Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
1 For an explanation of the small numerals in the text see Preface.
[Transcriber's Note: In this edition the numerals are enclosed in , so they will not be confused with footnotes.]
2 “Christianity,” as here used, will stand for the system of orthodoxy which had been fixed in its main outlines when the festival of Christmas took its rise. The relation of the orthodox creed to historical fact need not concern us here, nor need we for the purposes of this study attempt to distinguish between the Christianity of Jesus and ecclesiastical accretions around his teaching.
3 Whether the Nativity had previously been celebrated at Rome on January 6 is a matter of controversy; the affirmative view was maintained by Usener in his monograph on Christmas, 1-6 the negative by Monsignor Duchesne. 1-7 A very minute, cautious, and balanced study of both arguments is to be found in Professor Kirsopp Lake's article on Christmas in Hastings's “Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics,” 1-8 and a short article was contributed by the same writer to The Guardian, December 29, 1911. Professor Lake, on the whole, inclines to Usener's view. The early history of the festival is also treated by Father Cyril Martindale in “The Catholic Encyclopædia” (article “Christmas”).
4 Usener says 354, Duchesne 336.
5 The eastern father, Epiphanius (fourth century), gives a strange account of a heathen, or perhaps in reality a Gnostic, rite held at Alexandria on the night of January 5-6. In the temple of Kore—the Maiden—he tells us, worshippers spent the night in singing and flute-playing, and at cock-crow brought up from a subterranean sanctuary a wooden image seated naked on a litter. It had the sign of the cross upon it in gold in five places—the forehead, the hands, and the knees. This image was carried seven times round the central hall of the temple with flute-playing, drumming, and hymns, and then taken back to the underground chamber. In explanation of these strange actions it was said: “To-day, at this hour, hath Kore (the Maiden) borne the Æon.” 1-15 Can there be a connection between this festival and the Eleusinian mysteries? In the latter there was a nocturnal celebration with many lights burning, and the cry went forth, “Holy Brimo (the Maiden) hath borne a sacred child, Brimos.” 1-16 The details given by Miss Harrison in her “Prolegomena” of the worship of the child Dionysus 1-17 are of extraordinary interest, and a minute comparison of this cult with that of the Christ Child might lead to remarkable results.
6 Mithraism resembled Christianity in its monotheistic tendencies, its sacraments, its comparatively high morality, its doctrine of an Intercessor and Redeemer, and its vivid belief in a future life and judgment to come. Moreover Sunday was its holy-day dedicated to the Sun.
7 This is the explanation adopted by most scholars (cf. Chambers, “M. S.,” i., 241-2). Duchesne suggests as an explanation of the choice of December 25 the fact that a tradition fixed the Passion of Christ on March 25. The same date, he thinks, would have been assigned to His Conception in order to make the years of His life complete, and the Birth would come naturally nine months after the Conception. He, however, “would not venture to say, in regard to the 25th of December, that the coincidence of the Sol novus exercised no direct or indirect influence on the ecclesiastical decision arrived at in regard to the matter.” 1-25 Professor Lake also, in his article in Hastings's “Encyclopædia,” seeks to account for the selection of December 25 without any deliberate competition with the Natalis Invicti. He points out that the Birth of Christ was fixed at the vernal equinox by certain early chronologists, on the strength of an elaborate and fantastic calculation based on Scriptural data, and connecting the Incarnation with the Creation, and that when the Incarnation came to be viewed as beginning at the Conception instead of the Birth, the latter would naturally be placed nine months later.
8 Cf. chap. xviii. of Dr. Yrjö Hirn's “The Sacred Shrine” (London, 1912). Dr. Hirn finds a solitary anticipation of the Franciscan treatment of the Nativity in the Christmas hymns of the fourth-century eastern poet, Ephraem Syrus.
9 No. 55 in “Hymns Ancient and Modern” (Ordinary Edition).
10 No. 56 in “Hymns Ancient and Modern” (Ordinary Edition).
(Translation in “The English Hymnal,” No. 22.)
(Translation by F. Douce.)
13 It is difficult to be sure of the authenticity of the verse attributed to Jacopone. Many of the poems in Tresatti's edition, from which the quotations in the text are taken, may be the work of his followers.
(Translation by John Addington Symonds in “The Renaissance in Italy. Italian Literature” [1898 Edn.], Part I., 468.)
15 “In the worthy stable of the sweet baby the angels are singing round the little one; they sing and cry out, the beloved angels, quite reverent, timid and shy round the little baby Prince of the Elect who lies naked among the prickly hay.... The Divine Verb, which is highest knowledge, this day seems as if He knew nothing of anything. Look at Him on the hay, crying and kicking as if He were not at all a divine man.”
(Translation by Vernon Lee in “Renaissance Fancies and Studies,” 34.)
(Translation by Miss Anne Macdonell, in “Sons of Francis,” 372.)
(Translation by J. M. Neale.)
(Translation by C. Winkworth, “Christian Singers,” 85.)
19 The tune is often used in England for Neale's carol, “Good Christian men, rejoice.”
20 “When Jesus Christ was born, then was it cold; in a little crib He was laid. There stood an ass and an ox which breathed over the Holy Child quite openly. He who has a pure heart need have no care.”
21 “Dearest mother, take care of the Child; it is freezing hard, wrap Him up quickly. And you, old father, tuck the little one up, or the cold and the wind will give Him no rest. Now we must take our leave, O divine Child, remember us, pardon our sins. We are heartily glad that Thou art come; no one else could have helped us.”
22 “The Child is laid in the crib, so hearty and so rare! My little Hans would be nothing by His side, were he finer than he is. Coal-black as cherries are His eyes, the rest of Him is white as chalk. His pretty hands are right tender and delicate, I touched Him carefully. Then He gave me a smile and a deep sigh too. If you were mine, thought I, you'd grow a merry boy. At home in the kitchen I'd comfortably house you; out here in the stable the cold wind comes in at every corner.”
23 Richard Rolle, poet, mystic, and wandering preacher, in many ways reminds us of Jacopone da Todi. Though he has left no Christmas verses, some lovely words of his show how deeply he felt the wonder and pathos of Bethlehem: “Jhesu es thy name. A! A! that wondryrfull name! A! that delittabyll name! This es the name that es above all names.... I yede [went] abowte be Covaytyse of riches and I fand noghte Jhesu. I satt in companyes of Worldly myrthe and I fand noghte Jhesu.... Therefore I turnede by anothire waye, and I rane a-bowte be Poverte, and I fande Jhesu pure borne in the worlde, laid in a crybe and lappid in clathis.” 2-28
24 “When midnight sounded I leapt from my bed to the floor, and I saw a beautiful angel who sang a thousand times sweeter than a nightingale. The watch-dogs of the neighbourhood all came up. Never had they seen such a sight, and they suddenly began to bark. The shepherds under the straw were sleeping like logs: when they heard the sound of the barking they thought it was the wolves. They were reasonable folk; they came without waiting to be asked. They found in a little stable the Light, even the Truth.”
25 “Within a poor manger and covered with hay lies Jesus of Nazareth. In the hay lies stretched the Eternal Son of God; to deliver from hell man whom He had created, and to kill sin, our Jesus of Nazareth is content with the hay. He rests between two animals who warm Him from the cold, He who remedies our ills with His great power; His kingdom and seigniory are the world and the calm heaven, and now He sleeps in the hay. He counts it good to bear the cold and fare thus, having no robe to protect or cover Him, and to give us life He suffered cold in the hay, our Jesus of Nazareth.”
26 “In a porch, full of cobwebs, between the mule and the ox, the Saviour of souls is born.... In the porch at Bethlehem are star, sun, and moon: the Virgin and St. Joseph and the Child who lies in the cradle. In Bethlehem they touch fire, from the porch the flame issues; it is a star of heaven which has fallen into the straw. I am a poor gipsy who come hither from Egypt, and bring to God's Child a cock. I am a poor Galician who come from Galicia, and bring to God's Child linen for a shift. To the new-born Child all bring a gift; I am little and have nothing; I bring him my heart.”
(Translation by Countess Martinengo-Cesaresco.)
28 A Bas-Querçy bird-carol of this kind is printed by Mr. H. J. L. J. Massé in his delightful “Book of Old Carols,” 3-26 a collection of the words and music of Christmas songs in many languages—English, Latin, German, Flemish, Basque, Swedish, Catalan, Provençal, and French of various periods and dialects.
33 A few of the best traditional pieces have been published by Mr. F. Sidgwick in one of his charming “Watergate Booklets” under the title of “Popular Carols.” The two next quotations are from this source.
34 Browning's great poem, “Christmas Eve,” is philosophical rather than devotional, and hardly comes within the scope of this chapter.
35 The first mention of a season corresponding to Advent is at the Council of Tours, about 567, when a fast for monks in December is vaguely indicated. At the Council of Mâcon (581) it is enjoined that from Martinmas the second, fourth, and sixth days of the week should be fasting days; and at the close of the sixth century Rome, under Gregory the Great, adopted the rule of the four Sundays in Advent. In the next century it became prevalent in the West. In the Greek Church, forty days of fasting are observed before Christmas; this custom appears to have been established in the thirteenth century. In the Roman Church the practice as to fasting varies: in the British Isles Wednesday and Friday are observed, but in some countries no distinction is made between Advent and ordinary weeks of the year. 4-2
36 Anthony Beck, Bishop of Durham, bequeathed to his cathedral a Christmas candlestick of silver-gilt, on the base of which was an image of St. Mary with her Son lying in the crib.
37 “Joseph, dear nephew mine, help me to rock the Child.” “Gladly, dear aunt, will I help thee to rock thy Child.” (Note the curious words of relationship; Joseph and Mary were both of the seed of David.)
38 “Let us rock the Child and bow our hearts before the crib! Let us delight our spirits and bless the Child: sweet little Jesu! sweet little Jesu!... Let us greet His little hands and feet, His little heart of fire, and reverence Him humbly as our Lord and God! Sweet little Jesu! sweet little Jesu!”
39 Turning for a moment from Sicilian domestic celebrations to a public and communal action, I may mention a strange ceremony that takes place at Messina in the dead of night; at two o'clock on Christmas morning a naked Bambino is carried in procession from the church of Santa Lucia to the cathedral and back. 4-65
40 Or on the Sunday following the Octave, if the Octave itself is a week-day.
41 Tempting as it is to connect these dolls with the crib, it is possible that their origin should be sought rather in anthropomorphic representations of the spirits of vegetation, and that they are of the same nature as the images carried about with garlands in May and at other seasons. 4-77
42 Though no texts are extant of religious plays in English acted at Christmastide, there are occasional records of such performances:—at Tintinhull for instance in 1451 and at Dublin in 1528, while at Aberdeen a processional “Nativity” was performed at Candlemas. And the “Stella,” whether in English or Latin it is uncertain, is found at various places between 1462 and 1579. 5-10
46 Horses. Hous of haras = stable.
56 Deprive of.
58 Strong in lordliness.
61 Noble being.
65 Grows merry.
73 Besides the Nativity plays in the four great cycles there exists a “Shearmen and Tailors Play” which undoubtedly belongs to Coventry, unlike the “Ludus Coventriae,” whose connection with that town is, to say the least, highly doubtful. It opens with a prologue by the prophet Isaiah, and in a small space presents the events connected with the Incarnation from the Annunciation to the Murder of the Innocents. The Nativity and shepherd scenes have less character and interest than those in the great cycles, and need not be dealt with here. 5-18
76 “Three eggs and some butter we bring, too; deign to accept it! A fowl to make some broth if Thy mother can cook it—put some dripping in, and twill be good. Because we've nothing else—we are but poor shepherds—accept our goodwill.”
78 Jacopone da Todi, whose Christmas songs we have already considered, was probably connected with the movement.
80 Though the ox and ass are not mentioned by St. Luke, it is an easy transition to them from the idea of the manger. Early Christian writers found a Scriptural sanction for them in two passages in the prophets: Isaiah i. 3, “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master's crib,” and Habakkuk iii. 2 (a mistranslation), “In the midst of two beasts shall Thou be known.”
81 With this may be compared the fair still held in Rome in the Piazza Navona just before Christmas, at which booths are hung with little clay figures for use in presepi (see p. 113). One cannot help being reminded too, though probably there is no direct connection, of the biscuits in human shapes to be seen in German markets and shops at Christmas, and of the paste images which English bakers used to make at this season. 7-10
82 Among the Scandinavians, who were late in their conversion, a pre-Christian Yule feast seems to have been held in the ninth century, but it appears to have taken place not in December but about the middle of January, and to have been transferred to December 25 by the Christian king Hakon the Good of Norway (940-63). 7-28
83 It is only right to mention here Professor G. Bilfinger's monograph “Das germanische Julfest” (Stuttgart, 1901), where it is maintained that the only festivals from which the Christmas customs of the Teutonic peoples have sprung are the January Kalends of the Roman Empire and the Christian feast of the Nativity. Bilfinger holds that there is no evidence either of a November beginning-of-winter festival or of an ancient Teutonic midwinter feast. Bilfinger's is the most systematic of existing treatises on Christmas origins, but the considerations brought forward in Tille's “Yule and Christmas” in favour of the November festival are not lightly to be set aside, and while recognizing that its celebration must be regarded rather as a probable hypothesis than an established fact, I shall here follow in general the suggestions of Tille and try to show the contributions of this northern New Year feast to Christmas customs.
84 Accounts of such maskings are to be found in innumerable books of travel. In Folk-Lore, June 30, 1911, Professor Edward Westermarck gives a particularly full and interesting description of Moroccan customs of this sort. He describes at length various masquerades in the skins and heads of beasts, accompanied often by the dressing-up of men as women and by gross obscenities.
85 Another suggested explanation connects the change of clothes with rites of initiation at the passage from boyhood to manhood. “Manhood, among primitive peoples, seems to be envisaged as ceasing to be a woman.... Man is born of woman, reared of woman. When he passes to manhood, he ceases to be a woman-thing, and begins to exercise functions other and alien. That moment is one naturally of extreme peril; he at once emphasizes it and disguises it. He wears woman's clothes.” From initiation rites, according to this theory, the custom spread to other occasions when it was desirable to “change the luck.”
86 According to Sir John Rhys, in the Isle of Man Hollantide (November 1, Old Style, therefore November 12) is still to-day the beginning of a new year. But the ordinary calendar is gaining ground, and some of the associations of the old New Year's Day are being transferred to January 1, the Roman date. “In Wales this must have been decidedly helped by the influence of Roman rule and Roman ideas; but even there the adjuncts of the Winter Calends have never been wholly transferred to the Calends of January.” 8-4
87 In Burne and Jackson's “Shropshire Folk-Lore” (p. 305 f.) there are details about cakes and other doles given to the poor at funerals. These probably had the same origin as the November “soul-cakes.”
89 The prominence of “Eves” in festival customs is a point specially to be noticed; it is often to them rather than to the actual feast days that old practices cling. This is perhaps connected with the ancient Celtic and Teutonic habit of reckoning by nights instead of days—a trace of this is left in our word “fortnight”—but it must be remembered that the Church encouraged the same tendency by her solemn services on the Eves of festivals, and that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening.
90 Attempts are being made to suppress the November carnival at Hampstead, and perhaps the 1911 celebration may prove to have been the last.
91 “Raise the glass at Martinmas, drink wine all through the year.”
92 It is interesting to note that in the Italian province of Venetia, as well as in more northerly regions, Martinmas is especially a children's feast. In the sweetshops are sold little sugar images of the saint on horseback with a long sword, and in Venice itself children go about singing, playing on tambourines, and begging for money. 8-93
93 “At St. Andrew's Mass winter is certain.”
97 Sometimes Christmas is reckoned as one of the Twelve Days, sometimes not. In the former case, of course, the Epiphany is the thirteenth day. In England we call the Epiphany Twelfth Day, in Germany it is generally called Thirteenth; in Belgium and Holland it is Thirteenth; in Sweden it varies, but is usually Thirteenth. Sometimes then the Twelve Days are spoken of, sometimes the Thirteen. “The Twelve Nights,” in accordance with the old Teutonic mode of reckoning by nights, is a natural and correct term. 10-39
98 Those who wish to pursue further the study of the Kallikantzaroi should read the elaborate and fascinating, if not altogether convincing, theories of Mr. J. C. Lawson in his “Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion.” He distinguishes two classes of Kallikantzaroi, one of which he identifies with ordinary werewolves, while the other is the type of hairy, clawed demons above described. He sets forth a most ingenious hypothesis connecting them with the Centaurs.
99 It is to be borne in mind that the oak was a sacred tree among the heathen Slavs; it was connected with the thunder-god Perun, the counterpart of Jupiter, and a fire of oak burned night and day in his honour. The neighbours of the Slavs, the Lithuanians, had the same god, whom they called Perkunas; they too kept up a perpetual oak-fire in his honour, and in time of drought they used to pour beer on the flames, praying to Perkunas to send showers. 11-10 The libations of wine on the Yule log may conceivably have had a similar purpose.
102 At Wormesley in Herefordshire there is a Holy Thorn which is still believed to blossom exactly at twelve o'clock on Twelfth Night. “The blossoms are thought to open at midnight, and drop off about an hour afterwards. A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year.” As recently as 1908 about forty people went to see the thorn blossom at this time (see E. M. Leather, “The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire” [London, 1912], 17).
105 It by no means necessarily follows, of course, that they were exclusively Roman in origin.
106 In Welsh it has also the name of “the tree of pure gold,” a rather surprising title for a plant with green leaves and white berries. Dr. Frazer has sought to explain this name by the theory that in a roundabout way the sun's golden fire was believed to be an emanation from the mistletoe, in which the life of the oak, whence fire was kindled, was held to reside. 12-47
107 In the neighbourhood of Reichenberg children hang up their stockings at the windows on St. Andrew's Eve, and in the morning find them filled with apples and nuts 12-64 —a parallel to Martinmas and St. Nicholas customs, at a date intermediate between the two festivals.
108 “He has more to do than the ovens in England at Christmas.”
109 The following quotation from an ancient account book is tersely suggestive of the English Christmas:—
s. d. “Item payd to the preacher vi ii Item payd to the minstrell xii o Item payd to the coke xv o”
111 Dancing is, as everyone knows, a common and indeed a central feature of primitive festivals; and such dancing is wont to take a dramatic form, to be mimetic, whether re-enacting some past event or pre-doing something with magical intent to produce it. 14-10 The Greek tragedy itself probably sprang from a primitive dance of a dramatic and magical character, centred in a death and re-birth. 14-11
112 In Thessaly and Macedonia at Carnival time folk-plays of a somewhat similar character are performed, including a quarrel, a death, and a miraculous restoration to life—evidently originating in magical ritual intended to promote the fertility of vegetation. 14-12 Parallels can be found in the Carnival customs of other countries.
113 A remarkably clear instance of the transference of customs from Hollantide Eve (Hallowe'en) to the modern New Year is given by Sir John Rhys. Certain methods of prognostication described by him are practised by some people in the Isle of Man on the one day and by some on the other, and the Roman date is gaining ground. 16-1
115 “Ope thy purse, and shut it then.”
116 It is probable that some customs practised at the Epiphany belong in reality to Christmas Day, Old Style.
117 Pasqua is there used for great festivals in general, not only for Easter.
118 The custom of “burning the bush,” still surviving here and there in Herefordshire, shows a certain resemblance to this. The “bush,” a globe made of hawthorn, hangs throughout the year in the farmhouse kitchen, with the mistletoe. Early on New Year's Day it “is carried to the earliest sown wheat field, where a large fire is lighted, of straw and bushes, in which it is burnt. While it is burning, a new one is made; in making it, the ends of the branches are scorched in the fire.” Burning straw is carried over twelve ridges of the field, and then follow cider-drinking and cheering. (See Leather, “Folk-Lore of Herefordshire,” 91 f.)