In this column, Sex in Our Strange World, sex historian Dr. Kate Lister, of Leeds Trinity University, explores the ways in which people from around the globe approach love, sex, and marriage.
Christmas is a sexy time of year. Having said that, I admit, watching aged relatives lapse into a post-turkey stupor, roused only by intermittent bursts of sprout-fuelled flatulence, is a less-than-erotic scene. But, there is something undeniably sensual about the long winter nights, warm fires, mulled wine, and Die Hard repeats on TV. And what's more, science can back me up on this one.
According to research at Indiana University, and the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Portugal, our interest in sex peaks significantly around cultural or religious celebrations. This effect was noted around the world during their studies, and occurred largely during Christmas in Christian-majority countries, and during Eid-al-Fitr in Muslim-majority countries.
"You could try the Belarusian method of lining single women up on Christmas Day, placing piles of corn at their feet, and then let a cockerel loose"
The scientists believe all this festive frolicking is down to the simple fact that we are generally in a better mood at this time of year. No other holiday in our calendar was found to have quite the rousing effect that Christmas does - not even Valentine's Day.
But, we have always known Christmas is special time of year. You only have to look at some of the Christmas customs around the world to see we're all hoping for more than a sugar mouse in our stockings. Take, for example, our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe was sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids and was believed to cure all manner of ills, but it was also believed to promote fertility.
Ground-up mistletoe was consumed in various potions to help couples conceive, and in Italy, women would carry a sprig of the plant about with them to help stay fertile. Why should a parasitic, oak tree-bothering plant be associated with fertility, I hear you ask? Well, it is an evergreen, and the fact that it doesn't wither and die in winter has certainly helped boost its reputation as a baby-maker.
But what really set the seal on the plant's erotic quality is that its white berries were thought to represent testicles, and the oozy white juice they produce and smear all over their host was once called ' oak sperm '. The Celtic Druids regarded the act of cutting mistletoe as a symbolic castration, and could only be performed with much ritual and reverence. Our quaint kissing custom today is a faint echo of Pagan penis worship. What we're actually kissing underneath is a symbolic bunch of druid baubles.
Elsewhere in the world, Christmas traditions are slightly less testicle themed, but they are just as concerned with sex. In Poland, people have hung elaborate ornaments made of straw, eggshells and paper, called , from their ceilings over Christmas for centuries. The straw would traditionally have been gathered at harvest and saved to mark the winter solstice at Christmas. It was believed that adding dried peas or beans to the pająki decoration would increase fertility and bring marital happiness to the couples of the household.
Christmas spells, that are cast to predict the future, and discover who will be married within the year, are common to many cultures. In the Czech Republic, for example, single women can find out if they are due to be taken up the aisle that year by throwing a shoe over their shoulder on Christmas Day. If the shoe lands pointing towards the door, she will soon be married. Do be careful with one, as nothing will reduce your chances of love quicker than your crush arriving at your flat, only to be greeted by a flying Ugg Boot to the face.
If you're feeling adventurous, you could try the Belarusian method of lining single women up on Christmas Day, placing piles of corn at their feet, and then let a cockerel loose. Folklore suggests that the woman whose corn the cockerel choses will be the first to marry, although if you ask me there doesn't seem to be that much mystery in using free food to bag a cock, but there we go. However, if you don't fancy this tradition much, the Belarusians also say that if single women hold up two mirrors together at Christmas, she will see the person she is destined to marry behind her.
If you are short on poultry, corn, and mirrors, and you happen to like rice pudding, you could join in the Scandinavian tradition of baking risgrynsgröt on Christmas Eve. Risgrynsgröt is a rice porridge, flavoured with cinnamon and butter. The cook hides a single almond inside the dish before bringing the bowl it to the table and serving it up. Whoever gets the almond must make a wish and will be married by next Christmas. The nice thing about this tradition is even if you don't get a wish and wife, you still get a bowl of rice pudding - which is infinitely better than accidentally throwing a shoe out the window.
And speaking of potential choking hazards, single women in Slovakia bake dumplings called halušky to mark the beginning of the Christmas period. But, it's not so much the dumpling as the piece of paper with a man's name written on it that presents the danger. Legend has it that if you bake the name of your crush into the dumpling, they will be unable to resist you, and you will be married inside a year.
In Greenland, husbands and wives swap traditional roles on Christmas Eve, and the husband spends the day waiting on his wife, who gets to rest before the big day itself. But swapping roles for Christmas has nothing on the Inuits, who used to swap partners as part of the winter solstice celebrations. When Christian missionaries turned up in the Arctic in the late nineteenth century to spoil all the fun, they were shocked to discover the Inuit festival of Quviasukvik that celebrated the sea goddess, Sedna. Anthologist Franz Boas gave a detailed description of what happens at the Inuit winter feast in 1888.
'The [shaman] solemnly leads the men to a suitable spot and set them in a row, and the women in another opposite them. They match the men and women in pairs... where for the following day and night they live as man and wife ( nulianititijung). Having performed this duty, the [shaman] stride down to the shore and invoke the good north wind, which brings fair weather, while they warn off the unfavourable south wind'.
Boas doesn't give anymore detail than this, so sex is only implied, but it certainly sounds more fun than midnight mass and game of charades. As the Christian missionaries put the nutcrackers on the more carnal aspects of Quviasukvik celebrations, the tradition of swapping partners was the first thing to go. Today, Christmas in the Arctic looks a great deal like it does everywhere else, but with less swinging and more snow.
I could go on - believe me, I really could. Christmas fertility rites and love magic can be found in almost every culture that celebrates the winter solstice (which is most of them). The longest night of the year marks the return to spring, and the renewal of life. It's no wonder we all start to feel a little frisky. Although most of our more overt fertility Christmas rituals have now been watered down into cute games, decorations, and festive food, make no mistake - Christmas is the sexiest time of the year. Now where's that cockerel?Dr. Kate Lister is a sex historian, author and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She also runs the blog Whores of Yore. Keep up with her on Twitter.