Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Winter Solstice - A 1953 look at Christmas in England from Solstice to Victorian Feasts

19C mummers. From a MS. in the Bodleian Library

Written by J.A.R. Pimlott | Published in History Today Volume 3: Issue: 12 1953 Development of the Christmas Spirit from Pagan Saturnalia to Victorian Feasts.  Also see here.

"The English Christmas was largely reshaped in the 19C, but to understand what happened it is necessary to look back to the “old” Christmas out of which it developed.  The festivities derived  from the pagan midwinter celebrations at the time of the December solstice, which had the promotion of fertility as one of their chief purposes.

"The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

"In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.

"In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

"Eating & drinking were always an important feature of midwinter festivals & Christmas observances.  The end of December was a perfect time for celebration.  At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

"In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

"Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year.

"In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring, Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

"By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the "lord of misrule" and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.

"Little is known about the midwinter observances in Britain upon which Augustine & his successors sought to superimpose the Christian feast of the Nativity. There is a tantalizing reference to the heathen “Yule” in Bede, but for the most part it is necessary to rely on surmise. The story of the English Christmas from the Conversion to the Conquest, however, is epitomized in the instructions which Gregory the Great sent to Augustine. He was to be careful not to alarm the people by interference with heathen ceremonies, & the Pope specifically advised him to allow converts to kill & eat large numbers of oxen to the glory of God at the Christmas festival, as they had formerly done to the Devil.

"Until it had consolidated its position, the Church was obliged to acquiesce in the continuance of many pagan observances; but, as time went on, it was able to effect a synthesis between the old & the new in which the grosser customs had no place. Alfred & other Kings joined with the ecclesiastical authorities in prescribing that the Twelve Days should be kept as a period of festival & abstention from work. Even though the people still performed their traditional dances in the precincts of the church at Christmas, at least they came to church to do so. And a Christian background was provided for the feasting, the telling of tales, the nunstrelsy, the games, the wassailing, & the jousting, with which the Twelve Days were marked.

"The first chapter in the story may conveniently be closed in 1043, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the first time spoke of December 25th as “Christmas” instead of “midwinter” or “midwinter’s mass.” By the 11C the main elements in the Christmas tradition, which the Normans inherited, had been established. The Twelve Days were the chief period of annual holiday— a sensible recognition of economic realities in a rural society, as well as a compromise with popular tradition. Survivals from paganism had been so successfully blended with Christian observances that even the Church had come to accept the mixture. What principally distinguished this complex of customs from those of today was their communal character; they involved the participation of the whole community, & were focused on some central point, whether it was the church or the hall of the local lord or magnate.

"The Norman Conquest led to no fundamental change in this pattern. One of its consequences, however, was to expose England to Continental Christmas traditions that went back to the Saturnalian & other celebrations of imperial Rome. Though the Continental “Feast of Fools” was never fully transplanted here, among the customs that it contributed to the English Christmas were the “Boy Bishop” ceremonies & the “lords of misrule,” who in the later Middle Ages were common under various names at the Court, in noble houses, & at colleges & inns of court.

"Saturnalian customs never took deep root in England, & the major innovations between the Conquest & the Reformation were largely native in character. The Nativity drama, evolved as a medium of religious instruction, became one of the chief forms of popular art & the forerunner of the secular theatre. But it was the carol that was the main literary glory of the mediaeval English Christmas. Imported in the first place from France & Italy, on English soil it was transformed from a dance song into the medium for some of the loveliest expressions of the English lyrical genius.

"The immediate impact of the Reformation upon Christmas observances was so slight as to be hard to discern... Carols & carol-singing also went into a decline, though this was due rather to the development of instrumental music than to religious reasons. On the surface, things continued much as before, but the changes that were taking place underneath were so fundamental that, when the crisis came under the Commonwealth & Protectorate, it was all the more explosive for having been delayed...

"In the early 17C, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

"The agricultural revolution, the expansion of trade & industry, the growth of the towns, the liquidation of the monastic estates, the increasing differentiation between social classes, all contributed imperceptibly but surely to the disintegration of the “feudal” Christmas of the manor, the gild, & the mediaeval corporation...The author of the late sixteenth-or early 17C verses, The Lamentation of Christmas, deplored the decline of the rural Christmas, attributing it to economic & social causes, which included the exodus of “great men” to London, rural depopulation as a result of sheep-farming, the impoverishment of the farmers, & the high cost of living.

"Herrick’s vivid & delightful descriptions of the countryman’s Christmas are evidence of the vitality of the old customs, even when the Puritan attack was at its height. As for the towns, the old Christmas is nowhere more faithfully summed up than in Ben Jonson’s Christmas Masque (1616), in which the eight sons & two daughters of the central figure, old Gregory Christmas, epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post & Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake.”

"Hezekiah Woodward succinctly stated the chief items of the Puritan indictment in the title of the tract he published in 1656: “Christmas Day, the old Heathens' Feasting Day in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papists' Massing Day, the Superstitious Man's Idol Day, the Multitudes' Idle Day, Satan's That Adversary's Working Day, the true Christian Man’s Pasting Day.”

"There were popular uprisings against the Puritan ban, but, as John Evelyn, among others, discovered, the authorities did not hesitate to use the army to enforce it. That the Puritans merely accelerated an historical process is shown by the failure of Christmas to regain its former popularity after the Restoration. But...As Addison, Southey, Cowper & other writers bear witness, the traditional celebrations never entirely died out in rural England. Gay, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, are among those who provide evidence of the survival of the old forms in the towns; & the brisk business in Norfolk turkeys, which developed in the 18C, indicates the importance attached by the Londoner to a good Christmas table.

"Christmas was, nevertheless, by general consent in decline. The author of Poor Robin’s Almanack was perhaps indulging in poetic licence when he declared in 1709:

And Christmas scarcely should we know
Did not the almanacks it show.

"But David Garrick summed up the general view in A Christmas Tale (1774) '

Behold a personage well known to fame;
Once lov’d and honour’d—Christmas is my name!

"And Lamb was probably right in 1827; Old Christmas, he said, “cometh not with his wonted gait, he is shrunk 9 inches in the girth, but is yet a lusty fellow.”

"It is not easy to say why the process of decay should have been suddenly arrested in the middle of the 19C. The Christmas of Pickwick Papers, published in 1836-7, seems to be separated by an age from the Christmas of the Christmas Carol, published in 1843. Pickwick stressed the material side of the festivities, & looked back to the 18C. The Carol looked forward, & was largely responsible for the fact that Dickens, more than any other person, is associated with the modern conception of Christmas. Without neglecting the good things of the season the Carol dwelt upon the spiritual, though not specifically the religious, aspects of the festivity. As the immediate success of the Carol on both sides of the Atlantic showed, Dickens’s role was to translate into literary form the feelings that many inarticulate people were beginning to share.

"Dickens’s Carol was a protest against the hypocrisy that had made a mockery of conventional Christmas sentiments. Ebenezer Scrooge, at least, had the courage of his convictions; which was more than could be said of most of his fellow countrymen. The theme was not original; it was already part of the Christmas stock-in-trade of humanitarian & radical writers. Punch, for example, preached it year after year. “Christmas is fast approaching,” Punch wrote in 1841, “Let the physical weight of all corporations, all private benefactors of the poor, be distributed in eatables to the indigent & famishing.”

"The resurgence of Christmas did not prevent the continued decline of folk customs that had lost their meaning or were ill-adapted to modern conditions. A radical reshaping took place; Twelfth Night, mumming, wassailing, were some of the customs that were discarded. Many industrial workers, including children, had no other holiday than December 25th; & the giving of presents was transferred from New Year to Christmas Day...There were some revivals, the carol being the most important. It had never died out, but most of the mediaeval carols had been forgotten, & carol-singing had declined into little more than a rural folk survival.

"But the chief interest lies in the new customs that were introduced. There were at least three major innovations: in chronological order, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, &...Father Christmas as we know him now. The Christmas tree in Germany went back at least to the early 17C; it is recorded at Strasbourg in 1605. But it remained localized in Germany, & largely unknown outside, until the second quarter of the 19C.

"The Christmas card...was a British invention. There was nothing novel, of course, about the exchange of seasonable greetings; it was an old custom. But in the age of the penny post the Christmas card was the obvious practical answer to the problem that became more complicated as Christmas was taken more seriously—how to communicate easily with friends & relatives who could not be greeted in person. Although it was separately invented in the forties by Sir Henry Cole, the Christmas card did not take hold until the late sixties. This delay is the harder to explain since it then acquired an astonishing vogue, which for the next generation almost amounted to a cult...

"Some time in the 3rd quarter of the century the traditional English Father Christmas began to be transformed into an anglicized version of the Dutch-American Santa Claus...He survived into the 19C as a grey-bearded symbol that was still being used in Punch as late as the eighties. He had nothing specifically to do with children, & was not associated with the filling of stockings or the bringing of gifts. These were the attributes of Santa Claus, who had evolved in New York State from the Saint Nicholas of the Dutch colonists, & sprang vividly to life in Clement Clarke Moore’s jeu d’esprit A Visit from Saint Nicholas, perhaps better known as The Night Before Christmas. Moore, who was a professor in an Episcopalian theological college, wrote these verses for his family: & they were published in 1823 without the approval of their author, who was afraid that they might prejudice his reputation as a serious poet. Like the Christmas Carol they happened to be perfectly timed. They struck the popular imagination, &, by clothing the Santa Claus myth in convincing detail, became a major influence in extending its currency throughout the world."

The Winter Solstice - The Roman Midwinter festival Saturnalia

Tuesday 17th December 2013  BBC History Magazine by Emma McFarnon

"How did the Romans celebrate ‘Christmas’?

"It is today associated with decorations, gift giving and indulgence. But how did the Romans celebrate during the festive season? English historian Dr Carey Fleiner, a senior lecturer in classical and medieval history at the University of Winchester, looks back at Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter ‘festival of misrule’

"Q: What was Saturnalia, and how was it celebrated?

"A: It was the Romans’ mid-winter knees up!

"It was a topsy-turvy holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise.

"A character in Macrobius’s Saturnalia [an encyclopedic celebration of Roman culture written in the early fifth century] quotes from an unnamed priest of the god Saturn that, according to the god himself, during the Saturnalia “all things that are serious are barred”.  So while it was a holy day, it was also very much a festive day as well.

"The ordinarily rigid and conservative social restrictions of the Romans changed – for example, masters served their slaves during a feast and adults would serve children, and slaves were allowed to gamble.

Dice players in a wall painting from Pompeii

"And the aristocracy, who usually wore conservative clothes, dressed in brightly coloured fabrics such as red, purple and gold. This outfit was called the ‘synthesis’, which meant ‘to be put together’. They would ‘put together’ whatever clothes they wanted.

"People would also wear a cap of freedom – the pilleum – which was usually worn by slaves who had been awarded their freedom, to symbolise that they were ‘free’ during the Saturnalia.

"People would feast in their homes, but the historian Livy notes that by 217 BC there would also be a huge public feast at the oldest temple in Rome, the Temple of Saturn. Macrobius confirms this, and says that the rowdy participants would spill out onto the street, with the participants shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” the way we might greet people with ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy New Year!’

"A small statue of Saturn might be present at such feasts, as if Saturn himself were there. The statue of Saturn in the temple itself spent most of the year with its feet bound in woolen strips. On the feast day, these binds of wool wrapped around his feet were loosened – symbolising that the Romans were ‘cutting loose’ during the Saturnalia.

"People were permitted to gamble in public and bob for corks in ice water. The author Aulus Gellius noted that, as a student, he and his friends would play trivia games. Chariot racing was also an important component of the Saturnalia and the associated sun-god festivities around that time – by the late fourth century AD there might be up to 36 races a day.

"We say that during Christmas today the whole world shuts down – the same thing happened during the Saturnalia. There were sometimes plots to overthrow the government, because people were distracted – the famous conspirator Cataline had planned to murder the Senate and set the city on fire during the holiday, but his plan was uncovered and stopped by Cicero in 63 BC.

"Saturnalia was described by first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus as “the best of times”. It was certainly the most popular holiday in the Roman calendar.

"Q: Where does Saturnalia originate?

"It was the result of the merging of three winter festivals over the centuries. These included the day of Saturn – the god of seeds and sowing – which was the Saturnalia itself. The dates for the Saturnalia shifted a bit over time, but it was originally held on 17 December.

"Later, the 17th was given over to the Opalia, a feast day dedicated to Saturn’s wife – who was also his sister. She was the goddess of abundance and the fruits of the earth.

"Because they were associated with heaven (Saturn) and Earth (Opalia), their holidays ended up combined, according again to Macrobius. And the third was a feast day celebrating the shortest day, called the bruma by the Romans. The Brumalia coincided with the solstice, on 21 or 22 December.

"The three were merged, and became a seven-day jolly running from 17–23 December. But the emperor Augustus [who ruled from 27 BC–AD 14] shortened it to a three-day holiday, as it was causing chaos in terms of the working day.

"Later, Caligula [ruled AD 37–41 ] extended it to a five-day holiday, and by the time of Macrobius [early fifth century] it had extended to almost two weeks.

'As with so many Roman traditions, the origins of the Saturnalia are lost to the mists of time. The writer Columella notes in his book about agriculture [De Re Rustica, published in the early first century AD] that the Saturnalia came at the end of the agrarian year.

"The festivities fell on the winter solstice, and helped to make up for the monotony of the lull between the end of the harvest and the beginning of the spring.

"Q: Were gift-giving and decorations part of Saturnalia?

"A: Saturnalia was more about a change in attitudes than presents. But a couple of gifts that were given were white candles, named cerei, and clay faces named sigillariae. The candles signified the increase of light after the solstice, while the sigillariae were little ornaments people exchanged.

"These were sometimes hung in greenery as a form of decoration, and people would bring in holly and berries to honour Saturn.

"Q: Was Saturnalia welcomed by everyone?

"A: Not among the Romans!

"Seneca [who died in AD 62] complained that the mob went out of control “in pleasantries”, and Pliny the Younger wrote in one of his letters that he holed up in his study while the rest of the household celebrated.

"As might be expected, the early Christian authorities objected to the festivities as well.

"It wasn’t until the late fourth century that the church fathers could agree on the date of Christ’s birth – unlike the pagan Romans, Christians tended to give no importance to anyone’s birthday. The big day in the Christian religious calendar was Easter.

"Nevertheless, eventually the church settled on 25 December as the date of Christ’s nativity. For the Christians, it was a holy day, not a holiday, and they wanted the period to be sombre and distinguished from the pagan Saturnalia traditions such as gambling, drinking, and of course, most of all, worshipping a pagan god!

"But their attempts to ban Saturnalia were not successful, as it was so popular. As late as the eighth century, church authorities complained that even people in Rome were still celebrating the old pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia and other winter holidays."

Advent - A brief history

Advent is observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting, self-examination, & preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. The name Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies a coming.  

Advent has probably been observed since the 4C.  It would seem that Advent could not have occurred, until the Roman Catholic Church & state decided to declare December 25 as the day of the birth of Christ, in 345.  Advent was 1st recorded about 380 AD in Spain.
St. Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours 460-490, from Images of All the Saints of the Year... Paris: Chez Israƫl Henriet, 1636)

As far back as the 5C, there existed the custom of giving exhortations to the people in order to prepare them for Christmas. The oldest document, the 2nd book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory Bishop of Tours (536-594), states that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, had decreed a fast 3 times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas.  St Perpetuus, who died December 30, 490, was the 6th Bishop of Tours, from 460 to 490. It is unclear whether St. Perpetuus established a new custom, or merely enforced an already existing law.

St Gregory, Bishop of Tours (536-594) & King Chilperic I, from the Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, 14C illumination.

In the 4C & 5C, Advent was the preparation for the January "Epiphany" rather than Christmas.  It was also a time for new Christians to be baptized & welcomed into the church, while existing members of the church examined their hearts & focused on penance. Religious leaders exhorted the people to prepare for the feast of Christmas by fasting. Early documents show that many church leaders treated Advent as a 2nd Lent.

The 9th canon of the first Council of Macon, held in 582, ordained that between St. Martin's day & Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, should be fasting days.  In 567, the 2nd Council of Tours enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas.

The obligation of observing Advent, which, though introduced so imperceptibly, had by degrees acquired the force of a sacred law, began to be relaxed, & the 40 days from St. Martin's day to Christmas were reduced to 4 weeks. 

Sometime in 6C Rome, the focus of Advent shifted to the second coming of Christ. In the 9C, Pope St. Nicholas reduced the duration of Advent from 6 weeks to 4 weeks. The 1st mention of Advent's being reduced to 4 weeks is to be found in a 9C letter of Pope St. Nicholas I to the Bulgarians.

After having reduced the time of the Advent fast, the church seemed to change the mandatory fast into a simple abstinence & required only the clergy to observe this abstinence. The Council of Salisbury, held in 1281, seemed to expect none but monks to keep it. On the other hand Pope Innocent III, mentions that, in France, fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole 40 days.

By degrees, the custom of fasting fell into disuse; and in 1362, Pope Urban V asked only that the clerics of his court should keep abstinence during Advent.  In his 4th Council, he enjoins the parish priests to exhort the faithful to go to Communion on the Sundays, at least, of Lent & Advent; & he strongly urges them to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, & Fridays, at least, of each week in Advent.

And finally, sometime in the middle ages--approximately the 1500's--an additional focus on the anticipation before Christ's birth was added to that of His 2nd coming. 

Today Advent in most Christian churches begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, & covers 4 Sundays. Because the day it begins changes from year to year, so does the length of each Advent season.   

Madonnas attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440-1501)

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of above Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Virgin and angels

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail Madonna and Child enthroned

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of the Madonna and Child with Saints 

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels Making Music

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child Detail from panel with Saint Marcos and Lorenzo

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Detail of above Madonna and Child with Angels Making Music 

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, c 1440 to 1501) Madonna and Child

Attributed to Vittorio Crivelli (Italian artist, from 1440 to 1501 c) Madonna and Child

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.