Folklorist to explain Christmas traditions

The ever-popular Folklorist Michael Allison traces the intertwining of ancient pagan, Roman and early Christian beliefs into modern winter and holiday traditions to be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Mishler Theatre.

“Last year I gave two different talks and they still turned people away,” Allison said in offering a sneak peak to Mirror readers into his next presentation for the Blair County Historical Society. Talks by guest speakers are usually held in the Baker Mansion basement but Allison, a master storyteller of superstition draws a large crowd.

This year’s topic “Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas,” explains the origins of today’s holiday traditions such as Santa Claus, tree lightings, holiday parties and gift-giving from Eastern European and Alpine traditions. An attendee last year suggested the topic, Allison said, adding he will let the audience “vote” on next year’s subject.

Many modern autumn and winter celebrations began as harvest and solstice recognition practices in the Alpine regions of Europe and stretched northward to Scandinavia and to the south into the French Alps, he said, likening these myths to “stubborn weeds that won’t go away.”

When people migrated from one region to another, they brought with them superstitions, myths, stories and practices from the fatherland. Over generations and decades, the immigrants assimilated with the native culture. So cultural traditions mingled and morphed into various similar-but-different practices with nearly universally-common threads.

For instance, many early cultures, such as the Romans, used the cycles of the moon, sun and seasons. For instance, he said, at harvestime the abundance of food — and drink — gave rise to merrymaking. As winds howled in mid-December’s growing darkness and winter cold, large fires are lit as a way to encourage the continuation of life.

While in the Germanic culture, the winter solstice recognized the shortest period of day light and the “yule” log is lit as a way to keep out the cold and also mark the end of the old year.

“There’s this dying of the old year, the dying of nature in the winter cold and the dying of the light of the sun,” he explained, with no guarantee of spring’s renewal. “The human activities of lighting the yule log were a way to try and keep the cycle of life going during the coldest and darkest time when the spirits are out roaming the earth.”

A similar belief is represented in the late Roman Empire when Sol Invictus “unconquered sun” became the official sun god of the late Roman Empire and Dec. 25 designated as the festival of “Natalis Invicti.” As Christianity grew, this became a date associated with the birth of Christ. “It gives rise to the birth of son — s-o-n — and references the Resurrection of Christ at Easter … at the time of the spring solstice,” he said.

In early Christianity during the Roman Empire, the new Christians were looked upon as a “cult” and as it grew, the church created saint and feast days or “holy days.”

During feudalism, a time of great discrepancy between people with wealth and those in servitude, these days off or “holidays” provided work-weary peasants a reprieves from poor and laborious conditions.

Today’s Santa Claus has his origins in many cultures, usually as a figure that gives children a present, such as an edible sweet, for doing their chores. In contrast, disobedient children “get switched” and/or scooped up into a sack.

Germans immigrants who came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, Allison said, brought with them the tradition of Christmas filled with gatherings of family and friends during which eating and singing were a priority. One tradition is that of a visit by The Belsnickel. Usually an older male family member would slip away to a barn and become the Belsnickel, a fur-clad creature who made his presence known by a pounding on doors. The Belsnickel, described as a masked, fur-clad creature, would call each child by name and inquire if they had done their chores. If the child hadn’t, he was whipped with switches. In contrast, an obedient child received a treat from the sack he carried.

Other topics include Krampus, a half-goat and half-demon creature with large horns, “Crazy Bridgettes,” of Celtic origin, and La Befana, an Italian woman who flies on a broomstick on the Epiphany and drops presents for children down the chimney.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.