Friday, November 30, 2018

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."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Christmas Carols

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (English artist, 1852-1909) A Carol

Christmas songs - the oldest ones are the best
BBC History Magazine - Monday 9th December 2013

"Christmas carols were mostly a Victorian tradition along with trees, crackers and cards. Eugene Byrne explains the why the popularity of Silent Night has never faded, why there’s always a place for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and why the British fondness of Good King Wenceslas has not yet subsided.
In England - Carolers-Yorshire

"Although Christmas was celebrated in song in the Middle Ages, most carols in use now are less than 200 years old. Only a handful, such as I Saw Three Ships or the decidedly pagan-sounding The Holly and the Ivy, remind us of more ancient yuletides. Carols fell from favour in England after the Reformation because of their frivolity and were rarely sung in churches until the 1880s when EW  Benson, Bishop of Truro (later Archbishop of Canterbury) drew up the format for the Nine Lessons and Carols service, which has remained in use ever since.
 In England - Carol singing at Hampton Court Palace from The Graphic, London

"Silent Night (1818)

"Words: Josef Mohr - Music: Franz Xaver Gruber

"Arguably the world’s most popular Christmas carol comes in several different translations from the German original. It started out as a poem by the Austrian Catholic priest Father Josef Mohr in 1816. Two years later, Mohr was curate at the parish church of St Nicola in Oberndorf when he asked the organist and local schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber to put music to his words.

"An unreliable legend has it that the church organ had been damaged by mice, but whatever the reason, Gruber wrote it to be performed by two voices and guitar. It was first performed at midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1818, with Mohr and Gruber themselves taking the solo voice roles.

"Its fame eventually spread (allegedly it has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects) and it famously played a key role in the unofficial truce in the trenches in 1914 because it was one of the only carols that both British and German soldiers knew.
In England - Children in Yorkshire, carrying greenery as symbols of rebirth, go from house to house singing carols in the tradition of wassail for food, drink and sometimes small coins.

"Good King Wenceslas (1853 or earlier)

"Words: John Mason Neale - Music: Traditional, Scandinavian

"The Reverend Doctor Neale was a high Anglican whose career was blighted by suspicion that he was a crypto-Catholic, so as warden of Sackville College – an almshouse in East Grinstead – he had plenty of time for study and composition. Most authorities deride his words as “horrible”, “doggerel” or “meaningless”, but it has withstood the test of time. The tune came from a Scandinavian song that Neale found in a rare medieval book that had been sent to him by a friend who was British ambassador in Stockholm.

"There really was a Wenceslas – Vaclav in Czech – although he was Duke of Bohemia, rather than a king. Wenceslas (907–935) was a pious Christian who was murdered by his pagan brother Boleslav; after his death a huge number of myths and stories gathered around him. Neale borrowed one legend to deliver a classically Victorian message about the importance of being both merry and charitable at Christmas. Neale also wrote two other Christmas favourites: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1851) and Good Christian Men, Rejoice (1853).
In England - Country Carol Singers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)  1836

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739 or earlier)

"Words: Charles Wesley - Music: Felix Mendelssohn
"Charles, the brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, penned as many as 9,000 hymns and poems, of which this is one of his best-known. It was said to be inspired by the sounds of the bells as he walked to church one Christmas morning and has been through several changes. It was originally entitled Hark How All the Welkin Rings – welkin being an old word meaning sky or heaven.

"As with most of his hymns, Wesley did not stipulate which tune it should be sung to, except to say that it should be “solemn”. The modern version came about when organist William Hayman Cummings adopted it to a tune by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in the 1850s. Mendelssohn had stipulated that the music, which he had written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press and which he described as “soldier-like and buxom”, should never be used for religious purposes.
In England - Mummers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)  1836

"God rest you merry, Gentlemen" Origin unknown

"This is thought to have originated in London in the 16th or 17th centuries before running to several different versions with different tunes all over England. The most familiar melody dates back to at least the 1650s when it appeared in a book of dancing tunes. It was certainly one of the Victorians’ favourites.

"If you want to impress people with your knowledge (or pedantry), then point out to them that the comma is placed after the “merry” in the first line because the song is enjoining the gentlemen (possibly meaning the shepherds abiding in the fields) to be merry because of Christ’s birthday. It’s not telling “merry gentlemen” to rest!"
In England - London Carol Singers Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836) 1836


In England - Thomas Kibble Hervey's (1799-1859) Christmas Book with illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836)


In England - Christmas Mummers 1861

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Englishman Thomas Tusser (1520-1580) on Elizabethan Christmas Food

At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall
Brawn, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall:
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best:
Pig, veal, goose and capon and turkey well drest:
Cheese, apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
       Thomas Tusser (c. 1520-1580)


A 1614 Edition of Tusser's 1573 enlarged version.

Thomas Tusser was an East Anglian writer on agriculture, whose metrical Five Hundrethe Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573), an enlarged version of his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie (1557), went into numerous editions.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

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 YULE

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.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Christmas Greenery - A brief history with images

A brief history of greenery during the Christmas holidays

Here in Maryland, families begin searching for their Christmas greenery after Thanksgiving.  Long before the advent of Christianity, plants & trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. In many countries folks believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, & illness.
Collecting Holly Sprigs in December pub by Robert Sayer in London in 1767

In the Northern hemisphere, many ancient people believed that the sun was a god & that winter came every year because the sun god had grown weak. They celebrated the solstice, because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong & summer would return.
Springs of holly or ivy at the windows & mistletoe above.  1770s Christmas gambolls, mid-18th century, etching published by P. Griffin

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk & wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his weakness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes symbolizing the triumph of life over death.
Greens decorate the room with mistletoe hanging from above.  The Young Sweep giving Betty her Christmas Box, 1770-1780

Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes & temples with evergreen boughs.
Holly on the mantel Published by  Carrington Bowles in 1780.

In Northern Europe the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
Sprigs of ivy in the windows & mistletoe above.  Settling the Affairs of the Nation, pub by London's Bowles & Carver c 1775.

Decorating one’s house with natural boughs has been a Christmas tradition since Celtic times in England. Boughs of holly with their bright red berries were especially coveted.
Sprigs of holly over the mantle. Christmas Gambols The Wit’s Magazine, London, December 1784

"Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.”

- William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Mistletoe hanging from ceiling.  1790s Christmas Gambols or a Kiss Under the mistletoe Published 22d. Octr. 1794 by Laurie & Whittle, N°.53, Fleet Street, London.


Mistletoe hangs above & sprigs of holly or ivy decorate the lower window panes.  1791 Christmas in the Country, from drawing by Samuel Collings and pub Bentley & Co. in London, January 1, 1791.


1796 The Misteltoe, or, Christmas Gables, London  Pub 1 May 1796 by G.T. Stubbs


Mistletoe hangs above1800 Unknown British artist, The mistletoe - A Christmas Tale 1800. Published by Laurie and Whittle, London


Greenery hangs over the table.  1800 Farmer Giles's establishment.  Christmas day 1800 Published London


Rope of Greens in the Pastry Shop Window - George Cruikshanks Comic Almanac Excitement outside the pastry cook & confectioners shop window as people view the 12th night cakes


1825 High life below stairs Robert Cruikshank London Pub by G. Tregear 136 Drury Lane


Swags of Greenery decorate the windows of the Pastry Shop for 12th night.  The Every-day Book, 1827, Naughty Boys


1837 Bringing home Christmas from The book of Christmas Illustrated by Robert Seymour


Greenery decorates the old family portraits and hangs from the chandelier.  1847 Christmas at home with family & cats  Illustrated London News


Greens decorate the archway, the cake, and the boar's head!  The Illustrated Times 1857 - The Boar’s Head and Christmas Pie for the  Royal Banquet at Windsor  Castle


Selling greenery

 Preparing for Christmas


Gathering Miustletoe in Normandy


Kissing under the Mistletoe


Gathering Mistletoe

Thursday, November 22, 2018

An Angel for the Hunt Country

Angel with Horse & Mermaid by Piero di Cosimo (Italian artist, 1462-1521) "Allegory" c 1500. We live in the Maryland hunt country, Which is not that far from the Chesapeake Bay, I know horses & mermaids are possible. And heaven knows we could use a few angels out here. Love this horse !!

20C Blessing the Fox Hunt on Thanksgiving

I am pretty certain that I live in a place out of time.  Until recently at our church in Northern Maryland, Thanksgiving morning began with communion followed by a Blessing of the Hunt. As geese congregate to fly overhead in November, fox hunting officially season begins in these parts.
St James Episcopal Church, Monkton, Maryland. 2014

At a Blessing I attended a few years ago, the rector began, "In less than an hour we will hear hoof beats, and the crying of hounds. As the final echoes of the Lord's Prayer and an Anglican blessing fade from this hilltop into the silence of the trees, the horse and riders will pick up speed, seek a scent, and pass quickly out of our sight."
Informal fox hunts with private packs of dogs were popular in Maryland throughout colonial times, when rural neighbors applauded fox hunting as a husbandry necessity -foxes were destroying livestock. Early Marylanders did not see fox hunting as a blood-sport of the privileged. After the Revolution, the first few formal foxhunting clubs were organized near the towns of Baltimore, Washington, & Annapolis. Contemporary newspaper accounts show that the Baltimore Fox Hunting Club was active near the Chesapeake Bay as early as 1793.
The rector continued, "Into the beauty of God's creation they will move. We will hear them even when we cease to see the red of their jackets or the dark flanks of the very last horse. Even when they are gone from our hearing, we will remember the sound of our voices raised in song and prayer within these walls. And those who go a hunting and those that can't tell a stirrup from a saddle will leave this church today connected through a common cup, one bread broken for us all, and blessings from ancient times that are carried, still, by stories like voices on the wind."
Our local Elkridge Fox Hunting Club was incorporated on March 6, 1878, and is believed to be a descendant of the 18th-century Baltimore Fox Hunting Club. As downtown Baltimore grew, it combined with the more rural Harford Hunt club. Now the Elkridge-Harford Hunt roams over about 120 square miles of rolling farmland, with wooded areas & pastures. It has over 60 hounds in its kennels. Neighborhood obstacles are post-and-rail fences, fallen trees, cold streams,  & board fences.
The rector concluded, "In less than an hour we will hear hoof beats, and the crying of hounds. God's blessing will roll across the landscape, seeking those who would enter a kingdom raised by more than human hands. All we have to do to enter is to be willing to love, willing to risk, willing to ride out and meet God where He dwells. Let us all prepare our hearts for the blessing of the hunt, the search for God. For everyone that draws breath is on this life-long journey. Ride well, and may the peace of God be with you."