Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
The reader who has had patience to persevere will by now have gained some idea of the manner in which Christmas is, and has been, kept throughout Europe. We have traced the evolution of the festival, seen it take its rise soon after the victory of the Catholic doctrine of Christ's person at Nicea, and spread from Rome to every quarter of the Empire, not as a folk-festival but as an ecclesiastical holy-day. We have seen the Church condemn with horror the relics of pagan feasts which clung round the same season of the year; then, as time went on, we have found the two elements, pagan and Christian, mingling in some degree, the pagan losing most of its serious meaning, and continuing mainly as ritual performed for the sake of use and wont or as a jovial tradition, the Christian becoming humanized, the skeleton of dogma clothed with warm flesh and blood.
We have considered, as represented in poetry and liturgy, the strictly ecclesiastical festival, the commemoration of the Nativity as the beginning of man's redemption. We have seen how in the carols, the cult of the presepio, and the religious drama, the Birth of the King of Glory in the stable at midwinter has presented itself in concrete form to the popular mind, calling up a host of human emotions, a crowd of quaint and beautiful fancies. Lastly we have noted the survival, in the most varied degrees of transformation, of things which are alien to Christianity and in some cases seem to go back to very primitive stages of thought and feeling. An antique reverence for the plant-world may lie, as we have seen, beneath the familiar institution of the Christmas-tree, some sort of animal-worship may be at the bottom of the p. 358 beast-masks common at winter festivals, survivals of sacrifice may linger in Christmas feasting, and in the family gatherings round the hearth may be preserved a dim memory of ancient domestic rites.
Christmas, indeed, regarded in all its aspects, is a microcosm of European religion. It reflects almost every phase of thought and feeling from crude magic and superstition to the speculative mysticism of Eckhart, from mere delight in physical indulgence to the exquisite spirituality and tenderness of St. Francis. Ascetic and bon-vivant, mystic and materialist, learned and simple, noble and peasant, all have found something in it of which to lay hold. It is a river into which have flowed tributaries from every side, from Oriental religion, from Greek and Roman civilization, from Celtic, Teutonic, Slav, and probably pre-Aryan, society, mingling their waters so that it is often hard to discover the far-away springs.
We have seen how the Reformation broke up the great mediaeval synthesis of paganism and Christianity, how the extremer forms of Protestantism aimed at completely destroying Christmas, and how the general tendency of modern civilization, with its scientific spirit, its popular education, its railways, its concentration of the people in great cities, has been to root out traditional beliefs and customs both Christian and pagan, so that if we would seek for relics of the old things we must go to the regions of Europe that are least industrially and intellectually “advanced.” Yet amongst the most sceptical and “enlightened” of moderns there is generally a large residuum of tradition. “Emotionally,” it has been said, “we are hundreds of thousands of years old; rationally we are embryos” 18-1 ; and many people who deem themselves “emancipated” are willing for once in the year to plunge into the stream of tradition, merge themselves in inherited social custom, and give way to sentiments and impressions which in their more reflective moments they spurn. Most men are ready at Christmas to put themselves into an instinctive rather than a rational attitude, to drink of the springs of wonder, and return in some degree to earlier, less intellectual stages of human development—to become in fact children again.
p. 359 Many elements enter into the modern Christmas. There is the delight of its warmth and brightness and comfort against the bleak midwinter. A peculiar charm of the northern Christmas lies in the thought of the cold barred out, the home made a warm, gay place in contrast with the cheerless world outside. There is the physical pleasure of “good cheer,” of plentiful eating and drinking, joined to, and partly resulting in, a sense of goodwill and expansive kindliness towards the world at large, a temporary feeling of the brotherhood of man, a desire that the poor may for once in the year “have a good time.” Here perhaps we may trace the influence of the Saturnalia, with its dreams of the age of gold, its exaltation of them of low degree. Mixed with a little sentimental Christianity this is the Christmas of Dickens—the Christmas which he largely helped to perpetuate in England.
Each nation, naturally, has fashioned its own Christmas. The English have made it a season of solid material comfort, of good-fellowship and “charity,” with a slight flavour of soothing religion. The modern French, sceptical and pagan, make little of Christmas, and concentrate upon the secular celebration of the jour de l'an. For the Scandinavians Christmas is above all a time of sport, recreation, good living, and social gaiety in the midst of a season when little outdoor work can be done and night almost swallows up day. The Germans, sentimental and childlike, have produced a Christmas that is a very Paradise for children and at which the old delight to play at being young again around the Tree. For the Italians Christmas is centred upon the cult of the Bambino, so fitted to their dramatic instincts, their love of display, their strong parental affection. (How much of the sentiment that surrounds the presepio is, though religiously heightened, akin to the delight of a child in its doll!) If the Germans may be called the good, industrious, sentimental children of Europe, making the most of simple things, the Italians are the lively, passionate, impulsive children, loving gay clothes and finery; and the contrast shows in their keeping of Christmas.
The modern Christmas is above all things a children's feast, and the elders who join in it put themselves upon their children's p. 360 level. We have noted how ritual acts, once performed with serious purpose, tend to become games for youngsters, and have seen many an example of this process in the sports and mummeries kept up by the elder folk for the benefit of the children. We have seen too how the radiant figure of the Christ Child has become a gift-bringer for the little ones. At no time in the world's history has so much been made of children as to-day, and because Christmas is their feast its lustre continues unabated in an age upon which dogmatic Christianity has largely lost its hold, which laughs at the pagan superstitions of its forefathers. Christmas is the feast of beginnings, of instinctive, happy childhood; the Christian idea of the Immortal Babe renewing weary, stained humanity, blends with the thought of the New Year, with its hope and promise, laid in the cradle of Time.
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