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Four Seasons Asterisks appear next to saintsí names - see Celebrating Saints


January 15 The Nymphs
The ancient Greeks honored the Nymphs on the eighth day of Gamelion

January 16 Eve of St Anthony
In Abruzzo, Italy, men and boys used to go through the town singing songs about St Anthony's battles with the Devil and asking for donations of wood for a huge bonfire. These fires were lit all over Italy at crossroads, in courtyards and on church piazze on the eve of St. Anthony. In Fara Filiorum Petri, in Abruzzo, they tie reeds into bundles called farchie that rise sixty feet high, while in other places, the bonfire is made of vine branches lashed together and mounded in a pyramid. The bonfires supposedly encourage warmth so the seeds will grow, and the ashes have fertilizing power.

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990

January 16 Sacrifice Eighth Gruel
On the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, the Chinese offer a special gruel to Buddha, the ancestors and the five tutelary spirits of the household (the door, main gate, kitchen stove, center of the house (or impluvium) and well (or according to some, the alley). After noon, the gruel is given as presents to friends and relations along with pickled cabbage.

The gruel is made of glutinous millet, white rice, glutinous rice, canary seed, water-chestnuts, small red beans and dates from which the skin has been removed, all are boiled with water. Sometimes designs of lions are made on the gruel with peach seeds, almonds, melon seeds, peanuts, hazelnuts and pine seeds as well as white and red sugar and raisins. The dominance of seeds indicates that this is a New Year ritual, seeding luck for the New Year.

The quality of the pickled cabbage predicts the future prosperity (or decline) of the household (or the maker). In the north, these cabbages were put in the cellar where they would put forth shoots of a delicate, yellow color and tenderness. This custom reminds me of the custom of sprouting wheat on St. Barbara's day (December 4). Later on people simply separated the outer skin of the cabbage from the heart and ate the heart.

Preparations begin the night before with people staying up all night to peel fruits and wash utensil. They begin cooking the gruel at break of day.

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

January 17 Blessing of the Animals
St Anthony was a 3rd century hermit who was tormented with temptations. Because he made baskets, he is the patron of basket-makers and because he buried St Paul the Hermit, he is the patron of gravediggers as well. It’s less clear why he’s the patron of domestic animals but so he is.

On his feast day, domestic animals are cleaned and decorated and brought to churches to be blessed. In modern day Italy, even automobiles, viewed as modern beasts of burden, might be blessed on this day. In Mexico oxen, burros, horses and other beasts of burden are rubbed down and decorated with ribbons and garlands. Sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, even parrots and birds, are brought to the parish church to be sprinkled with holy water. In some rural communities, people even bring bags of worms and harmful insects which are blessed to keep them from hurting the crops.

St Anthony is always pictured with a pig. In some part of Italy, the community buys a pig that belongs to the community and is allowed to run freely. The pig is marked with a notch in the ear or a bell around the neck as the pig of St Anthony. Although this animal is much indulged throughout the year, its fate ends in January when the person who wins it in a lottery gets to take it home and turn it into meat. The price the animal fetched is used to purchase the next year's pig. Carol Field relates this custom to the sacrifice of pregnant sows to Ceres and Mother Earth.

In Italy, this day was often called Festa del Porco, the day of the pig, because it coincided with the arrival of the special pig butcher. People feasted on dishes of pork — cracklings, chops, livers, salami, prosciutto, sausage, blood pudding — dishes of beans, which symbolize the underworld and death, and chestnuts, which represent fertility.

In Greece, this is considered the start of carnival season. Women visit each other in the evenings, play games and tell bawdy jokes.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Field, Carol,
Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990

January 19 Sun Enters Aquarius

January 19 Timkat
Ethiopian festival

Maypole Dance
St. Anthony

January 20 St Agnes' Eve
This is an evening for love divinations, even though the spurious St Agnes chose death rather than marry a pagan Roman officer. Most of the methods recommended for determining your future spouse are challenging.

According to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, you should take a row of pins and pull out everyone while saying a pater noster. Stick one in your sleeve and you will dream of your future mate. I'm not sure if this works if you don't know the Our Father in Latin. Perhaps it doesn't matter as the words simply represent your effort to make the process sacred, in which case you can write your own charm along the lines of the following:

Fair St Agnes, play thy part
And send to me my own sweetheart
Not in his best or worst array
But in the clothes he wears each day
That tomorrow I may him ken
From among all other men.

To dream of your future mate, you must fast during the day and keep silent. No one, not even a child, should kiss you. At bedtime you must don your best and cleanest night dress.

One method requires the making, in silence, of a dumb cake of salt and water, supplied in equal proportions by friends who help you make it in silence. You then divide it equally and each takes her piece, walks backwards to bed, eats the cake and jumps in bed.

In Northumberland, the girl is told to boil an egg, extract the yolk, fill the hole with salt, eat the egg, shell and all, then recite the above lines of entreaty to St. Agnes. This will insure a significant dream which cannot be revealed to anyone.

Aristotle’s Last Legacy (written in 1711) provides another method for provoking an oracular dream of your lover. All you need to do is sprinkle a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of thyme with urine three times, then put each sprig into one of your shoes and put your shoes by your bed and say:

St Agnes, that’s to Lovers kind
Come ease the Troubles of my Mind.

If these seem too unpleasant, you can always try the simple charm of peeling an apple in one long strip and throwing it over your left shoulder to see what initial it will make or simply paying careful attention to your dreams.

For a special treat, read aloud the Keats' poem about "The Eve of St. Agnes."

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Kightly, Charles,
The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson

January 20 Putting Away the Seals
Sometime between the 19th and the 22nd days of the 12th moon (the propitious time was chosen by the Imperial Board of Astronomy), the Keeper of the Seals for each Ministry and Department officially retired the seals for the rest of the year, a practice followed by a jolly drinking party. This is the start of a rowdy season when restaurants and amusements places are full and beggars can steal from shops without any fear of repercussions.

Around the same time, all the theaters in Peking closed and didn't open again until New Year's Day when they performed the play, "Conferring Happiness," to open the new season. Also about this time, the school boys are released from their studies.

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

Eve of St. Agnes by Millais
Eve of St Agnes (detail) by Millais

January 21 St Agnes
St Agnes was a 13-year-old Roman girl who was martyred during the reign of Diocletian in the fourth century BCE. Like many saints of this time period (Lucy is another good example), the story of her life is spurious, perhaps based on nothing more than her name (which means "chaste"). One legend says that she refused the suit of a Roman noble. Her father, a prefect, condemned her to be exposed in a public place but her long hair grew miraculously longer and covered her entirely.

Another legend says she was the daughter of a virgin and a man who had renounced sexual love (this seems to imply she was a miraculous child like St David, Merlin or Christ). She was killed for refusing to marry a Roman officer, saying she already had a spouse who could not be seen with mortal eyes. She is thus the patroness of young girls and chastity. Accused of being a Christian by her rejected suitor, she was placed in a brothel where she inspired such awe in the male patrons that none dared approach her except for one foolish fellow who was struck blind for his impudence. Eventually she was condemned to death for refusing to renounce her faith. “She went to the place of execution more cheerfully than others go to a wedding,” wrote Ambrose, himself a saint.

Agnes is usually pictured with a lamb and lilies. Her name comes from the Greek word agnos (chaste) but it was confused early on with the Latin agnus (which means lamb). In Rome, two lambs are brought into the church of Sant Agnese on her feast day, where they are presented at the altar and blessed. The wool shorn from these sheep is used to weave the pope’s pallium for the year. Keats in his poem, “The Eve of St Agnes,” refers to the holy loom used by the secret sisterhood to weave St Agnes’ wool. Other saints with feast days around this time are also associated with sheep and lambs (St Brigid—February 2 and St Blaise—February 3). This is the start of the lambing season in England. Perhaps St Agnes carries the qualities of a goddess who protected lambs. Walker says she is a Roman-Jewish version of the Holy Ewe Lamb (Agna), virgin incarnation of the Ewe-Goddess Rachel, but I’m not sure I believe this any more than I believe the brothel story.

January 21 Sweeping the Ground
On the 20th day of the last month of the Chinese lunar year, people do a thorough house-cleaning in preparation for Chinese New Year.

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

January 22 St Vincent's Day

Remember on St Vincent's day
If that the Sun his beams display
For 'tis a token, bright and clear
Of prosperous weather all the year.

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

January 22 Full Moon in Leo

January 22 Lenaia
The days surrounding the full moon of Gamelion were dedicated to Dionysus Lenaia.The lenaion was an enclosure where dramatic contests were held in honor of Dionysus. It was organized by the basilius (king), joined by the overseers of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Starting in the 5th century, the basileus was chosen by lot from among the lower social class (like the Lord of Misrule). Lenus is the word for a wine vat but January is not a time for treading grapes. Lenai was also a name for the maenads, intoxicated female worshippers of the god who held their ecstatic dances in circles under the full moon.

January 22 Tu B’Shevat

January 24 Sacrifice to the Kitchen God
A week before Chinese New Year, the head of the household makes a sacrifice to TsaoWang, the kitchen god. Only men participate in this ritual. In ancient times, an antelope was sacrificed, but by 1900, people were offering candies and sugar cakes for the god and pure water, grass and beans for his horse. The sweet foods encouraged him to say sweet things about the family (or, made his mouth so sticky he could not open it).

Now the usual practice is to smear honey on the picture of the kitchen god which hangs in the kitchen. Then the picture is taken down and burned, along with paper spirit money. On New Year's Eve, a new picture will be put up. Sometimes fireworks are set off and thus this day is sometimes called "Little New Year."

On this same day, people paste up little good wish poems called "spring couplets" on gates and doors. These are similar to the peach charms of the past (boards of peach wood painted with pictures of gate gods or charms and put on the sides of doors). The spring couplets are written by professional calligraphers, usually on red paper, and say things like "May there be a single universal peace, with true wealth and honor. May the spring colors of the Nine Heavens appear in profuse elegance."

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

St Agnes
St Agnes

January 25 Burns Night
On the day when Robert Burns was born, Scots celebrate the poet's birthday with feasts featuring haggis. If you don't fancy haggis, you can still celebrate Scotland by dining on other Scotch delicacies, like Scotch and shortbread.

January 25 Conversion of St Paul

If the day of St Paul prove clear
Thus shall betide a happy year
If it chance to snow or rain
Then shall be dear all kinds of grain
But if high winds shall be aloft
Wars shall vex this realm full oft
And if thick mists make dark the sky
Both beasts and fowls this year shall die.
Erra Pater 1694Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

January 25 St Dwynen
The Welsh St Valentine, she prayed to be free of the importuning of a suitor, but when she dreamed he was turned to ice, she changed her plea to ask that all lovers should either succeed or be cured. She never married but became a nun. Her church of Llanddwyn was one of the most popular in medieval Wales. Pilgrims learned their fortune by watching the movements of the fish at her well and people brought sick animals to be cured. But she was always most popular with lovers.

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

January 30 Butter Festival begins
In Russia, the week before Lent is known as the "Butter Week." In the 19th century, the rich celebrated by bundling in furs and traveling by troika to their summer cottages where they could skate on the frozen rivers and picnic in the snowy woods, sipping on vodka and eating blinis. In the city of St. Petersburg, the Tzar put on a spectacle for the public each of the seven days. Everyone ate blinis, and topped them with butter, caviar, herrings or salmon.

Luard, Elizabeth, Sacred Food, Chicago Review Press

January 31 The Eve of Imbolc

St Dwynen
St. Dwynen

Previous January Holidays

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