Christmas time in the western world has some pretty standard traditions. For some people it’s a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Santa, the elves, gifts and feasting are also a big part of the season. But throughout history there have, and continue to be, many different traditions, myths and legends surrounding the holidays. You might be surprised to learn that many of these involve our equine friends! We are going to take a little look at a few, and you might recognise a few of the ancient stories our modern Christmases are based on.
The wild hunt of Woden
The ancient pagan story of the wild hunt of Woden involves the Norse god Odin. Odin leads a hunt across the sky riding a giant, eight-legged white horse called Sleipnir. Two ravens accompany him, listening in at people’s chimneys and reporting back which children were good and which were bad. Sugar and sweets was then delivered to good kids, while a birch rod is ready to beat the naughty kids. Bit harsh! Over time Sleipnir’s eight legs became eight reindeer. Many aspects of this story translated into future Christmas tales as different legends amalgamated over the years. In the Medieval story, Santa rides a big white horse as well.
Many horsey Christmas traditions are less broad, and can be found all over the world.
Across Russia, Belarus and Ukraine horses hold great importance in society. They used to believe the Yuletide season was the ideal time to divine young girls’ matrimonial prospects. They had a few different ways of going about this that involved horses. A young girl would sit backwards on an unsaddled, blindfolded horse. She would take the end of the horses tail in her mouth. It was then observed which direction the horse went. If it headed towards the gate it meant the girl would be courted and have high prospects in the year to come. If the horse wandered towards the fences or grass, nobody was going to be interested in the girl any time soon.
Another ritual performed involved young girls lining up and filling their aprons with corn. Whoever the horse ate corn from first would be the first to be married.
In parts of Russia horses are so revered that during Christmas time they are fed special pastries made in the shape of horses as well as many leftovers and other treats. The belief is that if they are fed well through the new year they will remain that way through the rest of the year.
A little known celebration called Horse Christmas was initiated in 1916 by the Massachusetts SPCA in Boston. At a time when horses were the main mode of transportation around the city , a lot of them were worked hard and suffered malnutrition and exhaustion. Horse Christmas was launched to improve conditions for these horses. A big Christmas tree would be erected in Post Office Square and decorated with carrots, apples, sugar cubes and corn. Horses that passed could feast at their leisure. This cute and helpful tradition lasted into the 1950’s and was adopted by many neighbouring towns and cities.
El Tope day is celebrated in Costa Rica on December 26th. It’s one of the most important dates in the local calendar and involves over 3000 horsemen and women riding along the streets of San Jose in a big display celebrating livestock and agriculture and the country’s rich history. The horses are decorated in bright skirts and many horse races are organised. It’s also a good chance to showcase Costa Rica’s famous Paso Fino and Costa Rican Pasos (Criollos) horses, unique breeds they are very proud of.
Ancient and terrifying ( and a lot of fun), the tradition of Mari Lywd takes place in Wales in mid-winter. Somebody covers up with a sack cloth and holds up a long pole. Atop this pole is a horse skull decked out in ribbons and bells. The skeletal horse creature wanders door to door with a small group of revelers and sings songs to the household in which they ask to gain admittance. The household must deny entry through song in return. Often these songs will be rhyming and poetic. Eventually the household will let the group inside and supply them with food and alcohol. Letting the horse-spectre in will give you good luck for the year ahead.
The celebration nearly died out at one point but has seen a big revival in the last fifteen or so years. Similar festivities can be found across the British Isles in small pockets, such as the hoodening in Kent, England.
It just goes to show how important horses have been and continue to be to our society as a whole that they are a part of our celebrations and our history. Remember to include your horses in your festivities this year!