The Ladies' Tea Guild

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas and Its Customs, from Godey's _Lady's Book_, December 1855


THERE is something so congenial to human nature, so absolutely necessary to the health of mind and body, in the relaxation which festivals afford, that we do not wonder at the unwillingness which Sir Isaac Newton tells us the heathens felt to part with their holidays, on the introduction of Christianity amongst them; so that, in order to facilitate their conversion, by retaining their days of joy, Gregory, bishop of Neo Caesarea in Pontus, instituted annual festivals to saints and martyrs, corresponding as nearly as possible in date, if not in form, with those most popular amongst the Greeks and Romans.
The type of Christmas, the most honored, joyous, and beautiful of Christian holidays, existed long before Christianity, in the Saturnalia of the ancients, which took place about the hyemal solstice.
Image from Grandma's Graphics.
Nearly a century had elapsed from the birth of its founder, before the followers of Christianity introduced the observance of this day in commemoration of that event; and upon the second anniversary, when great numbers of them were assembled in the church, Diocletian, the Roman emperor, who at this time kept his court at Nicomedia, ordered the doors to be fastened, and the building to be set on fire! and thus lit such a yule blaze that the brightness thereof spread throughout incipient Christendom, and the ashes of the faithful, thus scattered through the earth, seemed henceforth to have carried with them the germs of the new creed for which they suffered.
At this period, and for more than seven hundred years after, the Feast of Epiphany, Twelfth-day, or the Adoration of the kings—for so have the “wise men” of St. Matthew, the simple shepherds of St. Luke, “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” been denominated—was regarded as one and the same festival; and its very name, which amongst the Pagans signified the appearance of the gods upon earth, was singularly appropriate in reference to him who the church regarded as Divinity-made man; at present the calendar links both, by a succession of holidays extending from the 25th of December to the 6th of January.
(To be continued ...) 

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)