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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands
Christmas


The children of years to come shall hear the fame of Carthon, when they sit round the burning oak, and the night is spent in songs of old.

CHRISTMAS EVE is chiefly spent in preparation for the succeeding days. The housewife is busily engaged in the provision and cooking of dainties. The flailman still chaps in the barn, desirous of providing the necessary store of fodder for the Christmas. The herd-boy’s axe resounds on the fir-stock, determined to prepare plenty of light, and the gudeman, and others, are abroad on a not less important errand.

This errand, on which we suppose the gudeman and his assistants employed, is the procuring of Calluch Nollic, or Christmas Old Wife, an indispensable requisite for this occasion, and it will perhaps puzzle some of our readers, to guess the purpose for which the good woman is wanted. If they suppose it is to contribute to the hilarity of the time, or to assist in the festive preparations, the idea is not very erroneous - the old woman does so in a very effectual manner. But the return she meets with, however warm, will not be admired by the reader, when he is told, that it consists in being stowed into a cartful of burning peats, with as little ceremony and feeling as an old broom. This usage, so inconsistent with the Highlander’s characteristic humanity, she does not, however, regard as a great punishment, for her feelings are as fireproof as those of a Salamander. Indeed, it is no rare sight, though strange it must be, to see an honest woman, who has undergone the unpleasant process of being Christmas fire to a circle of unfeeling fellows, perhaps oftener than once, heartily spinning at her wheel, and gratifying those, it may be, who had a hand in the unfriendly act, with her marvellous tales. But to avoid a certain imputation which some may be inclined to fix on us, it will be proper to explain our meaning.

The reader will please understand, that this good. woman only undergoes this process by representation. Among those valuable discoveries which distinguish former ages, that which gave rise to this custom deserves notice. Some wiseacre, by some lucky chance, discovered, that at this festive season, when the asperity of his character is probably much softened, even relentless death himself can be compromised with on very advantageous terms. By the sacrifice of an old woman, or any other body whom he wished in a better world, and whom, by tin following process, he chose to send to it, death was debarred from any farther claim to himself, or his friends, until the return of the next anniversary. He went to the wood this night, fetched home the stump of some withered tree, which he regularly constituted the representative of some person of the description we have mentioned, and whose doom was inevitably fixed by the process, without resort or appeal. Such a simple mode of obtaining security from a foe whom every body fears, could not be supposed to fall into desuetude; and the custom is therefore retained, whatever faith may exist as to its utility, in some parts of the country, even to this day.

But to return to the busy fireside whence we set out, we shall suppose the goodman and the "carling" arrived, and the other members of the family now relieved from their eager toil, with the old wife in the centre. The question now is, how the remainder of the night is to be disposed of? The nature of it requires, that it should be spent with gaiety; and a game at cards, the clod, [The game called "Clodhan," or Clod, is a favourite amusement with the youth in the Highlands. One of the company goes round the circle with a clod, or some other article, putting his hand into each person’s lap or hand, and leaves the clod with one of the number. The whole circle are then desired to guess the person who possesses the clod, (he guessing like the rest to prevent suspicion,) when all those who err are subjected to a small penalty, which shall be afterwards determined by an appointed judge; and, in the mean time, he must deliver some pledge to enforce his compliance with the arbiter’s decision. When a sufficient number of pledges are obtained, judgment is pronounced against their owners, who must redeem them, by doing various little penances, some of which are sufficiently ludicrous.

The bag is another popular juvenile amusement. One pops his head into a bag, holding his hand spread on back, and the palm uppermost. One of the company, in rotation, strikes his hand, not unfrequently with all his might, upon that of the person in the bag who is desired to guess who struck him last. If his guessing proves correct, the last striker then puts his head in the bag In his turn.] or the bag, is generally fixed upon. At the ordinary hour, however, all retire to rest with minds bent on the morrow's gratifications, and the house is soon changed from that scene of bustle and confusion it recently exhibited, to that of peaceful tranquillity where nothing is heard but the slumbering of the inmates, and the growling bark of the faithful collie on the midden-head.

At length the brightening glow of the eastern sky warns the anxious house-maid of the approach of

CHRISTMAS DAY

She rises full of anxiety at the prospect of her morning labours. The meal, which was steeped in the sowans-bowie a fortnight ago, to make the Prechdachdan sour, or sour scones, is the first object of her attention. The gridiron is put on the fire, and the sour scones are soon followed by hard cakes, soft cakes, buttered cakes, brandered bannocks, and. pannich perm. The baking being once over, the sowans pot succeeds the gridiron, full of new sowans, which are to be given to the family, agreeably to custom, this day in their beds. The sowans are boiled into the consistence of molasses, when the La-gan-le-vrich, [Yeast-bread] to distinguish it from boiled sowans, is ready. It is then poured into as many bickers as there are individuals to partake of it, and presently served to the whole, old and young. It would suit well the pen of a Burns, or the pencil of a Hogarth, to paint the scene which follows. The ambrosial food is soon dispatched in aspiring draughts by the family, who soon give evident proofs of the enlivening effects of the Lagan-le-vrich. As soon as each dispatches his bicker, he jumps out of bed—the cider branches to examine the ominous signs of the day, ["A black Christmas makes a fat kirk-yard." A windy Christmas and a calm Candlernas are signs of a good year.] and the younger to enter on its amusements. Flocking to the swing, a favourite amusement on this occasion, the youngest of the family get the first "shouder," and the next oldest to him, in regular succession. In order to add the more to the spirit of the exercise, it is a common practice with the person in the swing, and the person appointed to swing him, to enter into a very warm and humorous altercation. As the swinged person approaches the swinger, he exclaims, Ei mi tu chal, "I’ll eat your kail". To this the swinger replies, with a violent shove, Cha ni u mu chal, "You shan’t eat my kail." These threats and repulses are sometimes carried to such a height, as to break down or capsize the threatener, which generally puts an end to the quarrel.

As the day advances, those minor amusements are terminated at the report of the gun, or the rattle of the ball-clubs - the gun inviting the marksman to the "Kiavamucchd," or prize-shooting, and the latter to "Luchd-vouil," or the ball combatants - both the principal sports of the day. A description of either of these sports is unnecessary, as nothing new distinguishes them from similar amusements in other places; unless it be a consummate precision in the marksman. and a vigorous intrepidity in the ball combatants, that cannot perhaps be equalled by the peasantry of any other country.

Tired at length of the active amusements of the field, they exchange them for the substantial entertainments of the table. Groaning under the "sonsy haggis," and many other savoury dainties, unseen for twelve months before, the relish communicated to the company, by the appearance of the festive board, is more easily conceived than described. The dinner once dispatched, the flowing bowl succeeds, and the sparkling glass flies to and. fro like a weaver’s shuttle. As it continues its rounds, the spirits of the company become the more jovial and happy. Animated by its cheering influence, even old decrepitude no longer feels his habitual pains—the fire of youth is in his eye, as he details to the company the exploits which distinguished him in the days of "auld langsyne;" while the young, with hearts inflamed with "love and glory," long to mingle in the more lively scenes of mirth, to display their prowess and agility. Leaving the patriarchs to finish those professions of friendship for each other, in which they are so devoutly engaged, the younger part of the company will shape their course to the ball-room, or the card-table, as their individual inclinations suggest; and the. remainder of the evening is spent with the greatest pleasure of which human nature is susceptible. Nor will this happy evening terminate the festivities on this occasion. Christmas mid-day awakes all but old age, to a renewal of former hilarity. To age, however, there is no permanent enjoyment ordained in this sublunary state. The transient gleam of happiness which animated his feeble frame, has given place, with the cause of it, to a gloom proportionate to his former joys. Headaches, rheumatisms, and other wonted infirmities, are this day returned with more than usual virulence. He wakes only to recline his head on a pillow of sorrow, and to think on the days that are gone.


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