BOOK OF CHRISTMAS - online book

The Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions, Superstitions, Fun, Feeling,
And Festivities Of The Christmas Season.

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CHRISTMAS EVE.                                          169
Among the finest superstitions of the night, may be mentioned that which is alluded to by Shakspeare, in the lines which we have placed as the epigraph to the present chapter. It is a conse­quence or application of that very ancient and popular belief which assigns the night for the wanderings of spirits,—and sup­poses them, at the crowing of " the cock, that is the trumpet to the morn," to start " like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons," and betake themselves to flight. Here, again, as in so many cases of vulgar superstition, a sort of mental metonymy has taken place ; and the crowing of the cock,—which in the early stage of the belief was imagined to be the signal for the departure of evil spirits, only because it announced the morning,—is, in the further stage which we are examining, held to be a sound in itself intolerable to these shadowy beings. Accordingly, it is supposed that, on the eve of Christmas, " the bird of dawning singeth all night long," to scare away all evil things from infesting the hallowed hours :—
" And then they say, no spirit dares stir abroad, The nights are wholesome ; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow'd and so gracious is the time."
In the south-west of England, there exists a superstitious notion, that the oxen are to be found kneeling, in their stalls, at midnight of this vigil, as if in adoration of the Nativity ;—an idea which Brand, no doubt correctly, supposes to have originated from the representations, by early painters, of the event itself. That writer mentions a Cornish peasant who told him (1790) of his having, with some others, watched several oxen, in their stalls, on the eve of old Christmas-day. " At twelve o'clock at night, they observed the two oldest oxen fall upon their knees, and, as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ' a cruel moan like Christian creatures.' " To those who regard the analogies of the human mind—who mark the progress of tradition—who study the diffusion of certain fancies, and their influence upon mankind —an anecdote related by Mr. Hovvison, in his " Sketches of Upper Canada," is full of comparative interest. He mentions meeting an Indian, at midnight, creeping cautiously along, in the stillness
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