Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
Advent and Christmas Offices of the Roman Church—The Three Masses of Christmas, their Origin and their Celebration in Rome—The Midnight Mass in Many Lands—Protestant Survivals of the Night Services—Christmas in the Greek Church—The Eastern Epiphany and the Blessing of the Waters—The Presepio or Crib, its Supposed Institution by St. Francis—Early Traces of the Crib—The Crib in Germany, Tyrol, &c.—Cradle-rocking in Mediaeval Germany—Christmas Minstrels in Italy and Sicily—The Presepio in Italy—Ceremonies with the Culla and the Bambino in Rome—Christmas in Italian London—The Spanish Christmas—Possible Survivals of the Crib in England.
From Add. MS. 32454 in the British Museum
(French, 15th century).
From a study of Christmas as reflected in lyric poetry, we now pass to other forms of devotion in which the Church has welcomed the Redeemer at His birth. These are of two kinds—liturgical and popular; and they correspond in a large degree to the successive ways of apprehending the meaning of Christmas which we traced in the foregoing chapters. Strictly liturgical devotions are little understanded of the people: only the clergy can fully join in them; for the mass of the lay folk they are mysterious rites in an unknown tongue, to be followed with reverence, as far as may be, but remote and little penetrated with humanity. Side by side with these, however, are popular devotions, full of vivid colour, highly anthropomorphic, bringing the mysteries of religion within the reach of the simplest minds, and warm with human feeling. The austere Latin hymns of the earlier centuries belong to liturgy; the vernacular Christmas poetry of later ages is largely associated with popular devotion.
p. 90 Liturgiology is a vast and complicated, and except to the few, an unattractive, subject. To attempt here a survey of the liturgies in their relation to Christmas is obviously impossible; we must be content to dwell mainly upon the present-day Roman offices, which, in spite of various revisions, give some idea of the mediaeval services of Latin Christianity, and to cast a few glances at other western rites, and at those of the Greek Church.
Whatever may be his attitude towards Catholicism, or, indeed, Christianity, no one sensitive to the music of words, or the suggestions of poetic imagery, can read the Roman Breviary and Missal without profound admiration for the amazing skill with which the noblest passages of Hebrew poetry are chosen and fitted to the expression of Christian devotion, and the gold of psalmists, prophets, and apostles is welded into coronals for the Lord and His saints. The office-books of the Roman Church are, in one aspect, the greatest of anthologies.
Few parts of the Roman Breviary have more beauty than the Advent 35 offices, where the Church has brought together the majestic imagery of the Hebrew prophets, the fervent exhortation of the apostles, to prepare the minds of the faithful for the coming of the Christ, for the celebration of the Nativity.
Advent begins with a stirring call. If we turn to the opening service of the Christian Year, the First Vespers of the First Sunday in Advent, we shall find as the first words in the “Proper of the Season” the trumpet-notes of St. Paul: “Brethren, it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” This, the Little Chapter for the office, is followed by the ancient hymn, “Creator alme siderum,” 4-1 chanting in awful tones the two comings of p. 91 Christ, for redemption and for judgment; and then are sung the words that strike the keynote of the Advent services, and are heard again and again.
Rorate, coeli, desuper—Advent is a time of longing expectancy. It is a season of waiting patiently for the Lord, whose coming in great humility is to be commemorated at Christmas, to whose coming again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead the Christian looks forward with mingled hope and awe. There are four weeks in Advent, and an ancient symbolical explanation interprets these as typifying four comings of the Son of God: the first in the flesh, the second in the hearts of the faithful through the Holy Spirit, the third at the death of every man, and the fourth at the Judgment Day. The fourth week is never completed (Christmas Eve is regarded as not part of Advent), because the glory bestowed on the saints at the Last Coming will never end.
The great Eucharistic hymn, “Gloria in excelsis,” is omitted in Advent, in order, say the symbolists, that on Christmas night, when it was first sung by the angels, it may be chanted with the greater eagerness and devotion. The “Te Deum” at Matins too is left unsaid, because Christ is regarded as not yet come. But “Alleluia” is not omitted, because Advent is only half a time of penitence: there is awe at the thought of the Coming for Judgment, but joy also in the hope of the Incarnation to be celebrated at Christmas, and the glory in store for the faithful. 4-3
Looking forward is above all things the note of Advent; the Church seeks to share the mood of the Old Testament saints, and she draws more now than at any other season, perhaps, on the treasures of Hebrew prophecy for her lessons, antiphons, versicles, and responds. Looking for the glory that shall be revealed, she awaits, at this darkest time of the year, the rising p. 92 of the Sun of Righteousness. Rorate, coeli, desuper—the mood comes at times to all idealists, and even those moderns who hope not for a supernatural Redeemer, but for the triumph of social justice on this earth, must be stirred by the poetry of the Advent offices.
It is at Vespers on the seven days before Christmas Eve that the Church's longing finds its noblest expression—in the antiphons known as the “Great O's,” sung before and after the “Magnificat,” one on each day. “O Sapientia,” runs the first, “O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.” “O Adonai,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Day-spring, Brightness of Light Everlasting,” “O King of the Nations,” thus the Church calls to her Lord, “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God.” 4-4
At last Christmas Eve is here, and at Vespers we feel the nearness of the great Coming. “Lift up your heads: behold your redemption draweth nigh,” is the antiphon for the last psalm. “To-morrow shall be done away the iniquity of the earth,” is the versicle after the Office Hymn. And before and after the “Magnificat” the Church sings: “When the sun shall have risen, ye shall see the King of kings coming forth from the Father, as a bridegroom out of his chamber.”
Yet only with the night office of Matins does the glory of the festival begin. There is a special fitness at Christmas in the Church's keeping watch by night, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the office is full of the poetry of the season, full of exultant joy. To the “Venite, exultemus Domino” a Christmas note is added by the oft-repeated Invitatory, “Unto us the Christ is born: O come, let us adore Him.” Psalms follow—among them the three retained by the Anglican Church in her Christmas Matins—and lessons from the Old and New Testaments and the homilies of the Fathers, interspersed with Responsories bringing home to the faithful the wonders of the Holy Night. Some are almost dramatic; this, for instance:—p. 93
It is the wonder of the Incarnation, the marvel of the spotless Birth, the song of the Angels, the coming down from heaven of true peace, the daybreak of redemption and everlasting joy, the glory of the Only-begotten, now beheld by men—the supernatural side, in fact, of the festival, that the Church sets forth in her radiant words; there is little thought of the purely human side, the pathos of Bethlehem.
It was customary at certain places, in mediaeval times, to lay on the altar three veils, and remove one at each nocturn of Christmas Matins. The first was black, and symbolised the time of darkness before the Mosaic Law; the second white, typifying, it would seem, the faith of those who lived under that Law of partial revelation; the third red, showing the love of Christ's bride, the Church, in the time of grace flowing from the Incarnation. 4-5
A stately ceremony took place in England in the Middle Ages at the end of Christmas Matins—the chanting of St. Matthew's genealogy of Christ. The deacon, in his dalmatic, with acolytes carrying tapers, with thurifer and cross-bearer, all in albs and unicles, went in procession to the pulpit or the rood-loft, to sing this portion of the Gospel. If the bishop were present, he it was who chanted it, and a rich candlestick was held to light him. 36 Then followed the chanting of the “Te Deum.” 4-6 The ceremony does not appear in the ordinary Roman books, but it is still performed by the Benedictines, as one may read in the striking account of the monastic Christmas given by Huysmans in “L'Oblat.” 4-7
p. 94 Where, as in religious communities, the offices of the Church are performed in their full order, there follows on Matins that custom peculiar to Christmas, the celebration of Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning every priest is permitted to say three Masses, which should in strictness be celebrated at midnight, at dawn, and in full daylight. Each has its own Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, each its own Introit, Gradual, and other anthems. In many countries the Midnight Mass is the distinctive Christmas service, a great and unique event in the year, something which by its strangeness gives to the feast of the Nativity a place by itself. Few Catholic rites are more impressive than this Midnight Mass, especially in country places; through the darkness and cold of the winter's night, often for long distances, the faithful journey to worship the Infant Saviour in the splendour of the lighted church. It is a re-enactment of the visit of the shepherds to the cave at Bethlehem, aglow with supernatural light.
Various symbolical explanations of the three Masses were given by mediaeval writers. The midnight celebration was supposed to represent mankind's condition before the Law of Moses, when thick darkness covered the earth; the second, at dawn, the time of the Law and the Prophets with its growing light; the third, in full daylight, the Christian era of light and grace. Another interpretation, adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas, is more mystical; the three Masses stand for the threefold birth of Christ, the first typifying the dark mystery of the eternal generation of the Son, the second the birth of Christ the morning-star within the hearts of men, the third the bodily birth of the Son of Mary. 4-8
At the Christmas Masses the “Gloria in excelsis” resounds again. This song of the angels was at first chanted only at Christmas; it was introduced into Rome during the fifth century at Midnight Mass in imitation of the custom of the Church of Jerusalem. 4-9
It is, indeed, from imitation of the services at Jerusalem and Bethlehem that the three Roman Masses of Christmas seem to have sprung. From a late fourth-century document known as p. 95 the “Peregrinatio Silviae,” the narrative of a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east by a great lady from southern Gaul, it appears that at the feast of the Epiphany—when the Birth of Christ was commemorated in the Palestinian Church—two successive “stations” were held, one at Bethlehem, the other at Jerusalem. At Bethlehem the station was held at night on the eve of the feast, then a procession was made to the church of the Anastasis or Resurrection—where was the Holy Sepulchre—arriving “about the hour when one man begins to recognise another, i.e., near daylight, but before the day has fully broken.” There a psalm was sung, prayers were said, and the catechumens and faithful were blessed by the bishop. Later, Mass was celebrated at the Great Church at Golgotha, and the procession returned to the Anastasis, where another Mass was said. 4-10
At Bethlehem at the present time impressive services are held on the Latin Christmas Day. The Patriarch comes from Jerusalem, with a troop of cavalry and Kavasses in gorgeous array. The office lasts from 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve until long after midnight. “At the reading of the Gospel the clergy and as many of the congregation as can follow leave the church, and proceed by a flight of steps and a tortuous rock-hewn passage to the Grotto of the Nativity, an irregular subterranean chamber, long and narrow. They carry with them a waxen image of an infant—the bambino—wrap it in swaddling bands and lay it on the site which is said to be that of the manger.” 4-11
The Midnight Mass appears to have been introduced into Rome in the first half of the fifth century. It was celebrated by the Pope in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, while the second Mass was sung by him at Sant Anastasia—perhaps because of the resemblance of the name to the Anastasis at Jerusalem—and the third at St. Peter's. 4-12 On Christmas Eve the Pope held a solemn “station” at Santa Maria Maggiore, and two Vespers were sung, the first very simple, the second, at which the Pope pontificated, with elaborate ceremonial. Before the second Vespers, in the twelfth century, a good meal had to p. 96 be prepared for the papal household by the Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. After Matins and Midnight Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, the Pope went in procession to Sant Anastasia for Lauds and the Mass of the Dawn. The third Mass, at St. Peter's, was an event of great solemnity, and at it took place in the year 800 that profoundly significant event, the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III.—a turning-point in European history. 4-13
Later it became the custom for the Pope, instead of proceeding to St. Peter's, to return to Santa Maria Maggiore for the third Mass. On his arrival he was given a cane with a lighted candle affixed to it; with this he had to set fire to some tow placed on the capitals of the columns. 4-14 The ecclesiastical explanation of this strange ceremony was that it symbolised the end of the world by fire, but one may conjecture that some pagan custom lay at its root. Since 1870 the Pope, as “the prisoner of the Vatican,” has of course ceased to celebrate at Santa Maria Maggiore or Sant Anastasia. The Missal, however, still shows a trace of the papal visit to Sant Anastasia in a commemoration of this saint which comes as a curious parenthesis in the Mass of the Dawn.
On Christmas Day in the Vatican the Pope blesses a hat and a sword, and these are sent as gifts to some prince. The practice is said to have arisen from the mediaeval custom for the Holy Roman Emperor or some other sovereign to read one of the lessons at Christmas Matins, in the papal chapel, with his sword drawn. 4-15
Celebrated in countries as distant from one another, both geographically and in character, as Ireland and Sicily, Poland and South America, the Midnight Mass naturally varies greatly in its tone and setting. Sometimes it is little more than a fashionable function, sometimes the devotion of those who attend is shown by a tramp over miles of snow through the darkness and the bitter wind.
In some charming memories of the Christmas of her childhood, Madame Th. Bentzon thus describes the walk to the Midnight Mass in a French country place about sixty years ago:—p. 97
“I can see myself as a little girl, bundled up to the tip of my nose in furs and knitted shawls, tiny wooden shoes on my feet, a lantern in my hand, setting out with my parents for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve.... We started off, a number of us, together in a stream of light.... Our lanterns cast great shadows on the white road, crisp with frost. As our little group advanced it saw others on their way, people from the farm and from the mill, who joined us, and once on the Place de lÉglise we found ourselves with all the parishioners in a body. No one spoke—the icy north wind cut short our breath; but the voice of the chimes filled the silence.... We entered, accompanied by a gust of wind that swept into the porch at the same time we did; and the splendours of the altar, studded with lights, green with pine and laurel branches, dazzled us from the threshold.” 4-16
In devout Tyrol, the scenes on Christmas Eve before the Midnight Mass are often extremely impressive, particularly in narrow valleys where the houses lie scattered on the mountain slopes. Long before midnight the torches lighting the faithful on their way to Mass begin to twinkle; downward they move, now hidden in pine-woods and ravines, now reappearing on the open hill-side. More and more lights show themselves and throw ruddy flashes on the snow, until at last, the floor of the valley reached, they vanish, and only the church windows glow through the darkness, while the solemn strains of the organ and chanting break the silence of the night. 4-17
Not everywhere has the great Mass been celebrated amid scenes so still and devotional. In Madrid, says a writer of the early nineteenth century, “the evening of the vigil is scarcely dark when numbers of men, women, and boys are seen traversing the streets with torches, and many of them supplied with tambourines, which they strike loudly as they move along in a kind of Bacchanal procession. There is a tradition here that the shepherds who visited Bethlehem on the day of the Nativity had instruments of this sort upon which they expressed the sentiment of joy that animated them when they received the intelligence that a Saviour was born.” At the Midnight Mass crowds of people who, perhaps, had been traversing the streets the whole night, came into the church p. 98 with their tambourines and guitars, and accompanied the organ. The Mass over, they began to dance in the very body of the church. 4-18 A later writer speaks of the Midnight Mass in Madrid as a fashionable function to which many gay young people went in order to meet one another. 4-19 Such is the character of the service in the Spanish-American cities. In Lima the streets on Christmas Eve are crowded with gaily dressed and noisy folks, many of them masked, and everybody goes to the Mass. 4-20 In Paris the elaborate music attracts enormous and often not very serious crowds. In Sicily there is sometimes extraordinary irreverence at the midnight services: people take provisions with them to eat in church, and from time to time go out to an inn for a drink, and between the offices they imitate the singing of birds. 4-21 We may see in such things the licence of pagan festivals creeping within the very walls of the sanctuary.
In the Rhineland Midnight Mass has been abolished, because the conviviality of Christmas Eve led to unseemly behaviour at the solemn service, but Mass is still celebrated very early—at four or five—and great crowds of worshippers attend. It is a stirring thing, this first Mass of Christmas, in some ancient town, when from the piercing cold, the intense stillness of the early morning, one enters a great church thronged with people, bright with candles, warm with human fellowship, and hears the vast congregation break out into a slow solemn chorale, full of devout joy that
It is interesting to trace survivals of the nocturnal Christmas offices in Protestant countries. In German “Evangelical” churches, midnight or early morning services were common in the eighteenth century; but they were forbidden in some places because of the riot and drunkenness which accompanied them. The people seem to have regarded them as a part of their Christmas revellings rather than as sacred functions; one writer compares the congregation to a crowd of wild drunken sailors in a p. 99 tavern, another gives disgusting particulars of disorders in a church where the only sober man was the preacher. 4-22
In Sweden the Christmas service is performed very early in the morning, the chancel is lighted up with many candles, and the celebrant is vested in a white chasuble with golden orphreys. 4-23
A Midnight Mass is now celebrated in many Anglican churches, but this is purely a modern revival. The most distinct British survival is to be found in Wales in the early service known as Plygain (dawn), sometimes a celebration of the Communion. At Tenby at four o'clock on Christmas morning it was customary for the young men of the town to escort the rector with lighted torches from his house to the church. Extinguishing their torches in the porch, they went in to the early service, and when it was ended the torches were relighted and the procession returned to the rectory. At St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen, an early service was held, to the light of coloured candles brought by the congregation. At St. Asaph, Caerwys, at 4 or 5 a.m., Plygain, consisting of carols sung round the church in procession, was held. 4-24 The Plygain continued in Welsh churches until about the eighteen-fifties, and, curiously enough, when the Established Church abandoned it, it was celebrated in Nonconformist chapels. 4-25
In the Isle of Man on Christmas Eve, or Oiel Verry (Mary's Eve), “a number of persons used to assemble in each parish church and proceed to shout carols or Carvals. There was no unison or concert about the chanting, but a single person would stand up with a lighted candle in his or her hand, and chant in a dismal monotone verse after verse of some old Manx Carval, until the candle was burnt out. Then another person would start up and go through a similar performance. No fresh candles might be lighted after the clock had chimed midnight.” 4-26
One may conjecture that the common English practice of ringing bells until midnight on Christmas Eve has also some connection with the old-time Midnight Mass.
For the Greek Church Christmas is a comparatively unimportant festival by the side of the Epiphany, the celebration of p. 100 Christ's Baptism; the Christmas offices are, however, full of fine poetry. There is far less restraint, far less adherence to the words of Scripture, far greater richness of original composition, in the Greek than in the Roman service-books, and while there is less poignancy there is more amplitude and splendour. Christmas Day, with the Greeks, is a commemoration of the coming of the Magi as well as of the Nativity and the adoration of the shepherds, and the Wise Men are very prominent in the services. The following hymn of St. Anatolius (fifth century), from the First Vespers of the feast, is fairly typical of the character of the Christmas offices:—
A beautiful rite called the “Peace of God” is performed in Slavonic churches at the end of the “Liturgy” or Mass on Christmas morning—the people kiss one another on both cheeks, saying, “Christ is born!” To this the answer is made, “Of a truth He is born!” and the kisses are returned. This is repeated till everyone has kissed and been kissed by all present. 4-28
We must pass rapidly over the feasts of saints within the Octave of the western Christmas, St. Stephen (December 26), St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the Holy Innocents (December 28), and St. Sylvester (December 31). None of these, except the feast of the Holy Innocents, have any special connection with the Nativity or the Infancy, and the popular customs connected with them will come up for consideration in our Second Part.
The commemoration of the Circumcision (“when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child”) falls naturally on January 1, the Octave of Christmas. It is not of Roman origin, and was not observed in Rome until it had long been established in the Byzantine and Gallican Churches. 4-29 In Gaul, as is shown by a decree of the Council of Tours in 567, a solemn fast was held on the Circumcision and the two days following it, in order to turn away the faithful from the pagan festivities of the Kalends. 4-30
The feast of the Epiphany on January 6, as we have seen, is in the eastern Church a commemoration of the Baptism of Christ. In the West it has become primarily the festival of the adoration p. 102 of the Magi, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Still in the Roman offices many traces of the baptismal commemoration remain, and the memory of yet another manifestation of Christ's glory appears in the antiphon at “Magnificat” at the Second Vespers of the feast:—
“We keep holy a day adorned by three wonders: to-day a star led the Magi to the manger; to-day at the marriage water was made wine; to-day for our salvation Christ was pleased to be baptized of John in Jordan. Alleluia.”
On the Octave of the Epiphany at Matins the Baptism is the central idea, and the Gospel at Mass bears on the same subject. In Rome itself even the Blessing of the Waters, the distinctive ceremony of the eastern Epiphany rite, is performed in certain churches according to a Latin ritual. 4-31 At Sant Andrea della Valle, Rome, during the Octave of the Epiphany a Solemn Mass is celebrated every morning in Latin, and afterwards, on each of the days from January 7-13, there follows a Mass according to one of the eastern rites: Greco-Slav, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Greco-Ruthenian, Greco-Melchite, and Greek. 4-32 It is a week of great opportunities for the liturgiologist and the lover of strange ceremonial.
The Blessing of the Waters is an important event in all countries where the Greek Church prevails. In Greece the “Great Blessing,” as it is called, is performed in various ways according to the locality; sometimes the sea is blessed, sometimes a river or reservoir, sometimes merely water in a church. In seaport towns, where the people depend on the water for their living, the celebration has much pomp and elaborateness. At the Piraeus enormous and enthusiastic crowds gather, and there is a solemn procession of the bishop and clergy to the harbour, where the bishop throws a little wooden cross, held by a long blue ribbon, into the water, withdraws it dripping wet, and sprinkles the bystanders. This is done three times. At Nauplia and other places a curious custom prevails: the archbishop throws a wooden cross into the waters of the harbour, and the fishermen p. 103 of the place dive in after it and struggle for its possession; he who wins it has the right of visiting all the houses of the town and levying a collection, which often brings in a large sum. In Samos all the women send to the church a vessel full of water to be blessed by the priest; with this water the fields and the trees are sprinkled. 4-33
The sense attached to the ceremony by the Church is shown in this prayer:—
“Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan by sending from Heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and by breaking the heads of the dragons lurking there. Therefore, O King, Lover of men, be Thou Thyself present also now by the visitation of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water. Give also to it the grace of ransom, the blessing of Jordan: make it a fountain of incorruption; a gift of sanctification; a washing away of sins; a warding off of diseases; destruction to demons; repulsion to the hostile powers; filled with angelic strength; that all who take and receive of it may have it for purification of souls and bodies, for healing of sicknesses, for sanctification of houses, and meet for every need.” 4-34
Though for the Church the immersion of the cross represents the Baptism of Christ, and the blessings springing from that event are supposed to be carried to the people by the sprinkling with the water, it is held by some students that the whole practice is a Christianization of a primitive rain-charm—a piece of sympathetic magic intended to produce rain by imitating the drenching which it gives. An Epiphany song from Imbros connects the blessing of rain with the Baptism of Christ, and another tells how at the river Jordan “a dove came down, white and feathery, and with its wings opened; it sent rain down on the Lord, and again it rained and rained on our Lady, and again it rained and rained on its wings.” 4-35
The Blessing of the Waters is performed in the Greek church of St. Sophia, Bayswater, London, on the morning of the Epiphany, which, through the difference between the old and new “styles,” falls on our 19th of January. All is done within the church; the water to be blessed is placed on a table under p. 104 the dome, and is sanctified by the immersion of a small cross; afterwards it is sprinkled on everyone present, and some is taken home by the faithful in little vessels. 4-36
In Moscow and St. Petersburg the Blessing is a function of great magnificence, but it is perhaps even more interesting as performed in Russian country places. Whatever may be the orthodox significance of the rite, to the country people it is the chasing away of “forest demons, sprites, and fairies, once the gods the peasants worshipped, but now dethroned from their high estate,” who in the long dark winter nights bewitch and vex the sons of men. A vivid and imaginative account of the ceremony and its meaning to the peasants is given by Mr. F. H. E. Palmer in his “Russian Life in Town and Country.” The district in which he witnessed it was one of forests and of lakes frozen in winter. On one of these lakes had been erected “a huge cross, constructed of blocks of ice, that glittered like diamonds in the brilliant winter sunlight.... At length, far away could be heard the sound of human voices, singing a strange, wild melody. Presently there was a movement in the snow among the trees, and waving banners appeared as a procession approached, headed by the pope in his vestments, and surrounded by the village dignitaries, venerable, grey-bearded patriarchs.” A wide space in the procession was left for “a strange and motley band of gnomes and sprites, fairies and wood-nymphs,” who, as the peasants believed, had been caught by the holy singing and the sacred sign on the waving banner. The chanting still went on as the crowd formed a circle around the glittering cross, and all looked on with awe while half a dozen peasants with their axes cut a large hole in the ice. “And now the priest's voice is heard, deep and sonorous, as he pronounces the words of doom. Alas for the poor sprites! Into that yawning chasm they must leap, and sink deep, deep below the surface of that ice-cold water.” 4-37
Following these eastern Epiphany rites we have wandered far from the cycle of ideas generally associated with Christmas. We p. 105 must now pass to those popular devotions to the Christ Child which, though they form no part of the Church's liturgy, she has permitted and encouraged. It is in the West that we shall find them; the Latin Church, as we have seen, makes far more of Christmas than the Greek.
Rome is often condemned for using in her liturgy the dead language of Latin, but it must not be forgotten that in every country she offers to the faithful a rich store of devotional literature in their own tongue, and that, supplementary to the liturgical offices, there is much public prayer and praise in the vernacular. Nor, in that which appeals to the eye, does she limit herself to the mysterious symbolism of the sacraments and the ritual which surrounds them; she gives to the people concrete, pictorial images to quicken their faith. How ritual grew in mediaeval times into full-fledged drama we shall see in the next chapter; here let us consider that cult of the Christ Child in which the scene of Bethlehem is represented not by living actors but in plastic art, often most simple and homely.
The use of the “crib” (French crèche, Italian presepio, German krippe) at Christmas is now universally diffused in the Roman Church. Most readers of this book must have seen one of these structures representing the stable at Bethlehem, with the Child in the manger, His mother and St. Joseph, the ox and the ass, and perhaps the shepherds, the three kings, or worshipping angels. They are the delight of children, who through the season of Christmas and Epiphany wander into the open churches at all times of day to gaze wide-eyed on the life-like scene and offer a prayer to their Little Brother. No one with anything of the child-spirit can fail to be touched by the charm of the Christmas crib. Faults of artistic taste there may often be, but these are wont to be softened down by the flicker of tapers, the glow of ruby lights, amidst the shades of some dim aisle or chapel, and the scene of tender humanity, gently, mysteriously radiant, as though with “bright shoots of everlastingness,” is full of religious and poetic suggestions.
The institution of the presepio is often ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi, who in the year 1224 celebrated Christmas at Greccio p. 106 with a Bethlehem scene with a real ox and ass. About fifteen days before the Nativity, according to Thomas of Celano, the blessed Francis sent for a certain nobleman, John by name, and said to him: “If thou wilt that we celebrate the present festival of the Lord at Greccio, make haste to go before and diligently prepare what I tell thee. For I would fain make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.” The good man prepared all that the Saint had commanded, and at last the day of gladness drew nigh. The brethren were called from many convents; the men and women of the town prepared tapers and torches to illuminate the night. Finding all things ready, Francis beheld and rejoiced: the manger had been prepared, the hay was brought, and the ox and ass were led in. “Thus Simplicity was honoured, Poverty exalted, Humility commended, and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem. The night was lit up as the day, and was delightsome to men and beasts.... The woodland rang with voices, the rocks made answer to the jubilant throng.” Francis stood before the manger, “overcome with tenderness and filled with wondrous joy”; Mass was celebrated, and he, in deacon's vestments, chanted the Holy Gospel in an “earnest, sweet, and loud-sounding voice.” Then he preached to the people of “the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem.” “Uttering the word Bethlehem in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound,” and in naming the Child Jesus “he would, as it were, lick his lips, relishing with happy palate and swallowing the sweetness of that word.” At length, the solemn vigil ended, each one returned with joy to his own place. 4-38
It has been suggested by Countess Martinengo 4-39 that this beautiful ceremony was “the crystallization of haunting memories carried away by St. Francis from the real Bethlehem”; for he visited the east in 1219-20, and the Greccio celebration took place in 1224. St. Francis and his followers may well have helped greatly to popularize the use of the presepio, but it can be p. 107 traced back far earlier than their time. In the liturgical drama known as the “Officium Pastorum,” which probably took shape in the eleventh century, we find a praesepe behind the altar as the centre of the action 4-40 ; but long before this something of the kind seems to have been in existence in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome—at one time called “Beata Maria ad praesepe.” Here Pope Gregory III. (731-41) placed “a golden image of the Mother of God embracing God our Saviour, in various gems.” 4-41 According to Usener's views this church was founded by Pope Liberius (352-66), and was intended to provide a special home for the new festival of Christmas introduced by him, while an important part of the early Christmas ritual there was the celebration of Mass over a “manger” in which the consecrated Host was laid, as once the body of the Holy Child in the crib at Bethlehem. 4-42 Further, an eastern homily of the late fourth century suggests that the preacher had before his eyes a representation of the Nativity. Such material representations, Usener conjectures, may have arisen from the devotions of the faithful at the supposed actual birthplace at Bethlehem, which would naturally be adorned with the sacred figures of the Holy Night. 4-43
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the crib can be traced at Milan, Parma, and Modena, and an Italian example carved in 1478 still exists. 4-44 The Bavarian National Museum at Munich has a fine collection of cribs of various periods and from various lands—Germany, Tyrol, Italy, and Sicily—showing what elaborate care has been bestowed upon the preparation of these models. Among them is a great erection made at Botzen in the first half of the nineteenth century, and large enough to fill a fair-sized room. It represents the central square of a town, with imposing buildings, including a great cathedral not unlike our St. Paul's. Figures of various sizes were provided to suit the perspective, and the crib itself was probably set up in the porch of the church, while processions of puppets were arranged on the wide open square. Another, made in Munich, shows the adoration of the shepherds in a sort of ruined castle, while others, from Naples, lay the scene among remains of classical temples. One Tyrolese crib has a wide landscape background with a p. 108 village and mountains typical of the country. The figures are often numerous, and, as their makers generally dressed them in the costume of their contemporaries, are sometimes exceedingly quaint. An angel with a wasp-waist, in a powdered wig, a hat trimmed with big feathers, and a red velvet dress with heavy gold embroidery, seems comic to us moderns, yet this is how the Ursuline nuns of Innsbruck conceived the heavenly messenger. Many of the cribs and figures, however, are of fine artistic quality, especially those from Naples and Sicily, and to the student of costume the various types of dress are of great interest. 4-45
The use of the Christmas crib is by no means confined to churches; it is common in the home in many Catholic regions, and in at least one Protestant district, the Saxon Erzgebirge. 4-46 In Germany the krippe is often combined with the Christmas-tree; at Treves, for instance, the present writer saw a magnificent tree covered with glittering lights and ornaments, and underneath it the cave of the Nativity with little figures of the holy persons. Thus have pagan and Christian symbols met together.
There grew up in Germany, about the fourteenth century, the extremely popular Christmas custom of “cradle-rocking,” a response to the people's need of a life-like and homely presentation of Christianity. By the Kindelwiegen the lay-folk were brought into most intimate touch with the Christ Child; the crib became a cradle (wiege) that could be rocked, and the worshippers were thus able to express in physical action their devotion to the new-born Babe. The cradle-rocking seems to have been done at first by priests, who impersonated the Virgin and St. Joseph, and sang over the Child a duet:—
Photo] [Meisenbach, Riffarth & Co., Munich.
p. 109 The choir and people took their part in the singing; and dancing, to the old Germans a natural accompaniment of festive song, became common around the cradle, which in time the people were allowed to rock with their own hands. 4-47 “In dulci jubilo” has the character of a dance, and the same is true of another delightful old carol, “Lasst uns das Kindlein wiegen,” still used, in a form modified by later editors, in the churches of the Rhineland. The present writer has heard it sung, very slowly, in unison, by vast congregations, and very beautiful is its mingling of solemnity, festive joy, and tender sentiment:—
Two Latin hymns, “Resonet in laudibus” and “Quem pastores laudavere,” 4-49 were also sung at the Kindelwiegen, and p. 110 a charming and quite untranslatable German lullaby has come down to us:—
It was by appeals like this Kindelwiegen to the natural, homely instincts of the folk that the Church gained a real hold over the masses, making Christianity during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries a genuinely popular religion in Germany. Dr. Alexander Tille, the best historian of the German Christmas, has an interesting passage on the subject: “In the dancing and jubilation around the cradle,” he writes, “the religion of the Cross, however much it might in its inmost character be opposed to the nature of the German people and their essential healthiness, was felt no longer as something alien. It had become naturalized, but had lost in the process its very core. The preparation for a life after death, which was its Alpha and Omega, had passed into the background. It was not joy at the promised Redemption that expressed itself in the dance around the cradle; for the German has never learnt to feel himself utterly vile and sinful: it was joy at the simple fact that a human being, a particular human being in peculiar circumstances, was born into the world.... The Middle Ages showed in the cradle-rocking a true German and most lovable childlikeness. The Christ Child was the universal little brother of all children of earth, and they acted accordingly, they lulled Him to sleep, they fondled and rocked Him, they danced before Him and leapt around Him in dulci jubilo.” 4-51 There is much here that is true of the cult of the Christ Child in other countries than Germany, though perhaps Dr. Tille underestimates the religious feeling that is often joined to the human sentiment.
The fifteenth century was the great period for the Kindelwiegen, the time when it appears to have been practised in all the churches of Germany; in the sixteenth it began to seem p. 111 irreverent to the stricter members of the clergy, and the figure of the infant Jesus was in many places no longer rocked in the cradle but enthroned on the altar. 4-52 This usage is described by Naogeorgus (1553):—
The placing of a “Holy Child” above the altar at Christmas is still customary in many Roman Catholic churches.
Protestantism opposed the Kindelwiegen, on the grounds both of superstition and of the disorderly proceedings that accompanied it, but it was long before it was utterly extinguished even in the Lutheran churches. In Catholic churches the custom did not altogether die out, though the unseemly behaviour which often attended it—and the growth of a pseudo-classical taste—caused its abolition in most places. 4-54
At Tübingen as late as 1830 at midnight on Christmas Eve an image of the Christ Child was rocked on the tower of the chief church in a small cradle surrounded with lights, while the spectators below sang a cradle-song. 4-55 According to a recent writer the “rocking” is still continued in the Upper Innthal. 4-56 In the Tyrolese cathedral city of Brixen it was once performed every day between Christmas and Candlemas by the sacristan or boy-acolytes. That the proceedings had a tendency to be disorderly is shown by an eighteenth-century instruction to the sacristan: “Be sure to take a stick or a thong of ox-hide, for the boys are often very ill-behaved.” 4-57
There are records of other curious ceremonies in German or Austrian churches. At St. Peter am Windberge in Mühlkreis in Upper Austria, during the service on Christmas night a life-sized wooden figure of the Holy Child was offered in p. 112 a basket to the congregation; each person reverently kissed it and passed it on to his neighbour. This was done as late as 1883. 4-58 At Crimmitschau in Saxony a boy, dressed as an angel, used to be let down from the roof singing Luther's “Vom Himmel hoch,” and the custom was only given up when the breaking of the rope which supported the singer had caused a serious accident. 4-59
It is in Italy, probably, that the cult of the Christ Child is most ardently practised to-day. No people have a greater love of children than the Italians, none more of that dramatic instinct which such a form of worship demands. “Easter,” says Countess Martinengo-Cesaresco, “is the great popular feast in the eastern Church, Christmas in the Latin—especially in Italy. One is the feast of the next world, and the other of this. Italians are fond of this world.” 4-60 Christmas is for the poorer Italians a summing up of human birthdays, an occasion for pouring out on the Bambino parental and fraternal affection as well as religious worship.
In Rome, Christmas used to be heralded by the arrival, ten days before the end of Advent, of the Calabrian minstrels or pifferari with their sylvan pipes (zampogne), resembling the Scottish bagpipe, but less harsh in sound. These minstrels were to be seen in every street in Rome, playing their wild plaintive music before the shrines of the Madonna, under the traditional notion of charming away her labour-pains. Often they would stop at a carpenter's shop “per politezza al messer San Giuseppe.” 4-61 Since 1870 the pifferari have become rare in Rome, but some were seen there by an English lady quite recently. At Naples, too, there are zampognari before Christmas, though far fewer than there used to be; for one lira they will pipe their rustic melodies before any householder's street Madonna through a whole novena. 4-62
After an Etching by D. Allan.
From Hone's “Every-day Book” (London, 1826).
In Sicily, too, men come down from the mountains nine days before Christmas to sing a novena to a plaintive melody accompanied by cello and violin. “All day long,” writes Signora Caico about Montedoro in Caltanissetta, “the melancholy dirge p. 113 was sung round the village, house after house, always the same minor tune, the words being different every day, so that in nine days the whole song was sung out.... I often looked out of the window to see them at a short distance, grouped before a house, singing their stanzas, well muffled in shawls, for the air is cold in spite of the bright sunshine.... The flat, white houses all round, the pure sky overhead, gave an Oriental setting to the scene.”
Another Christmas custom in the same place was the singing of a novena not outside but within some of the village houses before a kind of altar gaily decorated and bearing at the top a waxen image of the Child Jesus. “Close to it the orchestra was grouped—a cello, two violins, a guitar, and a tambourine. The kneeling women huddled in front of the altar. All had on their heads their black mantelline. They began at once singing the novena stanzas appointed for that day; the tune was primitive and very odd: the first half of the stanza was quick and merry, the second half became a wailing dirge.” A full translation of a long and very interesting and pathetic novena is given by Signora Caico. 39 4-63
The presepio both in Rome and at Naples is the special Christmas symbol in the home, just as the lighted tree is in Germany. In Rome the Piazza Navona is the great place for the sale of little clay figures of the holy persons. (Is there perchance a survival here of the sigillaria, the little clay dolls sold in Rome at the Saturnalia?) These are bought in the market for two soldi each, and the presepi or “Bethlehems” are made at home with cardboard and moss. 4-64 The home-made presepi at Naples are well described by Matilde Serao; they are pasteboard models of the landscape of Bethlehem—a hill with the sacred cave beneath it and two or three paths leading down to the grotto, a little tavern, a shepherd's hut, a few trees, sometimes a stream in glittering glass. The ground is made verdant with moss, and there is p. 114 straw within the cave for the repose of the infant Jesus; singing angels are suspended by thin wires, and the star of the Wise Men hangs by an invisible thread. There is little attempt to realize the scenery of the East; the Child is born and the Magi adore Him in a Campanian or Calabrian setting. 4-66
Italian churches, as well as Italian homes, have their presepi. “Thither come the people, bearing humble gifts of chestnuts, apples, tomatoes, and the like, which they place as offerings in the hands of the figures. These are very often life-size. Mary is usually robed in blue satin, with crimson scarf and white head-dress. Joseph stands near her dressed in the ordinary working-garb. The onlookers are got up like Italian contadini. The Magi are always very prominent in their grand clothes, with satin trains borne by black slaves, jewelled turbans, and satin tunics all over jewels.” 4-67
(Upper Church of St Francis, Assissi)
In Rome the two great centres of Christmas devotion are the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore, where are preserved the relics of the cradle of Christ, and Ara Coeli, the home of the most famous Bambino in the world. A vivid picture of the scene at Santa Maria Maggiore in the early nineteenth century is given by Lady Morgan. She entered the church at midnight on Christmas Eve to wait for the procession of the culla, or cradle. “Its three ample naves, separated by rows of Ionic columns of white marble, produced a splendid vista. Thousands of wax tapers marked their form, and contrasted their shadows; some blazed from golden candlesticks on the superb altars of the lateral chapels.... Draperies of gold and crimson decked the columns, and spread their shadows from the inter-columniations over the marble pavement. In the midst of this imposing display of church magnificence, sauntered or reposed a population which displayed the most squalid misery. The haggard natives of the mountains ... were mixed with the whole mendicity of Rome.... Some of these terrific groups lay stretched in heaps on the ground, congregating for warmth; and as their dark eyes scowled from beneath the mantle which half hid a sheepskin dress, they had the air of banditti awaiting their prey; others with their wives and children knelt, half asleep, p. 115 round the chapel of the Santa Croce.... In the centre of the nave, multitudes of gay, gaudy, noisy persons, the petty shopkeepers, laquais, and popolaccio of the city, strolled and laughed, and talked loud.” About three o'clock the service began, with a choral swell, blazing torches, and a crowded procession of priests of every rank and order. It lasted for two hours; then began the procession to the cell where the cradle lay, enshrined in a blaze of tapers and guarded by groups of devotees. Thence it was borne with solemn chants to the chapel of Santa Croce. A musical Mass followed, and the culla being at last deposited on the High Altar, the wearied spectators issued forth just as the dome of St. Peter's caught the first light of the morning. 4-68
Still to-day the scene in the church at the five o'clock High Mass on Christmas morning is extraordinarily impressive, with the crowds of poor people, the countless lights at which the children gaze in open-eyed wonder, the many low Masses said in the side chapels, the imposing procession and the setting of the silver casket on the High Altar. The history of the relics of the culla—five long narrow pieces of wood—is obscure, but it is admitted even by some orthodox Roman Catholics that there is no sufficient evidence to connect them with Bethlehem. 4-69
The famous Bambino at the Franciscan church of Ara Coeli on the citadel of Rome is “a flesh-coloured doll, tightly swathed in gold and silver tissue, crowned, and sparkling with jewels,” no thing of beauty, but believed to have miraculous powers. An inscription in the sacristy of the church states that it was made by a devout Minorite of wood from the Mount of Olives, and given flesh-colour by the interposition of God Himself. It has its own servants and its own carriage in which it drives out to visit the sick. There is a strange story of a theft of the wonder-working image by a woman who feigned sickness, obtained permission to have the Bambino left with her, and then sent back to the friars another image dressed in its clothes. That night the Franciscans heard great ringing of bells and knockings at the church door, and found outside the true Bambino, naked in the wind and rain. Since then it has never been allowed out alone. 4-70
p. 116 All through the Christmas and Epiphany season Ara Coeli is crowded with visitors to the Bambino. Before the presepio, where it lies, is erected a wooden platform on which small boys and girls of all ranks follow one another with little speeches—“preaching” it is called—in praise of the infant Lord. “They say their pieces,” writes Countess Martinengo, “with an infinite charm that raises half a smile and half a tear.” They have the vivid dramatic gift, the extraordinary absence of self-consciousness, typical of Italian children, and their “preaching” is anything but a wooden repetition of a lesson learned by heart. Nor is there any irksome constraint; indeed to northerners the scene in the church might seem irreverent, for the children blow toy trumpets and their parents talk freely on all manner of subjects. The church is approached by one hundred and twenty-four steps, making an extraordinarily picturesque spectacle at this season, when they are thronged by people ascending and descending, and by vendors of all sorts of Christmas prints and images. On the Octave of the Epiphany there is a great procession, ending with the blessing of Rome by the Holy Child. The Bambino is carried out to the space at the top of the giddy flight of marble steps, and a priest raises it on high and solemnly blesses the Eternal City. 4-71
A glimpse of the southern Christmas may be had in London in the Italian colony in and around Eyre Street Hill, off the Clerkenwell Road, a little town of poor Italians set down in the midst of the metropolis. The steep, narrow Eyre Street Hill, with its shops full of southern wares, is dingy enough by day, but after dark on Christmas Eve it looks like a bit of Naples. The windows are gay with lights and coloured festoons, there are lantern-decked sweetmeat stalls, one old man has a presepio in his room, other people have little altars or shrines with candles burning, and bright pictures of saints adorn the walls. It is a strangely pathetic sight, this festa of the children of the South, this attempt to keep an Italian Christmas amid the cold damp dreariness of a London slum. The colony has its own church, San Pietro, copied from some Renaissance basilica at Rome, a building half tawdry, half magnificent, which transports him who enters it far away to the South. Like every Italian church, it is p. 117 at once the Palace of the Great King and the refuge of the humblest—no other church in London is quite so intimately the home of the poor. Towards twelve o'clock on Christmas Eve the deep-toned bell of San Pietro booms out over the colony, and the people crowd to the Midnight Mass, and pay their devotions at a great presepio set up for the veneration of the faithful. When on the Octave of the Epiphany 40 the time comes to close the crib, an impressive and touching ceremony takes place. The afternoon Benediction over, the priest, with the acolytes, goes to the presepio and returns to the chancel with the Bambino. Holding it on his arm, he preaches in Italian on the story of the Christ Child. The sermon ended, the notes of “Adeste, fideles” are heard, and while the Latin words are sung the faithful kneel at the altar rails and reverently kiss the Holy Babe. It is their farewell to the Bambino till next Christmas.
A few details may here be given about the religious customs at Christmas in Spain. The Midnight Mass is there the great event of the festival. Something has already been said as to its celebration in Madrid. The scene at the midnight service in a small Andalusian country town is thus described by an English traveller:—“The church was full; the service orderly; the people of all classes. There were muleteers, wrapped in their blue and white checked rugs; here, Spanish gentlemen, enveloped in their graceful capas, or capes ... here, again, were crowds of the commonest people,—miners, fruitsellers, servants, and the like,—the women kneeling on the rush matting of the dimly-lit church, the men standing in dark masses behind, or clustering in groups round every pillar.... At last, from under the altar, the senior priest ... took out the image of the Babe New-born, reverently and slowly, and held it up in his hands for adoration. Instantly every one crossed himself, and fell on his knees in silent worship.” 4-72 The crib is very popular in Spanish homes and is the delight of children, as may be learnt from Fernan Caballero's interesting sketch of Christmas Eve in Spain, “La Noche de Navidad.” 4-73
p. 118 In England the Christmas crib is to be found nowadays in most Roman, and a few Anglican, churches. In the latter it is of course an imitation, not a survival. It is, however, possible that the custom of carrying dolls about in a box at Advent or Christmas time, common in some parts of England in the nineteenth century, is a survival, from the Middle Ages, of something like the crib. The so-called “vessel-cup” was “a box containing two dolls, dressed up to represent the Virgin and the infant Christ, decorated with ribbons and surrounded by flowers and apples.” The box had usually a glass lid, was covered by a white napkin, and was carried from door to door by a woman. 4-74 It was esteemed very unlucky for any household not to be visited by the “Advent images” before Christmas Eve, and the bearers sang the well-known carol of the “Joys of Mary.” 4-75 In Yorkshire only one image was carried about. 4-76 At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin, the Christ Child, and Joseph. 41
In this study of the feast of the Nativity as represented in liturgy and ceremonial we have already come close to what may strictly be called drama; in the next chapter we shall cross the border line and consider the religious plays of the Middle Ages and the relics of or parallels to them found in later times.
p. 119 p. 120 p. 121