ONE might be forgiven for thinking that the Christmas season begins somewhere around the middle of October, when twinkling fairy lights and canned snow start to appear in shop windows. Although the number of shopping days to go before Christmas may be a priority for some, a large part of Europe's population adheres to the Christian calendar with its period of Advent, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
Although the same is true of much of Slovakia, many of the country's oldest seasonal traditions have their roots in ancient folklore and superstition. Between the end of November and the Winter Solstice, people believed that the powers of darkness, in the shape of witches and demons, held sway over the forces of good, drawing increased strength from the longer nights. Consequently, the five notable feast days during this period became known as the Witches' Days.
The first of these fell on November 25, St Katarína's Day, and marked the start of protecting oneself against malevolent forces. Villagers included cloves of garlic, long believed to ward off evil spirits, in their diets, and even fed it to their livestock, a popular target for witches' mischief.
It was also believed that, should the first visitor of the day be a woman, there was a danger of the chinaware breaking for the whole of the following year. Although it is unclear as to the exact reasoning behind this sexist myth, it was widely held that witches were commonly female and were barely distinguishable in appearance from purer souls.
This was also a day when the first of the New Year's predictions were made, stating that however the weather was on St Katarína's Day, it would be the same for the whole of January, and the conditions of the following day would similarly affect February.
The prophecies made on St Ondrej's Day, November 30, were in a lighter, more hopeful vein, and revolved around the future love lives of the young women in the village. One ritual involved the ladies stealing wood from the houses of eligible young bachelors to use when heating the national dish, halušky.
The young woman would write the names of the potential suitors onto small pieces of paper and put them into the potato dumplings. Whichever name rose to the surface of the water first would be that of the boy she was destined to marry.
However, it appears that in some regions it was the last dumpling to rise that would reveal the identity of a future husband, so in order to make an accurate prediction, one must first be fully au fait with the local customs.
The next in the series of Witches' Days was that of St Barbora, December 4, the protector against storms, and had an altogether more serious theme. Again, womenfolk were discouraged from crossing the threshold in the early morning, as this was believed to be a time when witches could enter the house. Presumably unable to distinguish the good from the bad, it was safer to bar all women. To counter this threat, young people would visit local houses dressed all in white, with their faces covered either with flour, or with white scarves to avoid being recognised by evil spirits, giving them the edge when attempting to banish them. As with St Katarína's Day, predictions about the weather also had a strong presence, indicating what the conditions would be like up until Christmas.
One seasonal character recognised around the world is St Mikuláš (Nicholas), well known as the patron saint of children. The ritual bestowing of gifts on the young symbolises his legendary generosity. Although this custom has been transferred to Christmas Day in many western countries, his feast day traditionally falls on December 6, still the custom in Slovakia. Students in towns would use St Nicholas as the central point of their carnival processions, with one person wearing a mask of straw to represent the saint, always accompanied by a little devil and an angel, and would hand out sweets to children. Those not fortunate enough to be visited personally would leave their boots on the windowsill that night, and would wake to find them filled with presents.
The last of the Witches' Days, and by far the most significant, was St Lucia's Day, December 13. Originally believed to be the shortest day of the year there are conflicting legends surrounding St Lucia. Some report her to be the "saint with the beautiful eyes", and heralded as the patron saint of light and the curer of eye diseases. Other less flattering myths claim she was the greatest witch of all time, even to the extent of being immune to the flames of the stake where supposed witches were ritually burnt to death.
Whatever the belief, the traditions of this feast day revolved around the banishing of dark forces. Garlic was again pivotal in the fight against evil, and as well as being eaten in large amounts, it was used to draw the sign of the cross on one's forehead. It was also fed to cows to prevent witches casting spells on them to stop them producing milk.
Another belief was that at the stroke of midnight on St Lucia's Day, one could peer through the keyhole of the local church and see all the witches in the village, thereby making them easier to identify, no doubt a great relief to the female population.
As with Easter, the doctrines of Christianity and the more pagan superstitions that surround the agricultural year have traditionally co-existed throughout the festive season. In this modern Slovakia, however, and in an age of cultural and religious diversity, it is hard to determine to what extent these ancient beliefs are still held. However, whatever makes this season special, be it religion, tradition, or simply the company of family and friends, there is no doubt that there is always a feeling of magic in the air during the run-up to Christmas.
Like most sceptics, my beliefs centre on what I know to be true, but this year I may just look further into the properties of garlic.
6. Dec 2004 at 0:00 | Richard Wood