Sheep foot month

While Mari speakers generally use the Russian names for the months of the year (which in turn are the general Western European names ’January, February, etc.’), there continue to circulate systems of wholly indigenous names, which I often use in speaking Mari because variety is the spice of life. In at least one system, December is known as шорык йол тылзе šorə̂k jol tə̂lze ‘sheep leg/foot month’. This name for December derives from an eponymous festival, which is described by Thomas A. Sebeok and Frances J. Ingemann in Studies in Cheremis: The Supernatural.

In winter, toward the end of December falls šorə̂k jol, a holiday lasting from three days to a week. Merrymaking, masquerading, fortune telling, and magic rites are the principal activities of this holiday.

One of the most widespread customs, perhaps the one from which the holiday gets its name, is that of predicting the appearance of a future husband or wife by means of grabbing a sheep’s foot. The young people go out to the sheep pen in the dark and grab either the foot of a sheep or some of its wool. If a white sheep is caught, the future mate will be a blond; if a black sheep, a brunet. From the size and age of the sheep it is also possible to predict the size and age of the future husband or wife.

Yet that’s just one possible explanation. Later on they write:

In some places [the masqueraders] scatter hemp seed indicating that the hemp will grow well. Sometimes are taken out in the sheep pen to pull the sheep’s feet and say that the sheep will have twin lambs.

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