associated with woodpeckers. Graves says all three are rain-making shepherd gods.

Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955

St Barbara
St Barbara

December 5 Eve of St Nicholas
In the Netherlands, children put their wooden shoes (or sometimes baskets) by the mantel on the eve of St. Nicholas and expect to find them filled with treats the next morning. St Nicholas rides through the air on his white horse and comes down the chimney to fill them. Carrots and hay are left out for his white horse.

Czechoslovakian kids believe he comes down a golden cord carrying a basket of apples, nuts and candies. In Hungary, the shoes are left outside the window. In France, children hang stockings near the fire and say this prayer:

Saint Nicholas, mon bon patron,
Envoyez-moi quelque chose de bon.

In the Netherlands, children sing special songs welcoming St Nicholas after spreading a large white sheet on the floor. The door suddenly opens and a shower of goodies falls upon the sheet. Then St Nicholas appears, dressed in his ecclesiastical robes, and questions the children about their behavior. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter the Moor, who carries a thick rod and a sack and threatens to carry the children off if they are bad. After the children are sent to bed, adults exchange gifts and feast on hot punch, chocolate and boiled chestnuts served hot with butter and sugar.

December 6 St Nicholas

December 6 St Leonard's Ride
In Bavaria, people dress up in native costume and decorate their horses in preparation for a festive procession in honor of St Leonard, the patron of cattle. They march with their cattle in the procession, led by white horses, while singing and cracking whips. It is possible this date was once associated with a cattle sacrifice.

St Leonard is also the patron of women in childbirth, because it was said that when the wife of the King went into labor suddenly while hunting in the woods, St Leonard came out of his hermit's cell to pray for her and she was safely delivered. He is also the patron of prisoners, and when invoked by those who have been unjustly imprisoned, he brings about their freedom.

December 8 Immaculate Conception
Although the feast of the Immaculate Conception has been around since the seventh century (this date was chosen because it is nine months before Mary's birthday), the idea that Mary was born free from original sin took a while to catch on and did not become official dogma until 1854. Marina Warner lovingly details all of the theological implications of the doctrine in her book Alone of All Her Sex.

In this aspect, Mary is usually portrayed standing on the moon, crushing the serpent under her foot, with the sun behind her. Sometimes her head is circled with the twelve stars of the Apocalypse. Sometimes she contemplates herself in a mirror. A famous Murillo painting shows her supported by cherubs, one holding lilies, another an olive branch and another a corn sheaf, as symbols of her purity, her wisdom and her fruitfulness.

On this day in Madeira, women begin baking the bolo de mel cake which is served at Christmas. This honey cake (now usually sweetened with molasses) is dense with walnuts, almonds and candied peel. It is traditional to leaven the cake with a piece of dough from bread-baking. Also any honey cakes left from the previous year must be eaten up on this day.

In Sicily, the cookie associated with this holiday is called pietrafendola, which means rocksplitter. It is a cylindrical cookie so hard it threatens the teeth.

Davidson, Alan, Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press, 1999
Root, Waverley,
Food of Italy, Vintage Books (reprint 1992)
Warner, Marina,
Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, Vintage 1977

December 9 Conception of St Anne
In the Orthodox Church, this is considered the day when St Anne conceived the Virgin Mary (see also December 8, the Immaculate Conception). Mary's birthday is September 8th. On a 17th century Scandinavian calendar, this day is marked with a pitcher for "it is time to pour water on the barley in order to brew the beer for Christmas cheer."

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
December 11 Agonia/Septimontium
Two rather obscure Roman holidays were celebrated on this day, one in honor of an ancient sun god (Sol Indiges, indiges being from the same root word as indigenous) and a festival celebrated by the inhabitants of the original Seven Hills of Rome.

Perhaps a day on which to celebrate the sacred mountains in your vicinity. Climb a peak and leave an offering to the sun.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

St Nicholas

December 12 Virgin of Guadalupe
In 1531, on December 9th, an Indian farmer named Juan Diego was passing by the hill called Tepeyac outside of Mexico City on his way to an early morning Mass when he heard birds singing overhead, whistles, flutes and beating wings. Then he saw a maiden dressed in the robes of an Aztec princess. She spoke Nahuatl, the Aztec language, Juan's language, and had skin as brown as cinnamon. She told Juan that she was Maria, the Mother of God, and that he should tell the Bishop of Mexico City to build her a chapel on the site. The Bishop was not impressed by this message and demanded some proof. The Virgin told Juan to climb the hill and gather an armful of roses, Castilian roses, which should not have been blooming then. But when Juan opened his cloak to show the Bishop the miraculous roses, he was surprised to see the Bishop fall on his knees. On the cloak was an image of the virgin as she appeared to him, surrounded by an oval frame of stars. Of course, the chapel was built.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is affectionately known as La Morenita, the little dark one. The place on which she first appeared used to be a shrine to the ancient Aztec goddess, Tonantzin. According to Monaghan, Tonantzin was a mother-goddess honored on the winter solstice. She was portrayed by a woman dressed entirely in white and covered with shells and eagle feathers, who danced through the crowd, weeping and singing, until she was ritually killed.

Monagahan, Patricia, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, Llewellyn 1990.

December 12 Hari No Kuyo
A Japanese festival when men and women reverse roles, reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia (see December 17) when servants and masters change roles.

December 12 Full Moon in Gemini

December 12 Moon Overhead
On the fifteenth day of the eleventh Chinese lunar months, when the moon is directly overhead, shadows look extremely short. Small boys and girls wait until the moon is overhead and then look at the odd shapes cast by shadows.

Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

December 12 Rural Dionysion
The ancient Greeks celebrated this holiday at different times in different neighborhoods but usually around the time of the full moon in Poseidon. Plutarch complained that the rustic festival he remembered from his youth, featuring a jar of wine, a vine, a goat, a basket of raisins and a depiction of a phallus had been replaced with an elaborate procession featuring gold vessels, decorated horses and people wearing costumes and masks. This was a time for revelry including phallic songs, games (the kind played at church picnics like one-legged hopping or playing tag) and eventually, under the influence of the City Dionysia at Athens, the production of plays.

H W Parke,
Festivals of the Athenians, Cornell University Press (reprint 1986)

Madonna & Earth

December 12 St Lucy's Eve
In Austria, witches were thought to be especially powerful on St Lucy's Eve as they were in England on Halloween and May Eve. Incense was often burnt in houses to defeat them. A mysterious light called the Lucy-shining was supposed to appear outdoors at midnight and those who had the courage to watch for it could foretell the future from its varying forms.

In Italy, St Lucy is the gift-giver who comes in the night, like St Nicholas (see December 6) or Santa Claus. Children leave bunches of carrots, hay and bowls of milk for the donkey on which she travels around the countryside. In Bergamo and the surrounding countryside, children leave their shoes on the kitchen window with hay and in the morning find inside tiny sweets the size of a coin tied to their shoelaces.

In Sweden, in the province of Hallan, according to old records, young women went from farm to farm all through the night, carrying torches to light their way and offering baked goods at each farm they visited, returning home at dawn. In the Scandinavian countries, threshing was supposed to be finished by Lucia's Day so sometimes people worked all night and were rewarded for their efforts with food and drink.

In Denmark, St Lucy brings prophetic dreams to women who recite this prayer before retiring on the eve of her holy day:

Sweet St Lucy, let me know
Whose cloth I shall lay
Whose bed I shall make
Whose child I shall bear
Whose darling I shall be
Whose arms I shall lie in.

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow and Company 1990
Granquist, Susan, "Lucy Fest," www.irminsul.org/arc/001sg.html


December 13 St Lucy

December 13 Soot Sweeping Day
I don't know anything more than the name of this day which is celebrated in Japan.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

St Lucy
St Lucy makes an appearance. Photo by Paul Bingman, used with permission.

December 14 Halcyon Days
Alycone, whose name means Queen Who Wards Off Evil [Storms], was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds. She was so happy in her marriage with Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, that they called themselves Zeus and Hera (surely not the couple that comes to mind when searching Greek mythology for an example of a happy marriage). At any rate, this made Zeus mad and he struck down the ship on which Ceyx was sailing with a thunderbolt. When her husband's ghost appeared before her, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.

The legend goes that every winter during the Halcyon Days, seven days before the Winter Solstice and seven days after, the female kingfisher carries her dead mate to his burial, then builds a nest, launches it onto the sea, lays her eggs and hatches her chicks. While she is brooding over them, the sea is unusually calm since Aeolus sees to it that no winds blow. Aristotle refers to a poem about this time written by Simonides of Ceos: "when in the winter month Zeus brings calm to fourteen days that earthlings call the time when the wind is forgotten, the holy breeding-season of the many-colored alcyon."

Actually kingfishers do not nest on water, but lay eggs in holes by the waterside. Robert Graves suggests that the myth refers to the birth of the new sacred king at winter solstice, after the Queen, who represents his mother, has conveyed the old king's corpse to a sepulchral island. The Mediterranean is typically calm around the time of the Winter Solstice.

There was another Alcyone in Greek myth, the daughter of Pleione ("sailing queen") and leader of the seven Pleiades. The rising of the Pleiades in May signalled the beginning of the navigational year, which ended when they set. Thus the legend seems to speak of a goddess who protects sailors from storms. The dried body of a kingfisher is used as a talisman against lightning.

Shakespeare refers to this legend in this passage from Hamlet:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
- Hamlet, I, i 157

For more ideas on the significance of this time period, see my article on Time out of Time.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Graves, Robert,
The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955

December 14 Third Sunday in Advent
This is the day when Christians light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, a foreshadowing of the coming joy. 

December 15 Consualia
Another Roman holiday, like those on July 7 and Aug 21, in honor of Consus, probably the god of grain stores. His mate, Opalia, is honored on December 19th.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

Kingfisher

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