It’s hard to imagine the past 6000 years of human history without horses. For ages equines have shared both good times and bad times with people, so no wonder they have become essential to our culture and traditions.
With winter’s festive season knocking at our doors, I invite you to witness some international winter holidays and rituals involving horses.
Let’s start with Sinterklaas, or St. Nicolaas Day. This holiday is celebrated mostly in Belgium and the Netherlands on the 5th of December.
St. Nicolaas looks like Santa Claus’ cousin, but unlike Santa, who travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, St. Nicolaas rides a beautiful snow white horse. Hollanders call the horse Amerigo and in Belgium it is known as Slecht Weer Vandaag, literally meaning ‘Bad Weather Today’. To get presents, kids should fill their shoes with hay and carrots for St. Nicolaas’ horse and leave them by the fireplace or near the windows. And if the horse likes the treats, it will leave sweets in return.
Watching horse racing is another winter holiday tradition in many countries: Leopardstown Christmas Race in Ireland, or Masterfield Cup in Australia, Limerick Festival in USA, or Welsh National Chase in Great Britain, you name it.
While in many places the horse show season is long over, The Olympia Horse Show, which is held in London a week before Christmas (and has been since 1907) is often referred to as the World’s Best Equestrian Christmas Party.
And even Christmas Day itself is a great time for celebrating numerous equestrian traditions.
Did you know that in the USA they have “Horse Christmas”? It was first celebrated in Boston in 1916. At that time horses were the only means of transportation, and unfortunately lots of Boston draft horses suffered from malnutrition and were worn out by long working hours all the year round.
“Horse Christmas” was initiated by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals with the aim to improve living and working conditions of those horses. They set out a Christmas tree decorated with carrots, apples, sugar cubes and corn in the main square of Boston, and since then Horse Christmas has spread throughout the country and has become an annual tradition, cherished until early 1950s.
In Mordvinia, which is located in the European part of Russia, horses were respected as family members. They were treated with bread and pies baked in the shape of a horse or a horse’s head and Christmas dinner leftovers. The belief was that if animals eat well on the first days of the New Year, they won’t starve the whole year long.
The 26th of December, also known as St. Stephen’s Day, is even richer in horse-related traditions as it’s widely believed that St. Stephen was a patron saint of farm animals, especially horses.
In Norway they have a special ritual for watering animals on that day. According to an old tradition, early in the morning on the second day of Christmas, horse owners who wanted their horses to be healthy, fast and strong should draw fresh water for each and every horse. No horses should drink water touched by another animal.
A similar tradition existed in Ukraine. As a little extra, owners put a silver coin in the horses’ drinking water. Also, that was the day to choose a herdsman for the next year and agree on payment.
In Costa Rica December 26th is the day of El Tope, the biggest and the most colorful horse parade of the year, when over 3000 horseman and women wearing flamboyant dresses ride along the streets of San Jose and show off their skills. El Tope, the most important event in the busy local equestrian calendar, celebrates livestock and other agriculture, and features bullfighting as well as a horse race. The fusing of Spanish culture and equestrianism with local tradition has helped to create this wonderful spectacle that tourists can see today.
Want to witness the most bizarre equine tradition? Then there is no better place than Wales. Mari Lwyd (or Grey Mare in English) is a luck-bringing ritual celebrated around New Year. A person draped in white cloth carrying a horse skull on a long stick walks about town and sings festive songs in the hope of being invited in and rewarded with food and drinks. Occasionally, “the horse” bites someone.
Winter festive celebrations continue long after the 1st of January.
On the 6th of January, also known as ‘Little Christmas’, groups of young men in Serbia run through the streets of their towns, chasing away demons by shouting accompanied by the cacophony of bells and horseshoes strung on rope. On the morning of Little Christmas, children place straw on a threshing floor and horses are driven around to thresh the grain with their hooves. This grain is later used to bake special festive bread.
In ancient Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, Yuletide (7-18 January) was regarded by young girls as the best time for divination. And of course, they typically attempted to predict romantic and matrimonial prospects. As horses – especially white ones – were believed to be magical creatures, they became an integral part of such rituals.
For example, if a girl wanted to know if she would get married in the next year, she would sit backwards on the unsaddled horse, whose eyes were covered with an apron, take the horse’s tail in her mouth and watch where the horse would go: if it proceeded to the gate, the girl would get married soon; if to the stables or to the fence, no one would attempt to woo her that year.
There was also a way to learn who among girl-friends would get married first: marriageable girls would sit in a row and fill their aprons with corn. The one whose corn the horse took before all others would be married soonest; and the way to learn more about the character of her future husband: put the shafts of a sledge on the ground and walk a horse over it – should the horse stumble, it meant that the future husband would be mean and cruel.
Now let’s transport ourselves from these snowy plains of Russia to the arid terrains of Ethiopia.
On the 19th of January (as part of Timkat – the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany celebration) Ethiopian men, wearing head-dresses made from lions’ manes, play a unique sport called Yeferas Guks. Two opposing groups ride on horseback and throw bamboo or wooden lances at each other. Nowadays, they protect themselves with shields, but centuries ago, survival in this game heavily depended on the rider’s skill, because there was no armor for protection and the javelins used were very sharp.
Another tradition, which makes one’s blood run cold, is celebrated in the Spanish village of San Bartolome de Pinares on St. Anthony’s Day (between 17th and 25th of January). Villagers “bathe” their horses in fire by running through flames in order to purify the animals and protect them from diseases and misfortune. Opinions on this tradition diverge, but local residents believe they are obligated to preserve the ancient traditions, and claim that in the 500-year-long history of this celebration, no animals have been harmed.
And on this, let me wish you and your horses cheerful winter holidays and a very Happy New Year!