Avoiding disaster during the holidays

The fascination with superstition dies hard, and many countries have their own legendary superstitions tied to Christmas.

The Irish believed that the gates of heaven opened at midnight on Christmas Eve, and those who died at that time would go straight to heaven, skipping the ordeal of purgatory.

Kissing under the mistletoe is a common practice for good luck, and the Irish were no exception even though mistletoe is not prevalent in Ireland. In Celtic, mistletoe means "all heal." It was believed to heal diseases, ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. If two enemies happened to meet beneath mistletoe in the forest they would declare a truce until the following day. From this grew practice of suspending mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of peace and goodwill.

The special place of mistletoe goes back to the time of the Druids. It has always been associated with fertility and kissing. Unmarried girls were known to steal sprigs of mistletoe from decorations and hide them under their pillows to invite dreams of their future husbands.

A lighted candle placed in the house on Christmas Eve is considered a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph. The candle is to be lit by the youngest member of the household and be extinguished only by a girl bearing the name Mary.

Some Irish Christmas superstitions were sinister. If all were seated around the fire and one shadow on the wall appeared headless, then the person who cast that shadow would be dead before the end of the year.

In Irish lore this year’s Christmas, falling on a Sunday, would be seen as an ill omen. There is a verse that goes: "If Christmas Day on a Sunday fall, A troublesome winter we shall have all."

A blowing wind on Christmas Day means good luck, but wearing new shoes will bring bad luck. In some parts of Ireland, a special ritual was observed on Twelfth Night. A round cake was placed on a table and a candle representing each member of the family was lit. The lights were said to go out in the order that the members of the family would die. It is considered bad luck to take down decorations before Twelfth Night, on Jan. 6.

The Welsh word for Christmas is "Nadolog." Perhaps their oddest superstition was that the plough must be brought in and kept under the dining table for the duration of the holiday. On New Years Day, or "Dydd Calan," it is bad luck if the first visitor at your house has red hair. The best luck comes from a knock at the door by a man you don’t know with black hair. Lending anything on New Year’s Day is bad luck.

In most countries it is considered to be very lucky to be born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, except in Greece, where such a child is feared to be a "kallikantzaroi," or wandering spirit. In Poland, the child may turn out to be a werewolf.

In parts of Scotland at Christmastime, ale is poured into the waves of the sea to entice the ocean to give up its fish in the coming year.

Burning a Yule log carries many superstitions in different cultures. A Yule log must not be bought and it must be kept burning continuously. In some countries, remnants of the previous year’s Yule log must be preserved to start the next year’s log.

To learn one’s future spouse, one or several people make a dumb cake – a cake prepared in absolute silence – on Christmas Eve. The upper surface of the cake is pricked with the initials of those present. If the silence remains unbroken, the future partners of those whose initials are on the cake will appear and similarly prick their initials on the cake.

In other cultures, the cake-makers eat the cake and walk backward to bed, where they dream of their future spouses. Sort of like backing into marriage.

It is very bad luck to send Christmas carolers away empty-handed, as one could be a king in disguise. Offer food, drink or a bit of money. Singing Christmas carols at any time except during the Christmas season is unlucky.

Hanging stockings by the chimney with care traces back to an old superstition connected to St. Nicholas. He took compassion on three poor sisters and tossed three coins down their chimney. Each coin landed in a stocking left drying by the hearth. People therefore leave out stockings in hope that good fortune will befall them.

Decorating the home on Christmas Eve was said to avoid the anger of capricious forces. The first person to wake up on Christmas should shout into the street, "Welcome, Old Father Christmas." Sweeping the threshold will clear out trouble for the next year.

The Christmas table should be set for an even number of guests to avoid bad luck. The legs of the table were tied with string to protect the house from burglars. No one should sit with his back to the door. A pot of honey on the table will provide protection against evil.

Holly is a protection against witches and thunder. If the holly used for Christmas decorations is smooth, the wife will be master. It if is prickly, the husband is master. Therefore, the prudent will have both kinds to assure a harmonious home.

On the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can talk but it is bad luck to listen to them.

There are a lot of superstitions connecting shoes and Christmas. Giving a pair of shoes as a gift would make the recipient walk away from you in some cultures. However, in English custom, not giving a new pair of shoes to a poor person at least once in a lifetime means you will go barefoot in the next world. So the English give shoes as Christmas presents to the poor. In Greece, burning old shoes during the Christmas season is said to prevent misfortune for the coming year.

Unmarried girls may throw a shoe over their shoulders toward the door. If the shoe lands with its toe pointing toward the door the girl will marry within a year.

Although fortunetelling is supposedly anathema to the Christian faith, a variety of Christmas superstitions have to do with predicting the future. One of these comes after the Christmas dinner, when people float walnut shells in a bowl of water with small burning candles in them. The owners whose boats cross the bowl safely have prosperity the following year while those whose boats sink will have a year of bad luck. Whatever floats one’s boat.