Christmas in History - which traditions/events stick out for you?

(60 Posts)
LRDtheFeministDude Wed 05-Dec-12 12:52:09

I thought it'd be nice to have a festive thread to tick along gently through December. I was thinking about how Christmas must have changed so much over the millenia (though I don't really know much about how it was celebrated for the first thousand years!).

The Advent traditions my DH follows go back centuries and they're pretty much the same as what happened in medieval England, in that you look at Advent as a sort of echo of Lent, a period when you're meant to fast in preparation for the big feast of Christmas Day.

I know we say a lot of British Christmas traditions are Victorian, but also I know a lot aren't (lots of medieval/Tudor stuff), and I wondered where it all comes from? And I wonder how different it is in different countries?

R2PeePoo Wed 05-Dec-12 22:19:16

When we lived in Switzerland we used to watch the evening Saint Nicholas procession on the first Saturday in December. He rode through the streets on an ass and finished up at the cathedral. Lots of noise, lots of people, lots of lights and sweets

It was great fun to watch at the time but having googled the origins are not so good - he bought three children back to life after they had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a salting tub.

In the Spring they have another procession, lots of noise, colour and sweets. It ends up in a large square where they burn an enormous effigy, the 'Rababou'. The whole massive crowd howls and chants 'Rababou, rababou' over and over. It has an amazing primal feel to it as the sound swells and echoes off the building and surrounding hills. I wonder how close that is to much older festivals.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 17:19:13

Wow ... that sounds amazing if a little scary!

I didn't realize how many people celebrated St Nicholas until recently. Do you have presents then or another day?

R2PeePoo Thu 06-Dec-12 19:54:15

DD got some chocolates on december 6th from some friends, but that was it for us really.

This gives some info about the rest of the country, definite variation by area/city/canton.

Rababou burning, the sound isn't good enough to pick up the chant though - the guggen band are so loud as well. Group chanting, singing and dancing are so powerful and have such a seductive primitive effect on the senses, its easy to see why it has been incorporated in religious ceremonies/ processions etc over time.

When I think of Christmas though I always think of the 1914 Christmas truce in WW1. One day these men are killing each other, the next they are sharing cigarettes and playing football, then back to the death, mud and blood.

TunipTheVegedude Thu 06-Dec-12 21:49:44

What a great idea for a thread.

I read a lot last year about the origins of Father Christmas and how he's related to the Green Man which is apparently one reason why we called him Father Christmas rather than Santa Claus, until fairly recently. I will be decking my halls with holly and ivy to invite him in.

In terms of old traditions, I think we should restore the Lord of Misrule. And Holy Innocents Day adds a nice bit of darkness to the otherwise twee Christmas season.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 21:59:52

R2 - thanks! Wow, I had no idea about most of that, fascinating!

I know what you mean about WWI. It's such a powerful thing. I feel odd to think that no-one younger than us, growing up now, will really know about that with the same immediacy of hearing someone describe it. I guess that is good - passing into history and all - but it's poignant too.

tunip - thanks! smile

I am a sucker for Christmas I will admit.

I want to know about the Green Man tradition too. I didn't know it all related in but it makes sense. I know Sir Gawain (which is one of my favourite Christmas stories) has the green man come into King Arthur's Christmas hall carrying a branch of holly ... I love it.

The Lord of Misrule is awesome too (not to mention the name of my local am dram society grin).

As well as Holy Innocents I love St Lucy's Day with the Donne poem

www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/nocturnal.htm.

And I love the new Carol Anne Duffy poem on Wenceslas, which is also quite pleasingly dark, at least at the start.

You're right it's nice to have some dark with the light - it feels like a good time of year for ghost stories, much more than halloween.

MooncupGoddess Thu 06-Dec-12 23:18:15

I regret the loss of a proper Advent season - as LRD says, in the olden days Advent was all about fasting and repentance, remembering the Fall, in preparation for the coming of Christ. Then the festivities started on Christmas Eve and carried on all the way to Twelfth Night (a sadly abandoned feast).

Mist over Pendle (I think) has a lovely section all about Yuletide festivities in the early 17th century.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:20:34

I will look at Mist over Pendle!

I do find it slightly odd that the 'twelve days' have turned into the twelve days before the 25th, which is logical but a bit of a shame too.

MooncupGoddess Thu 06-Dec-12 23:27:43

Or indeed the four weeks before the 25th!

I wonder when Christmas became so focused on presents? I feel that is post-Victorian, maybe an interwar development...? In Dickens it's all about feasting and dancing and carol singing - I'm trying to think of a late Victorian/Edwardian account of Christmas for comparison but drawing a blank so far.

SilverBaubles33 Thu 06-Dec-12 23:29:40

I love this thread! What does the Lord of Misrule do?

I have a vague memory of my grandad describing his great-uncle telling him about the Christmas truce and each side sang a carol. Sadly I can't ask him now, but we all wish we'd listened more. It's one of the iconic images of Christmas IMO.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:30:17

People gave gifts on Twelfth Night in Tudor times, I think?

But I wonder if ordinary people really did, or not. I'd like to know.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:30:49

Cross posted ... silver, that's so lovely. It is an iconic image.

BeataNoxPotter Thu 06-Dec-12 23:32:48

Old Father Time leaves gifts in your shoes (left out at the bottom of the stairs on NYE)

LineRunnerWithBellsOn Thu 06-Dec-12 23:34:31

I like the whole idea of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night. I think some of the Twelfth Night / Lord of Misrule stuff has a loose link with the Roman Saturnalia, which is a great spooky boozy festival.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:40:55

Who is Old Father Time?!

line - yep, explicit links I think. In monasteries it is when someone is appointed the 'bean king' or 'abbot of misrule' and gets to order everyone about during the 'Feast of Fools' just after Christmas.

When you sing the verses of the Magnificat at Evensong (one of the usual prayers), there's a line 'deposuit potentes de sede' (he has cast down the powerful from their thrones) and the abbot of misrule's staff is ripped off him again, or, in some traditions, he thumps in on the floor.

(There's then a medieval romance about this, but it translates everything to midsummer instead).

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:41:58

Btw, I think people still make cakes with beans, or used to into the twentieth century, for the 'bean king'. I think it gets conflated with the tradition of coins or wedding rings in the christmas pudding.

I meant to put that in the last post!

R2PeePoo Thu 06-Dec-12 23:42:44

Vintage Xmas ads browser from 1880-2000

I guess a boom in present buying needs more disposable income generally, the growth of cheap imported/mass produced goods, a boom in advertising and marketing and a child-centric society.

BeataNoxPotter Thu 06-Dec-12 23:45:13

Suppose he is Chronos. Who leaves sweets in your shoes. Bad luck if you don't put your shoes at the foot of the stairs you don't get any sweets

R2PeePoo Thu 06-Dec-12 23:47:21

Thats interesting BeataNoxPotter, Saint Nicholas is associated with sweets and coins in shoes as well, I believe children leave them out to be filled by him.

LRDtheFeministDude Thu 06-Dec-12 23:47:22

That's rather nice. smile

BeataNoxPotter Thu 06-Dec-12 23:54:19

I think many of the gift-giving traditions are stretched across the Dec-Nov period and absorbed, with little offshoots springing up on either side of Yule.

It's so interesting to look at threads like this and pick out the bits that are familiar, albeit filtered and in flux.

ZebraOwl Thu 06-Dec-12 23:59:08

LRD in what way have the 12 Days become the ones leading to the 25th, sorry? (Am not being snarky, am genuinely confused...)

I love that Carols From Kings has been being broadcast since 1928 (apart from in 1930) so for many people listening to it - even/especially when Far From Home -signalled the start of Christmas. Christmas Carols are fascinating in & of themselves, too: the language, imagery, how carolling & wassailing traditions have become intermixed, local carols, the simple fact of the earliest known carols coming from the 4th century AD.

Tunip & LRD I love the idea of the Lord Of Misrule, too. Not sure I'd be so keen on the reality of it, mind you wink I'm more fascinated by the Boy Bishops, though, I think: wonder how long that tradition would've survived were it not for the Reformation. Assume you were meaning the tradition of inocentadas & other sillinesses when talking about Holy Innocents as a bright spot: the mass slaughter of boys aged under 2 years (& the solemnities of the commemoration thereof) not being especially jolly confused

I get a little bit frustrated by people who insist that Christmas is actually totally a Pagan holiday. Obviously elements of Saturnalia & Other "Old Religion"'s ceremonies & celebrations were included, but that is Not The Same Thing. Oversimplifications like that make my head hurt.

All the St Nicholas' Day stuff fascinates me, including the fact it didn't, for whatever, reason, take off in the UK. Similarly, the C20 encroaching of Father Christmas (by whichever version on his name) into the Christ Child's Bringer-Of-Presents territory is v interesting.

I love the stories & traditions linked in to the Christmas story: like how you mustn't kill spiders because a spider saved the Holy Family from soldiers who were searching from them by spinning a web to cover the mouth of the cave in which they were hiding in just one night. Or how the rosemary bush came to have blue flowers, or the stories of Baboushka & La Befana. When I was very wee I thought it quite possible animals really DID all kneel down & pray in Latin on Christmas Eve blush

SoniaGluck Fri 07-Dec-12 14:21:14

LRD I love Donne's Nocturnal, too. It has long been one of my favourites.

Another favourite that I read every year in the run up to Christmas is a children's book by Jenny Overton The Thirteen Days of Christmas. It's a fictional explanation of how the 12 days of Christmas song came about and there are some lovely descriptions of the different traditions associated with each of the 12 days.

LRDtheFeministDude Fri 07-Dec-12 14:30:29

zebra - oh, just my experience, I guess. A lot of people I know talk about counting down the 'twelve days to Christmas' and associate it with the song, that sort of thing. No reason why they shouldn't. I'd imagine if you have little children it would make much more obvious sense of that song!

I love Carols from Kings. smile It just says Christmas, for me.

I think the boy bishops thing was dying out before the Reformation, but Lords of Misrule survived well into the sixteenth century IIRC. I'm not sure how long it went on but I bet someone will know.

I love the spider story - I'd not heard that one! Like Robert the Bruce, but slightly different.

There's a very old-fashioned book of Christmas stories I had when I was little (might be by Alison Uttley, or Uttley and others?) which included a story that on Christmas night animals can speak and make peace with each other, so all the mice in a farmhouse decorated it and the cat made mince pies, because the mum and dad were too ill to do it for their children. Does anyone remember what I might be talking about? I'd love to find it again.

sonia - ooh, I'll look that out. smile For a Christmas story, I love The Children of Green Knowe, which mixes up a modern-day (well, early twentieth century! It's an old book) boy's Christmas with Christmas in the reign of Charles II, and has the St Christopher story in there as well. It's lovely.

SoniaGluck Fri 07-Dec-12 15:20:16

LRD I think the book you're talking about is Alison Uttley's Stories for Christmas edited by Kathleen Raines. I have it and there is definitely a story of a cat helping mice to decorate.

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