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The month of January: holidays, fun facts and Folklore

11 min read

Originally written on January 2020. Updated 2023

January is here,
With eyes that keenly glow—
A frost-mailed warrior striding
A shadowy steed of snow.

–Edgar Fawcett, American poet (1847–1904)

January was named after the Roman god Janus who, not by chance, fittingly represented new beginnings.
Janus is known as the protector of gates and doorways who symbolize beginnings and endings, and he is depicted with two faces, one looking into the past, the other with the ability to see into the future. He presided over the temple of peace, where the doors were opened only during wartime. It was a place of safety, where new beginnings and new resolutions could be forged.
The Romans would offer sacrifices to Janus and make promises of good behavior for the year ahead.

Janus am I; oldest of potentates;
Forward I look, and backward, and below
I count, as god of avenues and gates,
The years that through my portals come and go
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet (1807–82)

But did you know that the months of January and February were not originally in the ancient Roman calendar?
This because the winter months were considered “dormant”, both in terms of agriculture but also in terms of making war.
Basically, this was a time of peace.
Until 450 BCE, the Roman calendar was 10 months, beginning in March (Martius), due to the March Equinox. March was named for “Mars,” the god of War who was also an agricultural guardian.
Even when January (or Januarius as the Romans called it) was added, the New Year continued to start in March.
It remained so in England and her colonies until about 200 years ago.

The Anglo-Saxons called the first month Wolf monath because wolves came into the villages in winter in search of food.
Not by chance, January’s Full Moon is called the Wolf Moon.

January 1 is New Year’s Day.
While you’re still recuperating from the prior night’s parties, read about some other new year’s traditions you might not know about and celebrate with some Hoppin’ John for good luck.
It is a time for looking forward and wishing for a good year ahead.

In the old days, the New Year started with a custom called ‘first footing’, which was suppose to bring good luck to people for the coming year.
As soon as midnight had passed and January 1st had started, people used to wait behind their doors for a dark haired person to arrive. The visitor carried a piece of coal, some bread, some money and some greenery. These were all for good luck – the coal to make sure that the house would always be warm, the bread to make sure everyone in the house would have enough food to eat, money so that they would have enough money, and the greenery to make sure that they had a long life. The visitor would then take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, thus signifying the departure of the old year.

The 1st of January was a highly significant day in medieval superstitions regarding prosperity, or lack of it, in the year ahead.
For example, a flat cake was put on one of the horns of a cow in every farmyard. The farmer and his workers would then sing a song and dance around the cow until the cake was thrown to the ground. If it fell in front of the cow that signified good luck, to fall behind indicated the opposite.

On the other hand, It was an old Saxon belief that 2nd January was one of the unluckiest days of the whole year. Those unfortunate enough to be born on this day could expect to dies an unpleasant death.

January 5 brings Twelfth Night, an English folk custom that marked the end of Christmas merrymaking, and in ancient Celtic tradition, the end of the 12-day winter solstice celebration. On Twelfth Night, it was customary for the assembled company to toast each other from the wassail bowl.
Wassailing has been associated with Christmas and New Year as far back as the 1400s. It was a way of passing on good wishes among family and friends.

January 6 is Epiphany. According to the New Testament’s Gospels, on this date the Magi—the three wise men or kings—venerated and brought gifts to the infant Jesus.

St Hilary’s feast day on 13th January has gained the reputation of being the coldest day of the year due to past cold events starting on or around this date.
One of the most severe winters in history began around 13 January in 1205, when the Thames in London froze over and ale and wine turned to solid ice and were sold by weight.
The worst cold spells in Britain occurred between 1550 and 1750, and the climate during this time was known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were so cold that the Thames froze over each year.
The Thames had frozen over several times before 1608. In the 16th century, and Henry VIII is said to have traveled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river during the winter of 1536 and Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.
The last Frost Fair was held in the winter of 1814.
It began on February 1, and lasted just four days.
An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.

St Agnes’s Eve, on 20 January, was the day on which girls and unmarried women who wished to dream of their future husbands would perform certain rituals before going to bed.
These included transferring pins one by one from a pincushion to their sleeve whilst reciting the Lord’s Prayer, or abstaining from food and drink all day, walking backwards up the stairs to bed, and eating a portion of dumb cake, previously prepared with a group of friends in total silence and often containing an unpleasantly large portion of salt, before lying down to sleep.

But January is also National Clean Up Your Computer Month, and National Hot Tea Month, as well as National Soup Month!
Here are some more fun things to celebrate in January:

January 1 is Z Day (On this day, those whose last name begins with “Z” get to go first instead of last.)
January 2 is National Buffet Day
January 3 is National Chocolate-Covered Cherry Day, and January 4 is National Spaghetti Day.
January 6 is National Bean Day, January 9 National Apricot Day, and January 10 National Houseplant Appreciation Day.
January 11 is National Milk day, and January 14 is National Dress Up Your Pet Day, and don’t ask me why! January 16 is National Hat Day, January 19 National PopCorn Day, January 20 National Penguin Day and January 22 National Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day (!!!).
January 27 is National Chocolate Cake Day, January 29 National Puzzle Day and January 30 National Croissant Day. Enjoy!

If you enjoy unusual or forgotten customs, here are two that traditionally marked the end of the Christmas break when it was time to face the daily routine.
Often, these were “joke” holidays that mixed up the first days back to hard work with some playfulness thrown in.
The day after Epiphany (January 6) was once called Distaff Day and marked when the women went back spinning after the 12-day Christmas celebration.
A distaff is a wooden rod that holds flax or wool. Before the Spinning Wheel arrived, spinning was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle.
As is often the case, still today, it’s hard to go back to work after the holidays and not much got done!
The women’s husbands would mischievously try to set fire to the flax on their wives’ distaffs, while the women, lying in wait, would retaliate with humor by dousing them with buckets of water.

Dating back to the fifteenth century, the first Monday after Epiphany, called “Plough Monday” marked the start of the agricultural season, specifically for ploughing the fields for spring-sown crops.
Of course, not much work was actually done on the first day!
Dressed in clean white smocks decorated with ribbons, the men dragged a plow through the village and collected money for the “plow light” that was kept burning in the church all year. Often men from several farms joined together to pull the plow through all their villages. They sang and danced their way from village to village to the accompaniment of music. In the evening, each farmer provided a Plough Monday supper for his workers, with plentiful beef and ale for all.

And what about weather?
In the Northern Hemisphere, January is the coldest month of the year in most regions.
According to folklore, the weather of the first 12 days of the year is said to be indicative of the following 12 months!

Even in astronomy, there is a sense of new beginnings. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are starting to get longer again.
On January 4, 2022, Earth reaches perihelion, which is the point in the planet’s orbit where it is closest to the Sun. At perihelion, Earth will be 91,406,842 miles from our bright star.
The Quadrantid meteors appear in the early January sky, producing up to 25 meteors per hour at their peak, and they’ll be at their best on the night of Monday, January 3, into Tuesday, January 4.
For the best chance at spotting them, venture out between midnight and dawn.
If you can stand the cold.

January’s birthstone, the garnet, is thought to keep the wearer safe during travel, but it is surrounded by lot of folklore and was also known for its healing properties. One common thread is the idea that garnet protects its wearer from something, be that enemies, illness, or bad dreams.
This beautiful gem’s name references the bright red pomegranate fruit, although it actually comes in a diverse range of colors including greens, yellows, and even blues.
For centuries, garnet was viewed as a symbol of love and friendship, and a way to promote protection and healing.
In third and fourth century Rome, it would be used for protection by warriors going into battle, and It was also thought to provide safe passage on long journeys.
Over the years, royalty also favored garnet jewelry and garment adornments for its protection abilities.
Native American healers thought it to possesses the ability to protect against injury and poison, while in ancient Egypt, it was thought to ward off bad dreams and cure depression.
According to biblical legend, Noah is said to have used a garnet gem on the Ark as a source of light.
In times of battle, Asian tribes used garnets as bullets, believing they would cause more harm.
During the Middle Ages, garnets hung around the neck, were known as a cure for indigestion and sore throats.
In more modern times, it suggested provides wearers with loyalty and unchanging affections.
It is also thought to encourage success in business!
One of the oldest known gemstones, garnet’s history dates back to the Bronze Age.
Due to its tendency to break into irregular grains, it is not simply for fashion, but it is also used as an abrasive. Garnet is used in sandpaper for bare and unfinished woods, along with sanding belts, discs, and strips, but It’s also utilized for water filtration in abrasive blasting material, a process called water jet cutting.

January’s birth flowers are the carnation and snowdrop.

Native to the Mediterranean area, the carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) is a widely cultivated fringe-petaled flower, with a spicy fragrance.
It has long been a staple in the flower industry, especially for Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, thanks to its meanings of love and remembrance.
Translated from Greek, carnation is often referred to as “flower of the gods.”
It grew in the wild on the hillsides of Greece and is said to have been named by Greek botanist Theophrastus. Its history dates back to when it was used in garlands, art and decor in both ancient Greece and Roman times.
At one time, it was even used to treat fevers in Europe while, in the Elizabethan era, it was used to spice wine and ale as a substitute for the more expensive clove. It is traditionally prescribed in European herbal medicine to treat coronary and nervous disorders.

In early times, carnations were predominantly pale pink and peach, but over the years the availability of colors has grown to include red, yellow, white, orange, purple, and green, as well as bi-colors and frosted varieties. As with roses, different-colored carnations convey different meanings:
Light Red – Admiration
Dark Red – Deep Love
White – Innocence, Pure Love, Remembrance
Pink – Affection
Purple – Capriciousness
Yellow – Disappointment, Rejection
Striped (any color) – Regret

According to Christian legend, the first pink carnation on Earth grew from Mary’s tears when she wept for Jesus as he carried his cross. Therefore, a pink carnation often symbolizes also a mother’s unyielding love.

Notably the earliest garden flower to bloom, the snowdrop (Galanthus) emerges in late winter or early spring, sometimes when snow is still on the ground.
They are native to the cooler mountainous, wooded, and grassland regions of southern Europe and Asia Minor, but snowdrops have been naturalized also in the United States.
Extract of the snowdrop was used by the ancient Greeks for its mind-altering effects. Used as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is thought to have been brought to Europe by monks and midwives for medicinal use.
The snowdrop’s genus name, Galanthus, come from the Greek words gala (milk) and anthos (flower), referencing the flower’s pure white appearance.
Snowdrops are used to express both sympathy or celebration. During happy times, it is thought to provide optimism and hope, but following a death or misfortune, it symbolizes compassion.
Innocence is also linked to the flower because of its color.
According to one Christian story, an angel turned snowflakes into snowdrops and gave them to Adam and Eve as a sign of hope after their banishment from the Garden of Eden.
Amongst pagans, the snowdrop is associated with the beginning of spring, as it is thought that the arrival of the first blooming flower signifies the end of winter.

And, in conclusion, what about January’s folklore?
Fog in January brings a wet spring.
A favorable January brings us a good year.
If grass grows in January, it will grow badly the whole year.
A summerish January, a winterish spring!

Have a wonderful January and a great start to 2023 from me, Leo, and all the Random-Times family!

Images from web – Google Research

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