Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Winter Solstice - The Yule Log

Early on, burning a Yule log was a celebration of the winter solstice. In Scandinavia, Yule ran from several weeks before the winter solstice to a couple weeks after. This was the darkest time of year, & the people celebrated, because days would start getting longer after the solstice. There was quite a bit of ritual & ceremony tied to the Yule log, for it marked the sun's rebirth from its southern reaches.

The Yule Log often was an entire tree, that was carefully chosen & brought into the house with great ceremony. Sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room!  The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log which had been carefully stored away & often slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. Tradition dictated that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands

The burning of the Yule log is an ancient Christmas ceremony, transmitted from Scandinavian ancestors, who, at their feast of Juul, at the winter-solstice, used to kindle huge bonfires in honor of their god Thor.  The bringing in & placing of the ponderous tree trunk on the hearth of a wide chimney was one of the most joyous of the ceremonies observed on Christmas Eve in feudal times. 

The venerable, dried log, which would crackle a warming welcome for all-comers, was drug in triumph from its resting-place in the woods. During Advent as Christmas neared, a big log was brought into the home. Songs were sung a& stories told. Children danced. Offerings of food & wine and decorations were placed upon it. Personal faults, mistakes & bad choices were burned in the flame, so everyone's new year would start with a clean slate.  

Early bards wrote of the Yule-log...

The following song is supposed to be of the time of Henry VI:


Welcome be thou, heavenly King, 
Welcome born on this morning, 
Welcome for whom we shall sing,
                              Welcome Yule,

Welcome be ye Stephen & John, 
Welcome Innocents every one, 
Welcome Thomas Martyr one,
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye, good New Year, 
Welcome Twelfth Day, both in fere, 
Welcome saints, loved & dear,
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye, Candlemas,
Welcome be ye, Queen of Bliss, 
Welcome both to more & less, 
                             Welcome Yule.

Welcome be ye that are here,
Welcome all, & make good cheer, 
Welcome all, another year,
                             Welcome Yule.'

And Robert Herrick (1591-1674) writes of the Yule log:

‘Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
   The Christmas log to the firing, 
While my good dame she
Bids ye all be free,
   And drink to your heart's desiring.

With the last year's brand
Light the new block, &,
   For good success in his spending, 
On your psalteries play
That sweet luck may
   Come while the log is a teending.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
   The while the meat is a shredding; 
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by,
   To fill the paste that's a kneading.'

The reference in the 2nd stanza, is to the practice of laying aside the half-consumed block after having served its purpose on Christmas Eve, preserving it carefully in a cellar or other secure place till the next Christmas, & then lighting the new log with the charred remains of its predecessor. It was believed that the preservation of last year's Christmas log was a most effective security to the house against fire. A few other traditions lingered into the 20C.  It was regarded as a sign of bad-luck if a squinting person entered the hall, when the log was burning, or a bare-footed person, &, above all, a flat-footed woman!  As an accompaniment to the Yule log, a candle of monstrous size, called the Yule Candle, or Christmas Candle, usually shed its light on the food table during the evening.

The Yule Log is still used.  In some parts of France, the family sings a traditional carol, when the log is brought into the home, usually on Christmas Eve. The carol prays for health & fertility of mothers, nanny-goats, ewes, plus an abundant harvest.  In France, it is also traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down & that a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after Twelfth Night, it is kept safe in the house until the next Christmas to protect against lightning! In some parts of Holland, this is also done, but the log had to be stored under a bed. 

In Yugoslavia, the Yule Log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve & carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, colored silks & gold, and then doused with wine plus an offering of grain. 

In Devon & Somerset in the UK, some people collect a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This tradition stems from a local legend that Joseph, Mary & Jesus were very cold, when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.  In some parts of Ireland, people have a large candle instead of a log, which this is only lit on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night.  In some eastern European countries, the Yule Log is cut down on Christmas Eve morning & lit that evening.

The ashes of Yule logs were believed to be very good for plants. Today the ash from burnt wood contains a lot of 'potash', which helps plants flower. But if the revelers throw the ashes from the Yule Log out on Christmas day, it is supposedly very unlucky.

The Winter Solstice - Yuletide

Germanic and Northern European peoples observed Yule or Yuletide, a Winter Solstice festival connected with the worship of the Norse god Odin and the celebration of Odin’s Wild Hunt, where Odin and his goddess Frigg rode through swathes of winter light in the night sky to chase damned souls to the underworld. People feared that if they witnessed or in any way mocked the hunt, they too could be taken into the underworld.

Yule was typically celebrated for three days from the first night of the Winter Solstice, December 21 or 22, to December 24 or December 25. 

Starting in December, some peoples celebrated Yule for a whole month, often up to three. People slaughtered animals, cooking the meat to enjoy with wine and ale. But, purposely, they saved the blood. Blood was used ritually to decorate the people and the statues of their gods and goddesses. 

The solstice brought the darkest and longest night of the year. Celebrations were lit by firelight from masses of candles, bonfires, and the burning of a large log called the Yule Log, which was sprinkled with salt and oil so that when it burned down the ashes could be scattered around homes to ward off evil spirits. 

Other customs carried to the modern era included decorating homes with trees covered in candles, metal ornaments, and fruit, and caroling or wassailing, where wandering groups of singers were rewarded with warm mugs of cider or ale.

The First Day Of Yule
A Yule-Tide Carol For Christmas
Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. e. I, f. 22 r. XV Century

Make we mirth
For Christ His Birth
And sing we Yule till Candlemas.

1. The first day of Yule we have in mind
How man was born all of our kind,
For He would the bonds unbind
    Of all our sin and wickedness.

2. The second day we sing of Stephen
That stoned was, and said1 up even
With Christ there he would stand in heaven,
    And crowned was for his prowess.

3. The third day 'longs to St. John,
That was Christ's darling, dearest one,
To whom He took, when He should gone,
    His dear mother for his cleanness.

4. The fourth day of the Children young
With Herod's wrath to death were throng,
Of Christ they cold not speak with tongue,
    But with their blood bare witness.

5. The fifth day hallowed St. Thomas,
Right as strong as pillar of brass,
Held up his church and slain was,
For he stood fast in righteousness.

8. The eighty day took Jesus His name,
That saved mankind from sin and shame,
And circumcised was for no blame,
    But for example of meekness.

9. The twelfth day offered to Him Kings three,
Gold, myrrh, incense, these gifts free,
For God and man and king is He,
    And thus they worshiped his worthiness.

10. The fortieth day came Mary mild
Unto the Temple with her child,
To shew her clean that never was 'filed,

    And herewith ends Christmas.

Advent Traditions - England Medieval "Dolls" or perhaps puppets as Baby Jesus & Mary

Roman du bon roi Alexandre Manuscript by Jehan de Grise, France 1344.

In medieval & pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there were early forms of Nativity scenes called "advent images" or "vessel cups."  They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white napkin, that contained 2 dolls representing Mary & the baby Jesus. The box usually was decorated with ribbons & flowers (and sometimes apples).  They were carried around from door to door.  It was thought to be very unlucky, if the family did not see the dolls before Christmas Eve!   Bad luck was thought to menace the household not visited by the doll-bearers before Christmas Eve at the latest. People paid the box carriers a halfpenny coin to see the dolls in the box.

Roman du bon roi Alexandre illuminated manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

"In the Middle Ages, the doll was not confined to the young.  Operated as marionettes, they were often used to make money.  Adults could buy votive objects to offer at shrines, as well as statuettes of Christ or saints to keep in their houses.  Margery Kemp, the mystic of King's Lynn, when visiting Italy in 1414, met a woman who traveled abut with an image of the baby Jesus.  Other women dressed this image with clothes as an act of reverence, and Margery, seeing this happen, fell into tears for the love of infant Jesus.  Similar dolls of Christ and Mary are said to have been carried about by women during Advent in the north of England." (See Nicholas Orme. Medieval Children. Yale University Press, 2003) 

Ms. 251 from Brugge, 13C Puppet show

Icons of Madonna & Child

Chiliandari Icon of the Mother of God of the Akathistos Holy Mount Athos

Icons of Mary holding her son Jesus have been popular, since the 431 AD Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God.

Icon Kazan of the Most Holy Mother of God

The word "icon" derives from the Greek "eikon" meaning any image or representation, but the word usually is restricted to a religious image. Although the word "icon" applies to all kinds of religious images -- those painted on wooden panels (icons proper), on walls (frescoes), those fashioned from small glass tesserae (mosaics) or carved in stone, metal or ivory -- the term is it most often with paintings on wood.

Icon of the Mother of God of St Peter of Moscow c 1306

Early Christian images appeared around the 3rd century. That may indicate that for the first 200 years of its existence, Christianity was probably influenced by the Old Testament 2nd Commandment, "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven images" (Exodus 20:4).

Mother of God of Kiev & Arapetsk, Arabic Russian

"When Christians turned to promote their religion, they found many examples in the earlier art of religions in the art of the Roman Empire. For their images, they incorporated various elements from a number of sources: from Hellenic art they borrowed gracefulness & clarity of composition; from the Roman art they took the hierarchical placement of figures & symmetry of design; from Syrian art they took dynamic movements & energy of the represented characters; and from Egyptian funeral portraits they borrowed large almond-shaped eyes, long, thin noses, & small mouths. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire (313), the iconography was developing vigorously & the basic compositional schemes were well established." (From Alexander Boguslawski)

The Otokos of Passion

Some speculate that the earliest icon painters in Russia were Greeks or Byzantinized South Slavs. They are thought to have become teachers of the 1st Russian icon painters instructing them in the traditional Byzantine style. Their compositions were monumental, uncluttered, & simple. Some early icons exhibit close affinities with the art of classical antiquity. However, the Russians quickly abandoned the Byzantine tradition of portraying a severe religious images & developed more "humane" depictions.

Icon Russian Icon, The Vladimir Mother of God, 12C

Icon of Theophanes the Greek (c 1330-c 1410) The Virgin of the Don 1392

Icon Russian Icon, The Virgin Hodegetria of Tikhvin (mid-16C from the Moscow School)

Icon Ukranian Icon The Virgin Eleusa From the Church of St. Luke in the village of Dorosyni, Volhynia region, 15C

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.