News & events
Horsey Christmas Traditions
Over the centuries, horses have played a huge role in human history, becoming an essential part of our lives, traditions and culture as a result, and Christmastime is no exception!
This festive season, we’ve done a bit of research to find out more about how horses are celebrated in countries around the world.
Sinterklaas, Belgium and the Netherlands
Based on the figure of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb. The festivities usually begin around mid-November, when Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat (supposedly from Spain) at a designated seaside town; in the Netherlands, he will arrive at a different port each year, and in Belgium, he arrives in the city of Antwerp.
Riding a white horse, Sinterklaas parades through the streets to the sound of crowds singing traditional songs. The event is broadcast live on national television in both countries.
On St. Nicholas Eve, children typically fill their shoes with carrots and hay and leave them by the fireplace for Sinterklaas’ horse, along with a bowl of water. If they’ve been well behaved, the following morning they will wake up to find the horsey treats replaced with sweets and pastries.
In the Netherlands, the last horse was named Amerigo, but he passed in 2019 and has since been replaced by Oh zo snei (“oh so fast”), from a passage in a well-known Sinterklaas song. In Belgium, SinterKlaas’ horse is names Slecht weer vandaag, which means “bad weather today”, or Mooi weer vandaag, meaning “nice weather today”.
Horse Christmas, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
First celebrated in 1916, when horses were the only means of transportation around the city, Horse Christmas was initiated by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded by George Ansell. As a lot of horses at the time suffered from malnutrition and were worn out from having to work exceptionally long hours, Horse Christmas was launched in a bid to improve living and working conditions for the horses.
On Horse Christmas, the people of Boston would put up a Christmas tree in Post Office Square, decorated with carrots, apples, sugar cubes and corn for the horses to enjoy as they passed. Founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, Anna Harris Smith, is noted to have addressed the people of the city: “Why not give these faithful, hardworking servants of ours some little Christmas treat? Why not have Christmas for horses?”
Since its inception, Horse Christmas spread to neighbouring towns and cities, becoming an annual Christmas tradition that was cherished until the early 1950s.
Baked treats for horses, Mordvinia, Russia
In Mordvinia, Russia, horses have always been well respected, and as such are treated as members of the family. They’re fed particularly well around Christmastime, with bread and pies baked in the shape of a horse, and with Christmas dinner leftovers. The belief is held that if an animal eats well during the first days of the New Year, they’ll remain well-fed throughout.
St. Stephen’s Day, Norway
Honouring the patron saint of farm animals, Norwegian’s mark St. Stephen’s Day by carrying out a special ritual for watering their animals. According to tradition, horse owners who want their horses to be healthy, fast and strong should draw fresh water for each on St. Stephen’s Day morning.
A similar tradition existed in Ukraine, where horse owners would place a silver coin in the horses’ drinking water. On the same day, the herdsman for the following year would be chosen, and payment would be agreed upon.
El Tope, Costa Rica
On the day of El Tope – one of the most important events in the local calendar – over 3,000 horsemen and women ride along the streets of San Jose in celebration of livestock and agriculture. The women drape flamboyant, brightly coloured skirts over their horses, and there are also bullfighting and horseracing events.
Little Christmas, Serbia
During Little Christmas in Serbia, groups of young men run through their towns ringing bells and clanging horseshoes in an effort to ward away demons and evil spirits. On the morning of Little Christmas, children will place straw on a threshing floor and the horses will then be driven around to thresh the grain with their hooves. The grain is then used to make festive bread.
Yuletide, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine
7th – 18th January
Long ago, the Yuletide period was regarded as the best time for divination amongst young girls in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and horses – especially white horses – played a key role in their rituals, many of which would seek to predict the girls’ matrimonial prospects.
To predict whether she would get married in the next year, a girl would sit backwards on an unsaddled horse, whose eyes were covered with an apron, take the horse’s tail in her mouth and observe in which direction the horse headed. If the horse moved towards the gate, it meant the girl would marry soon, and if it moved towards the stable or the fence, it meant that no one would attempt to win her affections that year.
Groups of girls would also gather to perform rituals in an effort to learn who of the group would get married first. They would sit together in a row and fill their aprons with corn, and the girl whose corn the horse took first would be the first to marry. They would then lay the shafts of a sledge on the ground and guide their horse to walk over it. If the horse stumbled, it meant that the future husband would be cruel.
Mari Lwyd, Wales
The pagan ritual of Mari Lwyd – which sees a reveler dressed in a white cloth, decorated with bells and ribbons, and carrying the skull of a horse – is still celebrated in some parts of Wales. As part of this tradition, the white horse will visit homes around Christmastime and challenge those who live there to recite the matching rhymes of the Mari Lwyd poem; the challenge ultimately ending with the horse being allowed inside and given food and drink.
A similar tradition takes place in Richmond, North Yorkshire, where on Christmas Eve the Poor Old Hoss – a tall character dressed in black robes with a horse’s head – is paraded through the town by a troop of huntsmen. The group visit various local shops and businesses and carry out a small performance, written in verse, in which the horse is “shot” by the huntsmen, before being miraculously revived.
It’s fair to say that horses are celebrated in varying and multiple ways across the globe! However you choose to celebrate the festive season with your horse, we send you warm wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!