As the most popular of all the year's religious festivals, Christmas is governed by a wealth of folk tradition and superstitions applying to virtually every aspect of the festive season. Descended from pagan midwinter celebrations, it remains a diverting occasion that thrives on the disparate elements of material excess and Christian solemnity.
In former times, the festivities got into earnest on Christmas Eve, when there was much feasting and jollity and the burning of the yule log took place. Christmas decorations should not be put up until Christmas Eve, but this superstition is now largely ignored and high streets are bedecked with Christmas decorations as early as November in many places (in the Philippines, Christmas starts in September).
Mistletoe, according to custom, should not be brought inside until as last as New Year's Eve, but this again is now largely ignored. Centerpiece of the Christmas decorations in virtually every home is the Christmas tree, which was originally revered by the ancient Druids and other pre-Christian societies as a symbol of fertility and has since, like many other evergreen trees and shrubs, come to represent good fortune.
Christmas cakes were usually eaten on Christmas Eve in the nineteenth century, though it was mostly unlucky to cut into that cake before that day dawned and a portion had to be preserved uneaten until Christmas Day itself. The doors of the house used to be opened at midnight to let out any evil spirits, and a Christmas candle was customarily placed in a window to burn all night long to guarantee the household's luck for another year (it was a bad sign if the candle went out before the family rose).
Fairies, it was said, held masses in Christ's honor at the bottom of mines at the hour of midnight, and farm animals are still supposed to kneel in homage and are briefly blessed with the power of speech at this time -- though it is fatal for a human to overhear what they say.
Christmas Eve is also a time when the supernatural may be consulted about the future. Lovestruck young girls are advised that on Christmas Eve they may be granted a vision of their future partner: all they have to do is walk backwards to a pear tree, around which they must then walk nine times. Apparently, if a girl taps on a her-house and gets a reply from the hens inside this means that she will not marry that year; if the cock cries at her tap then a wedding is on the cards. Another course of action is to scatter twelve sage leaves in the wind and thus to conjure up the image of a lover-to-be.
St. Nicholas, in his modern guise as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, will fill stockings hung on the chimney-breast overnight. This is in remembrance of the legend that St. Nicholas tossed three coins down the chimney of the house lived in by three poor sisters: the coins fell neatly into some stockings that were drying by the hearth.
The first person to open the door on Christmas morning to welcome in the spirit of Christmas is very lucky, and further good fortune will attend the household if the first visitor on Christmas morning happens to be a dark man (the arrival of a woman or a redhead is, however, a bad omen). If the sun is shining a fine harvest can be expected the following year. The modern fixation on a "white Christmas" probably derives from an old notion that this signifies fewer deaths in the year to come. Whatever the weather, it is, however, unlucky to attempt any but the most essential work, such as the feeding of animals, on Christmas Day.
Various superstitions surround the traditional Christmas Day menu, particularly the Christmas pudding. During its preparation, this must have been stirred -- in an east-to-west direction -- by every member of the household, even babies, if the luck of the household is to prosper. And any girl who omits to take part in this ritual can forget her chances of marriage in the coming year. Those who stir the pudding are allowed to make a wish as they do so, but must keep the nature of their wish to themselves if they really want it to come true. Into the mixture may be placed a silver coin, which will bestow luck upon the finder, a ring, which will hasten a wedding in the family, and a thimble for prosperity.
Children born on Christmas Day itself will never be troubled by ghosts and are safe from death by drowning or hanging. Those born on Christmas Eve are also deemed especially lucky. Though Christmas Day is a popular time for the telling of various horror stories, ghosts will not appear on this day of the year -- though some say that the headless images of those who are fated to die in the following twelve months may be discerned in the shadows cast on the walls by a roaring fire.
In modern times, the end of the festive season comes with Twelfth Night, when all decorations must be taken down on pain of extreme bad luck over the coming year. Those how take their decorations down before Twelfth Night, incidentally, are probably unaware that they are similarly prejudicing their luck over the twelve months ahead and are risking a death in the family. In the past, decorations were often allowed to remain in place until the end of January, when every last trace of them was removed on the ever of Candlemas.