The Ladies' Tea Guild

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas and Its Customs, from Godey's _Lady's Book_, December 1855: part 3

In Ireland, the custom of burning gigantic candles still prevails amongst the Catholic community on Christmas Eve, and in the north of England it is also common.  Light at all times appears to have been used on occasions of festivity and rejoicing—from the rude bonfire to the wax-lit drawing-room; but in these candles we trace another remnant of the ancient type of the season’s rejoicings, for it was the custom of the Romans, during the festival of the Saturnalia, to present wax candles to each other.
In the yule log, or huge block of coal, which in the North answers the same purpose, and is carefully reserved for the occasion, Brand sees the counterpart of the Midsummer fires, made within doors on account of the cold weather of the winter solstace, as those in the hot seasons were kindled in the open air.

Bede, in speaking of the observances of Christmas Eve, tells us that this was the very night observed in the land before, by the heathen Saxons.  “They begin their year,” he says, “on the eighth of the calends of January, now our Christmas Day; and the very night before, which is now holy to us, was by them called, on account of its ceremonies, the ‘mother of nights’.”
The yule log was one of these ceremonies, and seems to have been used by them as an emblem of the return of the sun.
Christianity, while clinging to these ancient customs, revised their symbolism to suit itself, and made the “feast of lights,” as Christmas was primitively called in the church, a type of the Eternal, it as also said to represent the glory that illuminated the fields, and shone about the shepherds in their night-watch; and by others to refer to John the Baptist, whose advent was likened to a burning and a shining light, and to the going forth of the apostles, and to that light of the world, the Son of Man himself.
But the old leaven clung to the anniversary under its new name, and the festive spirit of the Saturnalia, rather than the fasting one enjoined by Gregory Nazianzen and the early fathers of the church, continued, and even still continues (if it does not adorn cross-paths) to feed the eye and delight the ear, to feast and drink, crown doors, and encourage dancing, just as in those days when the stern old father penned his exhortation on forbearance from them.  Only Christianity has tempered excess with moderation, and the refinement of its teaching has softened down the fierce license of wild joy which the restoration of mercy, peace, and brotherhood to earth but for a few short days imparted to the pagans.
(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)