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The History of Christmas: Epilogue – Time Was Is NOW December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Epilogue: Time Was, Is Now

 

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My twelve day look at the History of Christmas is over. Obviously, there are many other significant entries I could have made and you might be wondering why I chose what I did and left out other seemingly more important features of this wondrous holiday.

I included what is here because these articles contain a connecting thread that I feel is significant in the celebration of the Christmas season. That thread is the awe and wonder and even the spiritual fulfillment that the human race has experienced over the years from the dawn of mankind up to and including our own time.

I chose to express my history in the form of conversations and letters. I’ve always felt a more personal approach to history allows it to be embraced, appreciated, and more easily understood by the majority of people. Call it my ‘style,’ if you will. Hopefully, it didn’t detract from your enjoyment.

Some may wonder why I did not include the nativity, or as it is called ~ the Christmas Story. Although it has produced an awe and wonder of its own, it has done so at the expense of the true history of the holidays. While I have nothing against the Christian expression of Christmas as the birth of the Christ child, you have to agree that much of the story has simply been tacked on to a season of joy that predated Christ’s birth by thousands of years.

Had the Christian church been willing to join in the age-old celebration and embrace the traditions of the past, I would have included it. But the honest truth is the church has tried to capture the wonder of the season and pass it off as its own. It has “Christianized” many of the traditions and stories that started elsewhere and claimed their expression of them as holy and righteous. Then it has turned around and vehemently attacked the original traditions claiming them heretical and labeling them as pagan evils in the eyes of God.

No one knows the date of Christ’s birth.  The Bible is mute on the issue, just as it doesn’t suggest anywhere that the birth of Jesus should be celebrated.  But since the story tells us that shepherds were tending their flocks outside at night it stands to reason that the birth month would have been in October or March.   During the bitter cold of December in Palestine, it is highly doubtful that Jewish shepherds would have been outside with their charges.

What I’ve tried to show above all else is that Christmas has been and always will be many things to many people. It is as complicated as the love it engenders. It’s a time for joy, peace and happiness. Yet, at the same time, it is a period of high stress and depression for many.   The truth is – the wonders of the season are most evident in homes where the holiday is celebrated as both a secular and spiritual festival.

The celebration of the season has always been somewhat commercial, more secular than sacred. Merchants from the beginning of time have profited from its merriment. Yet, without doubt, there has always been a touch of the sacred, whether by myth or miracle, that has always been included in the festivity.

Thank for stopping by and reading. I wish you all the best in the New Year.

Your host,

Erick Emert

 

Short Bibliography:

The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly

4,000 Years of Christmas: A Gift from the Ages by Earl W. Count, Alice Lawson Count, and Dan Wakefield

Where Did Christmas Come From? by Al Remson

Christmas in America by Penne L. Restad

There Really Is a Santa Claus: The History of St. Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions by William J. Federer

Christmas: A Social History by Mark Connelly

The Trouble With Christmas by Tom Flynn

Christmas in America by Antonia Felix

History, Legends & Folklore of Christmas by Judy M. Rouse

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

Also, many websites too numerous to mention were researched concerning the history of Christmas.

The History of Christmas: Day 12 – The Christmas Truce (1914 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 12: The Christmas Truce – 1914 CE

 

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This Christmas saw many American families torn apart because of the war in Iraq. Sons and daughters left parents alone at home. Husbands and wives, separated by the call to active duty, fought the tears of loneliness during what should have been a happy time. And then there are the combatants, both worshiping pretty much the same God, both attacking each other with a vengeance in order to kill and maim.

Going back to the American Revolution, how many wars have been fought that pitted Christian against Christian? The French Revolution followed quickly on the heels of our own. Then came the war of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, followed by our Civil war, then the Spanish-American war, World War I and World War II.

Amazing when you think about it. Pick your side and listen to the prayers.  One wonders what God thought. Yet out of these conflagrations rose one unique miracle, something that never happened before or after on the same scale.

It started near Ypres, Belgium, and spread up and down across the no-man’s-lands of a Europe torn apart by World War I. Neither the Germans nor the British were thinking about whether Jesus was the reason for the season. Nor were they concerning themselves with the secularization of Christmas. They were too busy fighting a grimy trench war. Then, on the night of December 26th, the true spirit of Christmas touched the men of both armies. What occurred over the next ten days proved that Christmas could even stop a war.

*

France, 1914
Dear Mum,

Somewhere between Houplines and Frelinghien events occurred over the past two days that underscored my faith in the love of man for his fellows. I’ve written you often how I’ve felt that war removes the humanity from human beings. The sight of a companion, dead in a pool of his own blood is a lasting reminder of what this war is truly about. The anger it imbues for a nameless, faceless enemy is easy to understand. So we hurl our shells back at their trenches, hoping to kill as many of them as possible. And on their side, friends died as well. And their anger at us grows daily. This cycle continues on and on as the dead pile up on both sides.

A cold front must have moved in on the 24th. Temperatures dropped quickly. Thankfully, the mud in the trenches froze, making it easier to get around. By nightfall, most of us were shivering with the cold. One of my mates pointed out something unusual happening out across no mans land. There were twinkling lights. The Germans had set Christmas trees and strung lights on their parapets. How odd, I thought.

About an hour later, voices rose up on the German side in song. They sang their version of Silent Night. When they were finished, our boys answered with a carol of our own. This continued well into the night. I listened and joined in when I knew the song. I’ve not that good a voice, Mum, as you know. Many of the carols were about the birth of Jesus. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of all this bloodshed between believers. He couldn’t be happy with it.

The next morning, from across no-man’s-land, came a call of, “Don’t Shoot. Don’t Shoot.” Through the fog I saw a German standing halfway between the trenches holding up a Christmas tree. One of our lads jumped out of the trench and walked up to him. The German said, “Here Tommy. For you. Merry Christmas.” Our lad shook his hand and said, “Merry Christmas, Fritz.”

Soon no man’s land was filled with soldiers from both sides, shaking hands, exchanging cigarettes, chocolates and other small gifts. Some of the lads threw down their hats, marked off a pitch and played a game of football. Amazing, Mum. It was all very difficult to believe. I shared a beer with a few of their boys. I couldn’t speak German and most of them couldn’t speak English, but we managed to make our feelings known. You could feel an undercurrent of distrust, even fear to a degree, but this was buried underneath the fascination of simple acts of kindness on both sides.

Today I sit in our trench. The guns are still silent and there are catcalls going on back and forth. Some saying, thank you or happy New Year. But we all know that soon the killing must begin again. I wonder what would happen if we all just threw down our guns and said, “No.” I suppose that’s unreasonable, but the thought did cross my mind. What is there about this time of year that can stop a war and bring even the most hated of enemies together in peace and friendship?

I need to go, Mum. I hope your Christmas was as remarkable as mine. Happy New Year and best to Dad and Kitten.

Love, Frank

*

When upper echelon officers on both sides heard about this they were stunned. Orders to cease the fraternization were sent out immediately. But even this did not stop the spirit of Christmas from enacting its power. Some lower level officers were arrested for not putting a stop to the celebrating. In many areas, however, the truce lasted until New Year’s Day.

The Generals swore that such a truce would never happen again. It hasn’t. Man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is more important than human kindness. But the truce proved that when people get in touch with the true meaning of Christmas, the meaning that started over four thousand years ago and has been passed down every year thereafter, miracles of vast proportion can and do happen.

The History of Christmas: Day 11 – Is There a Santa Claus? (1897 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 11: Is There A Santa Claus? – 1897 CE

 

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In 1823, a poem, written by noted theologian and biblical scholar Clement Clark Moore for his family a year earlier, almost single-handedly rekindled the celebration of Christmas. Moore’s “right jolly old elf” with his “miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer” ignited a conundrum of “to believe or not to believe” that stays with us 185 years later. They called him “Father Christmas,” “Kris Kringle,” and “Saint Nicholas” in Europe, but Americans decided upon a mispronunciation of the Dutch, “Sinterklaas,” which came out “Santa Claus.”

Over the past seventy years, Santa Claus has taken on the specter of Christmas secular. To my mind, this is an unfair demotion for the old elf who has brought so much joy to young children over the same time-frame. The Christian/secular argument, however, is totally lost in the single-most asked question every Christmas season – “Do you believe in Santa Claus?

*

Francis Pharcellus Church, lead editor of the New York Sun on the 20th of September, 1897, sat in his office busy with his work when he was interrupted by a knock at his door.

“Come in.”

A young mail room clerk entered and handed him a folded piece of paper.

“Sorry to bother you, Frank. This just came in downstairs and the Boss heard about it and wants you to write an answer for tomorrow’s editorial section.”

Frank looked up at the regulator.

“It’s pretty close to deadline, John. Are you sure he wants this for tomorrow’s paper?”

“Yes sir. He says it’s very important and if you have any questions whatsoever, to call him immediately.”

As the clerk turned and disappeared out the door, Frank looked at the postmark on the envelope clipped to the folded sheet of paper. It was from 95th street in the city. Unfolding the paper, he read the childish scrawl:

Dear Editor – I am 8 years old. Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? Virginia O’Hanlon 115 West Ninety-fifth Street

Church, son of a Baptist minister, set the letter down and looked back at the clock. He realized the importance of being truthful in his answer. He also realized the scrutiny his answer would be given, not just by the children of New York, but by the church affiliated readers of the Sun. He drew a deep breath and slipped a sheet of paper into his Remington. Stopping first to consider his wording, he began to type:

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

He then typed out young Virginia’s letter. Stopping to sharpen his thoughts, he began his answer:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little.

He decided not just to draw parallels and answer the child with abstract ideas. He felt it best to face the issues head on.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Then he waxed philosophical.

In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

After which he dealt with issues of reality by contrasting the seen versus the unseen world.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

He drew from his religious background to support his answer as an issue of fundamental faith.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

He closed from a position of strength.

NO SANTA CLAUS! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

The article appeared in the next day’s issue of the Sun. His words, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” have gone down in history as one of the most profound answers to a question ever asked by a child.

*

Clement Clark Moore’s description of Christmas Eve became the example of how Christmas would be celebrated in the United States. He put together traditions that started thousands of years ago, united them with eight reindeer (a first), and brought the celebration of Christmas into the modern world. Christmas, you see, has always been more of a secular celebration – even though its roots grow deep into various religious beliefs.  And do I believe in Santa Claus? An empathic “YES” answers that question! I believe in the tinsel, the gift giving, the feast, and most importantly, the joy and fun that Christmas brings to everyone, no matter how it is celebrated.

The History of Christmas: Day 10 – Christmas Outlawed (1679 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 10: Christmas Outlawed In New England – 1679 CE

 

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Boston MA 1659: The church leaders of Massachusetts have received the support of the government to ban the festival of Christmas. The new law enacted this week by the General Court makes it illegal to celebrate Christmas in our state.

In a statement released by the Court, it upheld that “Christmas is nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.”

The noted Reverend Increase Mather was pleased with the result, saying, “Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25th did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

The church has long noted that the celebration of Christmas involves behavior that is both obnoxious and shocking. Rowdy public displays, excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging, including the threat of doing harm, and the invasion of wealthy homes have long been a part of the celebration of the Christmas holiday.

The truth of the matter has been clear to see. Reveling easily becomes rowdiness, heightened by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Misrule has given over to our laws being violated with impunity during this time of carnival that highly dishonors the name of Christ.

The Court stated, “It would be different if these holidays were celebrated in a Holy manner. But they are consumed in compotations, in interludes, in playing cards, in revellings, in excess of wine, and in mad mirth.”

Signaled out as two particularly dangerous seasonal practices were mumming, which usually involves the disgrace of the exchange of clothing between men and woman; who when dressed in each other’s habits, go from one neighbor’s house to another to merry make with them in disguise, and the singing of Christmas carols, which usually takes place in the midst of rioting, chambering, and wantonness.

The Court, supported by the church, hopes that “subsequent generations will forget that the church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, a decision that was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church has paid a high price.”

*

“Merry Christmas, John! We’ve come to celebrate the season with ye!”

Maxwell Harper and his friends, Benton Pennyworth, Charles Wright, and James Townsend entered the home of farmer John Rowden on Christmas night, 1679, helping themselves to seats by his roaring fire. After singing a mirthful song, Mr. Harper demanded cups of the farmer’s pear wine for his group.

“Come now, John. T’is Christmas, is it not? A bit of your pear wine would supplement our singing.”

“Ay, Maxwell, and such celebrating has been outlawed by the government. Could ye not know this?”

“Of course we know it, John.  But a bit of revelry hurts none. Now where’s them cups?”

“There’ll be no cups for yer lot this night, Maxwell. Now kindly leave my residence, please.”

The four men stumbled out the farmer’s door, only to turn about as it shut. The men proceeded to throw stones and bones at the door until farmer John returned once again.

“Well, John, the least you could do is part with a few shillings on this glorious night.”

“Maxwell, I’ve nothing for the lot of yer. Now get ye behind me!”

With the door again slammed in their faces, Maxwell and his friends went off into the darkness to the next house on the road.

*

Neither Christmas nor its celebration disappeared totally during the ban. It was too popular amongst the common people for that to happen.  The British government repealed the law in 1681. The holiday was celebrated widely and wildly from 1687 to 1689. Thereafter, Massachusetts Bay Colony regained their charter and the public celebration of Christmas all but died out. In 1750, the Bay Psalm Book finally included some Christmas hymns and the 1786 Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony, published by Isaiah Thomas, included Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The History of Christmas: Day 9 – Lord of the Misrule (1550 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 9: Lord of the Misrule – 1550 CE

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The crowning of a Lord of the Misrule has come a long way since the celebration founded in ancient Ur. In the England of the middle ages, it has taken on the spirit of Mardi Gras as celebrated today. In Scotland they called it, “The Abbot of Unreason.”  In France, it became “Prince de Sots.”  The customs and revelry changed from country to country, but the substance remained the same:  Take over a religious or municipal building.  Decorate.  Crown the Lord of Misrule.  Eat.  Drink.  Sing. Carry on to the utmost.  Let the celebration spill out onto the streets.  Knock on doors, singing, laughing and encouraging the people inside to join in the celebration.  Anything goes! And a good time was had by all.

*

January, 1550
London, England

Dearest Mary,

How I wish you could have spent Christmas with James and I this year. Such excitement. Did I tell you we planned to invade St. Paul’s to crown the Lord of Misrule? It was the perfect place to celebrate Christmas.

After morning mass in the choir, we went downstairs to the merchant’s stalls and were able to purchase everything we needed for misrule. We decorated the old hall with greens, candles and finery and laid out enough food for the full twelve courses on the wood alter at the front. The huge Yule candle was placed right in the center. Lloyd found a chair that looked like a throne and we bought barrels of ale and tons of food, all without having to leave the old church.

The people started showing up at midday. By the time the Lord of Misrule was crowned, there must have been close to a thousand people in the old church. Everyone was singing and playing music and games and laughing. I must admit I had much too much to drink myself. I even played Hoodman’s Bluff and Hot Cockles. You would have laughed at me.

After the Christmas Threshold, in which Frank played the lucky bird, we were all commanded to parade through the streets. The mummers went with us, which meant even more singing and music. Before we left the church, James and I swapped clothing. Oh the laughter! Mary I can’t begin to tell you when I had such fun. How I do wish you would have made it to London with your John. He would have looked so silly wearing one of your high waisted gowns. Can you imagine?

Carrying the wassail was ingenious. We trooped from pubs to elegant homes singing:

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

They opened their doors to us and gave us their choicest food and drink, Mary, and reveled with us. Some even joined the troop and shared our wassail. It was the finest of merriment. James gave me the twelve kisses when we found some hanging mistletoe. All for fun. All for fun.

I’ll tell you more when we meet in the New Year.

Your sister,

Anne

*

While the drinking, carousing, and mumming, might sound more like our celebration of New Years, it fits if you look at the week from Christmas on as one holiday, which in reality it is. Many people take off from work for the entire week, and schools are closed. One must remember that this is the way the religious holiday of Christmas came to be celebrated at this time and place.

The History of Christmas: Day 8 – Julafred in Norway (1350 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 8: Julafred In Norway – 1350 CE

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Julafred is simply the celebration of Yule. In ancient times, Yule, meaning “feast,” celebrated the winter solstice. That has changed. The holiday is now referred to as “The Peace of Christmas.” One must remember that the harvests of these large farms had to be consumed quickly, before spoilage set in.  The Yule holiday feast provided the perfect venue for reducing the stock of meats and vegetables on hand.

Not much has changed about the way Yule is celebrated though. Holly and evergreens, symbols of the sun’s rebirth are still gathered and displayed as decoration. Julbukk, the Yule Goat, has morphed into Julbukk, the Yule elf. The goat remains in the picture, however, as it pulls the elf’s sleigh.

*

Outside what is now Oslo, Norway, Marin, her daughter, Audny, along with other women from the farm are found in the kitchen, turning a large boar over the hearth. A huge feast is being readied for the entire village. The sounds of male laughter, shouts, threats, and boasts come from another room. Outside, darkness has set in since the early afternoon.

In the large commons the men sat sharing horns of meade. The great hall looked majestic, decorated in all manner of holly and greenery. A huge fireplace plays host to a massive oak log that burned at the rear of the hearth, yet stuck out onto the floor in front, a quarter way into the hall. From time to time one or two of the younger males pushed this log farther into the hearth so it could continue burning. Outside work in the farm village has been reduced to a minimum.

The men enjoyed a reenactment of the hunt which felled the boar turning on its spit in the kitchen. A young man in a mask made of a felted material played the part of the hunted. The killer of the boar embellished his role, to the pleasure of the audience. Children, also in masks, played the part of sheep and cattle in the fields.

In the kitchen, preparations continue. Meats of all sorts, from fish to fowl, must be eaten or they will spoil. Every year, the men and women of the community look forward to this feast. It is a time of Julafred, the peace of Christmas.

Audny, however, has her mind on something else entirely. “Mother, did Julbukk, the Yule Elf, come last night?”

The women had been working since the evening before, sleeping in shifts with their children in the back of the kitchen. Her mother smiled. “So it is rumored, my child.”

“I wish I had stayed awake. I wanted to pet his goats. Will we be home to see?”

“After the feast. I’m sure the old hustomte elf has left you something. He’s a jolly one.”

“Did you leave porridge out for him?”

“Of course my dear, along with a large wedge of cheese and a cup of meade.”

“I hope the trolls didn’t bother him.”

*

Many traditions of our own celebration of Christmas come from Yule.  The use of holly and evergreens as decoration; the Yule log; the Christmas ham; and even the decorating of Christmas trees, have all been handed down to us from the Scandinavians.  You can also see the beginnings of Santa, referring to him as an elf even though his sleigh is pulled by a goat rather than reindeer.  Note also the leaving of food for the elf.  All this has been passed on to us.

History of Christmas: Day 7 – Sviatki (1300 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 7: Sviatki- 1300 CE

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If you’d like to know what it would be like to live through a REAL War on Christmas, go to Russia and ask them about not being able to celebrate holidays in any shape or form – other than the official way. I personally don’t think saying “Happy Holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas” because you might be speaking to someone who isn’t Christian is, by definition, a War on Christmas. In fact, I doubt it changes the way anyone here celebrates the holiday. But, I’m not here to speak to that. I’m here to bring you the traditional Russian Sviatki – their celebration of the Winter Harvest.

Through the ages, the peoples of Eastern Europe celebrated Sviatki on January seventh, as a day of rituals and divination to bring good health and good fortune to the family and guard against evil spirits and misfortune. Celebration of Sviatki opened with the children of the family sighting the first star of the night.  Then the elder of the household offered kut’ia to the family’s deceased ancestors. With the table strewn with hay, the elder then shared the kolach. The twelve dishes served during the celebration had both magical and religious significance. The menu differed according to region and had no set order to its presentation.

There were numerous other rituals and even a session of divination for the young girls to tell whom they would marry.

*

The small village of Filina in the Russian Ukraine looked forward to the celebration of Sviatki, especially young Raya, her sister Miroslava, and their friends, Fedot, Pyotr, and Galya. This group of young teens stood outside a townhouse, searching the sky as snow gently fell upon their upturned faces.

“It’s too light yet to see a star,” grumbled Raya, more interested in the festivities to come rather than locating the first star.

“Hush, Raya. You should feel privileged to be out here with the older children. Last year you complained about having to help mother make the kut’ia,” said Miroslava.

“Well, I’m looking forward to caroling this year. I’ve spent the last month learning the favorites and I’m sure it will be fun,” Pyotr blurted out.

“You and Fedot have good voices Pyotr. Of course you would look forward to showing them off singing Kolyadki,” said Galya.

“Look! There it is! Do you see!”

All eyes followed to where Fedot pointed. Above the trees, to the west, a small glimmer of shining light had indeed fought the evening sky to appear. The children all shouted in glee and rushed inside to tell the elders to start the festivities.

Vadim, the clan elder, rose from his seat as the families gathered around the table. “As you know, Anisim, Osip and Tekla are no longer with us. I would like to recite a short prayer in their memory.”

At the end of his prayer, Vadim signaled to his wife, Anushka, who led the serving women with the kut’ia – a light, tasty flummery of honey, wheat kernels and poppy seed. A few minutes later, Vadim stood again.

“I am told the kolach this year is exceptionally good.” Servers followed him around the large table as he placed small loaves of the rich egg bread along with honey and salt in front of each resident. “If there is any kolach left over, please place it in the basket in the center of the table so I can take it out to the barn later to ask a blessing on our livestock.”

As the night progressed, the women served up twelve dishes during the feast. Roasted pig and duck proved popular. They enjoyed vushka, pies with meaty fillings. Also piroshki, a sort of dumpling filled with mushrooms, followed by buckwheat pancakes, marinated fish, cabbage, beet soup, and sausage found their way to the straw strewn table. But the children looked forward to sweets such as pashka, a cheesecake; and nuts, doughnuts, and dried fruit that capped the meal.

The adults drank their fill of horilka or vodka. Some of the women took their pleasure in teas, with cloves, lemon, cinnamon, and orange. The talk at the table, as it did earlier with the children outside, was about the mumming that would take place over the next twelve days. The young folk, especially, looked forward to dressing up in clownish costumes and racing through the streets of Filina, caroling, playing games, building lady Kolyada (a snow woman with a carrot nose, prune eyes, and string bean teeth), and playing all sorts of games. At night they would go into a dark room with balls of paper which they set on fire. They then held candles up to the burning balls so the images would reflect off the walls. The rest of the children would guess what the images were.

The adults visited their neighbors and all enjoyed the prognostications of who would marry whom in the year to come. There was much dancing, merriment and gift giving. This is followed by the telling of fairy tales, fortunes, and scary tales.

*

Like the Saturnalia, Sviatki became Christianized after the Russian Orthodox Church rose to power. During the Communist time, no celebrations of any kind were allowed. But today, the old customs have been rekindled. People love to celebrate and most of them don’t care about the history of their celebrations. What’s important is that they are ABLE to celebrate, something which Russians today fully appreciate.

Mumming and caroling made its way to England and then to America. Our celebration of Christmas is in debt to our Russian friends.