Berchtold’s Day – Switzerland

January 2

Berne Coat of Arms

We made it to day 2 of the new year and the Swiss are already celebrating their second holiday.

Berchold’s Day, January 2, is named after Duke Berchtold V of Zahringen who founded the capital city of Switzerland in 1191.

Local legend goes that Bertchtold announced he’d name his future city after the first animal he slay on his hunting trip. He scored a bear, and thus the city is called Berne. (Good thing he didn’t kill a donkey.)

A duller theory is he named it “in memory of Dietrich of Berne (Verona), a favourite hero of Alamannic poetry.” (Names and Their Histories, Isaac Taylor, 1856″)

The Great Bear Hunt

St. Brechtold’s Day is celebrated mostly in the area around Berne. Though the confederacy of Switzerland is 700 years old, each region has maintained their own culture and identity. Switzerland’s central location in Western Europe makes it the “melting pot” of very white people: French, German, Italian, and Swiss. So I guess it’s more of an assorted cheese wheel of cultures, since it hasn’t really melted yet.

According to

…the second day of January is devoted to gay neighborhood parties in which nuts play an important part.

You know, I’m not even going to quote you the rest of that.

Okay, yes I am.

In early autumn children begin hoarding supplies of nuts for Berchtold’s Day, when they have “nut feasts.” Nut eating and nut games, followed by singing and folk dancing…One favorite stunt of the boys and girls is to make “hocks.”

Hocks are made up of five nuts—a pyramid with four nuts on the bottom and one on top—and apparently they’re harder to construct than you’d think. We don’t know why nuts are involved. theorizes that Berchtold really killed a squirrel.

Whatever the reason, there’s no better way to usher in the New Year than by breaking out some nuts, build those pyramidal hocks, and sing the national song of Switzerland:

O Great Berchtold
You killed a bear
You founded Berne
We stack nuts in your honor.

— Ancient Swiss Canto*

Photos of Berchtoldstag Parade

[*Ok, just to clarify, this is a made-up song, not the Swiss anthem. — Ed.]

Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Spain’s Christmas Lottery – El Gordo

December 22

Spanish Christmas Lottery ticket

The Spanish Christmas Lottery isn’t officially a holiday, but it’s an inseparable part of the holiday season in Spain, dating back to 1812. Each December 22, the entire nation waits on the edge of their seats for the winning numbers to be announced on TV, in a program that takes several hours. It’s estimated that 98% of Spanish residents take part in this lottery. It’s the largest lottery in the world in terms of payout.

“Spain spends more per head on gambling than anywhere else in the world…not because they are habitual gamblers but simply that the christmas lottery is a tradition in which the whole nation partakes!”

El Gordo –

The first prize, aka El Gordo (“the fat one”), is 3 million Euros. May not sound like much, but the 3 million isn’t split up. Rather, there are close to 200 winning tickets, and each winner gets 3 million Euros! When you take into account that’s just one of the 1770+ prizes, the pot is well over 2 billion Euros.

Second prize is 1 million Euros. Third prize is 500,000 Euros.

The lottery tickets are more like raffle tickets on which the numbers are already printed—ie., you don’t choose your own. This enables the government to control the maximum number of winning tickets: 195. There are 195 “series” of tickets, each containing tickets with numbers ranging from 00001 to 85000. So if the winning El Gordo number is 78,294—as it was in 2009—there are a maximum of 195 winning tickets. [OK, apparently it’s more complicated than that, as participants can choose to purchase “one-tenth” of a ticket for one-tenth the price, in which case they could claim only one-tenth of the prize should they win.]

The big winner in the Christmas lottery is the same each year: the Spanish government pockets 30% of the gross, not to mention any unclaimed prizes. Close to a billion Euros!

Anyway, the point is, Christmas is a special time. A time of giving and of gambling.

But if you get an email informing you you’ve won the Spanish Lottery, as many people do, there’s a 100% chance it’s a scam. According to the U.S. State Department:

“To enter and win “El Gordo,” you must be a resident of Spain and purchase your ticket within the country. Keep in mind YOU CANNOT WIN IF YOU DID NOT BUY A TICKET! … It is against U.S. federal law to play a foreign lottery through the mail or over the phone.”

And if you did happen to win the Spanish Christmas Lottery this year, don’t forget “Every Day’s a Holiday” on your Christmas list!

Winter Solstice & Yule Festival

December 21

All the Feasts of Heathendom…

“Among all feasts of heathendom, Yule-festival is most important, it being the anticipation of the celebration of winter solstice.”

–Karl Weinhold, Christmas Games and Songs from Southern Germany and Silesia

And of all the annual celebrations on earth there is none older and more universal than the celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Many of the world’s oldest monuments, which for years baffled anthropologists and archeologists, are now believed to have functioned as massive calendars that predicted the winter and summer solstices with astonishing accuracy. From Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England, both of which predate the Druids, to the Chankillo towers in Peru built 1700 years before the Incas, to the 365-day calendar used by the ancient Egyptians. All of these calendars were used to make sense of and to find meaning and patterns in an otherwise mysterious and unpredictable world.

Newgrange, Ireland
Newgrange, Ireland

The word “Yule” used in Germanic and Norse countries comes from “yula” meaning wheel, referring to the cycling of the seasons and the wheel of time. The term predates Christianity, but today yule-tide greetings are synonymous with the Christmas season.

The word Solstice comes from the Latin words “sol”, or “sun,” and “sistere”, meaning “to stand still.” The Solstice is the moment at which the sun stands still. Winter Solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year, and it usually falls on December 21 or 22. From that night on forward the ancients knew–or prayed–that the days would grow longer and warmer, providing for sufficient harvest and plenitude the following year.

As early as 2400 BC the ancient Egyptians worshipped Osiris, the god of death, life and fertility Osiris during the solstice. It was the day on which he was said to have been entombed and reborn. This tradition was echoed in later Greek ceremonies paying homage to Dionysus.


The ancient Romans celebrated the solstice with a week-long festival called Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The symbols they used included holly and wreaths, and it was a time of exchanging gifts.

The Druids called this time Alban Arthan, the Light of Winter. Although it has also gained the interpretation Light of Arthur by the poets, harkening to the legendary king who was associated with the sun and believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice.

In the Norse lands on Yule’s Eve a boar was sacrificed and its meat used for the holy feast. Those who could not afford to do so, broke a boar-shaped loaf of bread in its place.

So have a great Yulstice! Yule be glad you did!

Winter Solstice

Midwinter’s Day


Alban Arthan

The Truth about Santa – St Nick’s Eve

December 5

About this time of year parents deliberately wait in long lines in overcrowded shopping malls so their kids can sit on the lap of a fat red stranger.

Some cultures might call this odd. We call it Christmas.

Though the Christmas season begins commercially on Black Friday, and religiously on Advent, tonight kicks off the season for children in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

Saint Nicholas, 1838 - by Robert Weir

It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve, and though the date and the figure go by many names, the themes remain the same: kids and candy.

The jolly bearded guy known as Santa Claus in the United States is actually is an amalgamation of numerous folk figures.

The United States imported “Santa Claus” mainly from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Long before that, the Dutch learned of the saint, Saint Nicholas, from Spanish sailors, who believed Saint Nicholas had the power to save sailors by stemming storms at sea. Even today Sinterklaas arrives in Holland on or around November 17 each year, not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a ship from Spain.

No one would be more surprised at the role Santa plays in modern society than Saint Nicholas himself, who was actually a bishop in the ancient town of Myra, Turkey (then Asia Minor) around 300 AD.

Saint Nick, old skool

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned for 5 years for refusing to recognize the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a god. He was released after the Christian Emperor Constantine took the throne and removed Christianity from the Roman “terrorist watchlist.”

Today Saint Nicholas is remembered less for his role in destroying pagan temples than for his acts of kindness toward children. Like secretly giving poor families of young girls money for a dowry, so they could marry rather than become prostitutes.

Legends of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to the poor spread throughout the centuries. As his posthumous fame grew, children would leave their boots outside on St. Nicholas Eve in the hopes that St. Nick would fill them with goodies.

In Protestant Germany, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic gift-giving Saint Nicholas with the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Over time Christkindl’s name morphed to Krist Kindel. You may know him however as Kris Kringle.

In North America Santa Claus travels by reindeer-guided sleigh, while in Europe the gift-giver is accompanied by figures such as Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) or Krampus (The Claw), the latter being a goat-headed demonish entity who whips bad children with a switch. The Bad Cop to Santa’s Good Cop.

Whether you call him Santa, Kris Kindl, or Father Christmas, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Christmas is still 20 days out and believe me, you don’t want to end up on Krampus’s naughty list!


There Really is a Santa Claus – William Federer

Sankt Nikolaus und der Weihnachtsmann

Saint Nicholas Customs Around the World


St. Nicholas Day in Germany

St. Andrew’s Day – Scotland

November 30


November 30, St. Andrew’s Day, is the national day of Scotland.

St. Andrew is said to be the first disciple of Christ, though he’s got some competition from his brother Simon Peter.

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

— Matthew 4:18-19

The Book of John, however, proclaims Andrew and an unnamed disciple of John the Baptist as the first two, and Simon Peter as the third. When John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God”, Andrew and the unnamed disciple choose to follow Jesus. Only after spending the day with Jesus, does Andrew get his brother Simon Peter to tell him they’ve found the Messiah.

Andrew is also present with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple when Jesus tells them of false prophets and prophesies to be fulfilled:

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…

“…You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in synogogues…Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

— Mark 13

We don’t know Andrew’s last words. According to the Acts of St. Andrew, a third century text, he preached in Asia Minor, the Black Sea area, and Greece, and was crucified around 60 A.D. Tradition has it he was tied (not nailed) to an x-shaped cross, now known as St. Andrew’s Cross, or Saltire. Today the diagonal cross forms the banner of Scotland, of which St. Andrew is the patron saint. (Andrew the Apostle: Profile & Biography –

Martyrdom of St. Andrew
Martyrdom of St. Andrew

Saint Andrew is also the patron saint of Russia, the Ukraine, Greece, and Romania. But why Scotland? A country he never came a thousand miles from? The answer may lie with some of the Saint’s relics.

“…the monastery of Kilrymont (later St Andrews) in Fife claimed to have three fingers of the saint’s right hand, a part of one of his arms, one kneecap, and one of his teeth. It is possible that these were brought to Fife (which was at that time part of the kingdom of the Picts) from the neighbouring kingdom of Northumberland, where veneration of St Andrew was particularly strong. St Andrews became a popular pilgrimage destination after miracles were attributed to the saint.”

Saint Andrew seals Scotland’s Independence

St. Andrew’s Day didn’t become an official Bank Holiday in Scotland until 2006, a move that met with some controversy.

“There will always be someone to argue against something as unambiguously positive and celebratory as Saint Andrew’s Day. They’ll say it’s all a load of patriotic nonsense; they’ll say that Saint Andrew never set foot in Scotland, they’ll question why we have to share a saint with the Ukraine, Russia, Greece and so on. Maybe they’ll whinge that it’s too Christian, too partial, or not multicultural enough, and ask why it has to be that particular saint in the first place. But it all misses the point. Let’s face it, nobody thinks Saint Patrick’s Day is really about Saint Patrick; everybody knows it’s all about Ireland. And so it should be with Saint Andrew’s Day. It’s not really about celebrating Saint Andrew, it’s about celebrating Scotland.”

Azeem Ibrahim, Is Saint Andrew’s Day Worth Celebrating?

Historically, the night before St. Andrew’s Day served as a divination night for unmarried girls, who could discern information about their future mate through age-old rituals:

“Throw a shoe at a door. If the toe of the shoe pointed in the direction of the exit, then she would marry and leave her parents’ house within a year…

“Peel a whole apple without breaking the peel and throw the peel over the shoulder. If the peel formed a letter of the alphabet, then this suggested the name of her future groom.”


St. Andrew’s Eve Divination and Rituals

In Flanders Fields… Remembrance Day/Veterans Day

November 11

One of the most famous poems of war was written in May 1915 by a Canadian doctor stationed at Ypres during World War I. When the Canadians arrived on April 17 they were strangers to trench warfare. The Germans were not.

The Canadians occupied what would prove to be a particularly tragic stretch of grass of the infamous Flanders field. When the Germans attacked, they used every weapon in their arsenal, including poison gas.

The Canadians suffered 6,000 casualties during the April-May 2nd Battle of Ypres, half of them on a single day. Lt. Colonel John McCrae recalled it as

“Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”

Dr. McCrae was entrusted with the futile task of treating the wounded. On May 3, the day after his friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed in battle, McCrae surveyed the poppies of the cemetery field and paused to scribble three verses.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

One of the first people to read it was a young soldier named Cyril Allinson.

“The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”

McCrae would never know peace. He died of pneumonia in January 1918 in northern France, 10 months before the Armistice that ended World War I. In the United States, the anniversary of the armistice is known as Veterans Day. In Europe and Canada, November 11th is Remembrance Day.

Lt. Colonel Dr. John McCrae
Lt. Colonel Dr. John McCrae

Today veterans sell poppies in memory of all those who have served since Flanders Fields.

How the tradition of selling poppies for veterans began:

Fall of the Berlin Wall

November 9


Today is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

November 9, 1989 marked the end of an era and a new beginning for millions of Germans, who had been separated from their countrymen for nearly three decades by boundaries both tangible and intangible.

The original Wall was a far cry from the approximately 90-mile long concrete leviathan of 1989, parts of which still survive today. The original wall was merely a wire fence that went up virtually overnight in August 1961. The Wall served to stop the population drain from East Berlin, as residents of the Soviet sector moved to the West. An estimated 2.5 million people emigrated from East Germany during the 1950s.

“On what became known as “Barbed Wire Sunday,” some awoke to find themselves suddenly trapped in the Soviet sectors, separated overnight from families, friends and loved ones who happened to live on the other side of the Wall.”

The Day the Berlin Wall Went Up

In 1962 the wire fence was enhanced. In 1965 authorities erected a concrete wall, which got its final major makeover in 1975.

The Wall symbolized the isolation of East Germany under Soviet control, and its fall on November 9, 1989 symbolized a new freedom for millions of East Germans.

Tim, a Berlin resident who was 8 when the wall came down, learned about capitalism at an early age. He earned money for his first bicycle by selling pieces of the Berlin Wall to tourists. When asked if people ever sold random pieces of concrete pretending they were from the Wall, he replied, “There was so much Wall, you didn’t need to. The supply was endless.”

Living with the Wall