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The Month of December: holidays, folklore and traditions

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Originally written on December, 2020. Updated 2022

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you!

—Beggar’s rhyme.

The month of December brings many holidays, feasts, and events! Learn some facts about the 12th month on our calendar, a short history, and what the month is known for! From St. Nicholas Day to Christmas, it’s really a busy month. Just remember to grab a cup of hot chocolate and relax when you can!

Well, December is the 12th (and last) month in our modern-day Gregorian calendar (as it was in the preceding Julian calendar).
However, it was originally the 10th month of the Roman calendar, until 153 BC. Hence its name, “December”, comes from the Latin word “decem”, meaning, not by chance, “ten.”
In fact, back in Roman times, the calendar only had ten months and began with March.
Curious enough, the winter period was not even assigned months because it was not an active time for military, agriculture, or civil life.
Always in ancient Roman times, 17 December was the beginning of the festival of Saturnalia, in honour of the god of agriculture. It was originally just a day event but eventually grew into a seven day orgy of feasting and merrymaking, elements which later appeared in the Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night celebrations in the UK.
The Saturnalia was a holiday period for all including the slaves, who were waited on by their masters for the duration. Presents were exchanged, informal clothes worn and gambling games permitted. It was also customary to appoint a master of the revels, a character that reappeared in England as the Lord of Misrule, who formally presided over the Christmas celebrations, or over the entire period from All-Hallows Eve (31 October) to Candlemas (2 February).

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The month of December originally consisted of 30 days but, when January and February were added to the calendar (around 700 BCE), December was shortened to 29 days.
Then, in the subsequent Julian calendar, two days were added to December, making it 31 days long.
The Anglo-Saxons called it “Winter monath” or “Yule monath” because of the custom of burning the yule log around this time. After many Anglo-Saxons became Christians they called it “Heligh monath” or holy month, because Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is celebrated in December.

Among its major holidays, we have December 6, Saint Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, inspires traditions around the world, including Santa Claus, stocks or shoes filled with sweets and many more.

December 6th in some part of England is Enthroning of Boy Bishops.
The custom of choosing a Boy Bishop from the members of a cathedral choir is thought to date from the 13th century. Following his election he is fitted out in full Bishop’s regalia including robes, mitre and crozier. During the ceremony the chosen chorister and his attendants enter the church, or cathedral, and the new Boy Bishop takes his place on the Bishop’s throne and receives a blessing. He then holds this post from the Feast of St Nicholas on 6th December until Holy Innocents Day on the 28th December. The enthroning of the Boy Bishop was abolished by Elizabeth I and has only been revived in recent years.

December 7 is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. Historically, at dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an attempt to cripple the fleet and hinder U.S. intervention in other Japanese targets in the South Pacific.
The Japanese military expected that Germany would defeat Great Britain and the Soviet Union and that Japan would control the Pacific. The attack was opposed by Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who cautioned against a war with the United States, but he was overruled. After the attack, he said, “We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.”
And he was right. Although airfields, port facilities, and warships were severely damaged and two battleships, the Utah and the Arizona, were destroyed, the attack mobilized the United States and signaled its entry into World War II.

December 13 is St. Lucia’s Day, which has long been associated with festivals of light. Before the Gregorian calendar reform in 1752, her feast day occurred on the shortest day of the year (hence the popular saying “Lucy light, Lucy light, shortest day and longest night”).

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, a day that honors the ratification of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which occurred on this day, 1791. These laws protect basic human rights, including freedom of religion, speech, and peaceable assembly. Franklin D. Roosevelt first proclaimed Bill of Rights Day in 1941.
On this day, people fly the U.S. flag and to reflect upon the significance of these amendments.

December 17 is Wright Brothers Day.
Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first recorded flight in history of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.

December 21 is the Winter Solstice, the astronomical first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and first day of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the shortest day of the year, the day with the least amount of daylight.

24th December in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, is tolling the Devil’s Knell. In the parish church, a team of bell ringers toll the tenor bell ‘Black Tom of Soothill’ – once for every year since Christ was born. The final stroke is timed for midnight.
According to the legend, the practice began in the 13th century when Thomas de Soothill, a local baron, killed a servant boy. As penance he gave a bell to All Saint’s Church and ordered it rung every Christmas to remind him of his crime. After midnight Black Tom is rung once more to remind the Devil of his defeat by the birth of Christ and to protect the town from evil for the coming year.

December 25 is Christmas Day, a major Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ.

December 26 is Boxing Day, a centuries’ old gift-giving day that originated in Britain, and the first day of Kwanzaa, a week-long holiday held annually from December 26 to January 1.
Basically, Kwanzaa celebrates family, culture, community, and the harvest. The word “Kwanzaa” itself comes from the Kiswahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits (of the harvest).”
Kwanzaa focuses on seven essential principles, known as the Nguzo Saba, which are each represented by one day of the seven-day celebration. These principles are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani).

Holy Innocents Day, also known as Childermas, falls on 28 December.
It commemorates King Herod’s massacre of all male infants in and around Bethlehem under the age of two in attempt to kill Baby Jesus.
In the days when Christmas was less child-centred, Childermas was a time for indulging children with treats and parties.
But, on a more sombre note, 28 December is widely regarded as the unluckiest day of the year, so don’t do anything and certainly don’t start anything on this day!

31st December there is Allendale Fire Ceremony in Allendale, Northumberland.
Celebrating the end of the old year and start of the new with fire festivals still continues in several places through Britain. Believed to have pagan origins, the Allendale Fire Ceremony is perhaps one of the most spectacular with a procession of ’guisers’ carrying tubs of flaming tar above their heads. The procession eventually arrives at the town square were the flaming tubs are thrown onto a bonfire. At the stroke of midnight the church bells ring out to symbolise the supplanting of paganism by Christianity.

31st December there is also Flambeaux Procession in Comrie, Tayside. The Flambeaux is an ancient torchlight procession originally performed to drive out evil spirits. The villagers march round the village to the four points of the compass and then back into the main village square where the torches are thrown onto a bonfire.

Also on that day, is also Swinging the Fireballs in Stonehaven, Grampian. The ceremony at this east coast fishing village is one of the most unique Hogmanay festivals in Scotland. At the strike of midnight the High Street is lit up as sixty local fireball-swingers make their way, swinging their fireballs above their heads. Then they proceed through the town down to the harbour where the balls are thrown into the sea. The modern ceremony dates from a fisherman’s festival in the 19th century, but its origins may stem from pagan times, and there are other theories on the significance of the festival.
One recalls that some time in the dark-ages a shooting star appeared above Stonehaven. In the year that followed the sighting, the local farmers recorded a bumper harvest. So, attributing their prosperity to the shooting star, the villagers introduced the fireball ceremony to symbolise its coming as an omen of good fortune for the future.

And don’t forget, on the last evening of the year, December 31, kiss the person you hope to keep kissing, maybe under the Mistletoe

And did you know that December is National Pear Month?
You can celebrate also these fun holidays this month:

December 4 is National Cookie Day (yum!), but also Wear Brown Shoes Day, while December 5 is National Sacher-Torte Day.
December 7 is National Cotton Candy Day, and December 8 National Brownie Day.
December 11 is International Mountain Day, and December 12 National Poinsettia Day, but also Gingerbread House Day.
December 13 is National Violin Day, but also National Day of the Horse and December 14 National Roasted Chestnuts Day.
December 20 is Underdog Day and Sangria Day
December 26 is National Candy Cane Day, December 30 National Bacon Day and December 31 is National Champagne Day.

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December’s full Moon, named “full Cold Moon”, in 2022 appears appears on Wednesday, December 7, reaching peak illumination at 11:09 P.M. EST., but look skyward on the night of December 13 after 9 P.M. for a chance to catch a glimpse of the Geminid meteors! the most active shower of the year!
This year, the peak of the meteor shower lands just one day after the new Moon, meaning that the sky will be clean and dark, perfect for stargazing! And, If the sky is clear and temperatures aren’t too chilly, it’s worth venturing outside to try to see the Geminids.

About the moon, according to folklore, the nearer the New Moon to Christmas Day, the harder the Winter!

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December’s traditional birthstone is turquoise. It is considered a symbol of good fortune and success. Zircon and tanzanite are also considered to be December birthstones.

Turquoise is considered a symbol of good fortune and success, as well as a love charm, and it is believed to relax the mind and to protect its wearer from harm.
Turquoise rings, in particular, are thought to keep away evil spirits.
Unlike many other gems, turquoise is opaque rather than translucent. Its blue-green color can vary, with bluer stones considered more valuable.
It is found most often in very dry areas where volcanic activity has occurred.
In ancient Turkey, Tibet, and Persia, turquoise stones were attached to horses’ bridles, and It was thought that the stones protected the animals from the ill effects of drinking cold water when they were overheated from exertion.
It has a long history and deep connection to promoting good fortune and positive energy. It continues to play an important role in Native American beliefs and ceremonial rituals. It was even found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian leaders.
Hindu mystics believed that seeing a turquoise after observing a new Moon would bring about wealth.
Dating back to the 13th century, turquoise was thought to protect those who wore it from falling. It has often been used on horse bridles.
There was once a belief that the gem would break into multiple pieces when disaster was imminent.
Turquoise has held significant meaning for Native American tribes. The Apache believed that the gem could be found by following a rainbow to its end, while it could also be used to improve accuracy when attached to a bow or firearm. The Pueblo thought that turquoise received its color from the sky.
Ancient Egyptians called the gem mefkat, meaning joy and delight.

In any case, Turquoise has been a beloved gem for thousands of years and is one of the oldest. In ancient Egypt, pharaohs often wearing jewelry made with it, while Chinese artists used turquoise for carvings more than 3,000 years ago.
Turquoise was used for the funerary mask of King Tut, who ruled ancient Egypt in 13th century b.c.
Native American tribes have long used turquoise for ceremonial masks, currency, and jewelry.
The word turquoise is thought to have stemmed from the French expression “pierre tourques,” referencing the “Turkish stone” brought to Europe from Turkey.

Turquoise is the gem most associated with December, but tanzanite and zircon are also recognized as this month’s birthstones.

Tanzanite occurs in a range of blue and violet colors, as well as a combination of the two. A form of the mineral stone zoisite, often occurs with brownish tones that is then heat treated to produce its deep and saturated blue and violet colors.
Depending on the viewing angle, it can show different colors, a process known as pleochroism. Cool lighting will make the blue color more prominent, while warm lighting will emphasize the violet to purple.
It is one of the newest colored gems.
In 1967, prospectors found the world’s only source for the blue variety of zoisite in the Merelani Hills of northern Tanzania, south of Mount Kilimanjaro, and Tanzanite got its name from the country where it is found.

Zircon is found in a wide range of colors—red, orange, yellow, reddish-brown, green, and blue, while its colorless version, known for its brilliance and flashes of multi-colored light, has been confused with the diamond for centuries.
It is often heat treated to produce blue and colorless varieties.
The coloring of blue zircon will fade after long exposures to direct sunlight, but the color will return after a period of time in a cool, dark place.
Zircon found in Australia has been said to be the oldest mineral on Earth at 4.4 billion years old.
In the Middle Ages, zircon was believed to possess the ability to lull someone into a deep sleep, but It was also thought to ward off evil spirits, and promote riches and wisdom.
It was a popular gem in Victorian times and has been found in English estate jewelry dating back to the late 19th century.

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December’s birth flowers are the holly (Ilex aquifolium) and the paperwhite Narcissus (Euphorbia pulcherrima), a relative of the daffodil with beautiful white blooms.
December’s flowers may be very different from each other: if one is a bulb, the other is an evergreen shrub.
But they both symbolize hope!
In details, holly symbolizes a wish for domestic happiness.
Despite some animals and birds enjoy holly berries, they are semi-toxic to humans.
While there are many types of flowers in the genus Narcissus (including the daffodil), the paperwhite is the winter-growing variety and the birth flower for December.

Hollies are member of the Aquifoliaceae family. There are more than 400 species that in addition to shrubs, also include trees that can grow more than 15 meters tall. Many species have glossy green leaves that have spiny teeth or serrated edges.
Native to North America, China, Japan, Europe, and North Africa, the holly is one of the few bright colors found around outdoors during winter in cold climates.
Hollies are dioecious, which means that you will need a male and female plant to grow the recognizable red berries. Only the female varieties produce berries.
In Christianity, the holly’s spiky leaves have long been a representation of the crown of thorns, placed on the head of Jesus at his crucifixion, and the red berries are symbolic of his blood.
It was customary for the ancient Romans to give holly during Saturnalia, a harvest festival held around the winter solstice. Those who received it would hang the holly in their home to protect against evil spirits.
In Great Britain, the druids would decorate their homes with holly at the winter solstice, as It was thought to symbolize the renewal of life and light.
Pagans and Celtics associated holly with the Holly King, who was said to rule Earth between the summer and winter solstices, and some believed that the holly symbolized hope, wealth, and fertility.
More recently, it has represented happiness and peace.
Because of its spiky leaves, holly was also viewed as a symbol of combativeness, pain, and trickery while others, though, saw the plant as a representation of protection and defense.
It was thought that planting holly next to your house would ward off evil spirits and protect against lightning strikes.
In any case, the holly plant has long been a mainstay in decor for the Christmas season. American holly and English holly are the two species most often used for holiday décor.

The genus Narcissus, part of the Amaryllidaceae family, includes many types of flowers, most notably the daffodil, but most are spring blooming flowers.
Native to the Mediterranean region, narcissus has since been naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America, Asia, and Europe.
According to Greek mythology, it has long been believed that Narcissus got its name from the story of Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Narcissus became too fixated on the way he looked and ultimately fell in love with his reflection in the water, eventually drowning.
Flowers from the genus were said to have grown from where he perished.
The paperwhite got its name from its delicate petals, which are described as being as thin as paper, and it is said to represent purity, faithfulness, and respect.
Others believed the flower had a negative meaning, including being self-centered.
In Victorian times, the gift of a narcissus meant you are “the only one.”
A bouquet of paperwhites is a way to express pure or unconditional love.
Within the Narcissus genus, paperwhites are the oldest and most widely distributed, making it one of the most popular flowering bulbs in the world.
Given that it can bloom in mid-winter, it is sometimes associated with the Chinese Lunar New Year.

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And what about folklore and superstitions?
Well, a Christmas pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples and that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men!

If you take a candle to church this Christmas, don’t bring it home, blow it out and leave it there with the vicar for good luck.

And did you know that, on Christmas Eve, all animals can speak? However, it is bad luck to test this superstition!

Also wearing new shoes on Christmas Day will bring bad luck (please don’t ask me why!), but good luck will come to the home where a fire is kept burning throughout the Christmas season.

If a girl raps at the henhouse door on Christmas Eve and a rooster crows, she will marry within the year.

About weather, it seems that a clear star-filled sky on Christmas Eve will bring good crops in the summer and, If sun shines through the apple trees upon a Christmas Day, when autumn comes they will a load of fruit display.
And, snow on Christmas means Easter will be green while, on the other hand, a green Christmas means a white Easter.

If New Year’s Eve night-wind blows south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk, and fish in the sea;
If north, cold and storms there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man and brute!

A last fact: on December 24, in the parish church of Dewsbury, Yorkshire, a team of bell ringers toll the tenor bell “Black Tom of Soothill” – once for every year since Christ was born, and the final stroke is timed for midnight.
Legend has it the practice began in the 13th century when Thomas de Soothill, a local baron, killed a servant boy. As penance he gave a bell to All Saint’s Church and ordered it rung every Christmas to remind him of his crime.
After midnight Black Tom is rung once more to remind the Devil of his defeat by the birth of Christ and to protect the town from evil for the coming year.

Images from web – Google Research

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