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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.

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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.

The History of Christmas: Day 5 – The Change (322 CE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 5: The Change To A Christian Christmas – 322 CE

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The period around 280 years after the death of Christ held confusion for both the new Christian populace and those who worshiped the old Roman gods. The Emperor Constantine had given up the worship of the Sun god, Mithra, and was said to have converted to worshiping Jesus, of the Christians. In the earlier years of his reign, he officially proclaimed Christianity to be one of the state religions of Rome. The Emperor’s pronouncement resulted in stability throughout the realm though it brought misunderstandings for pagans and Christians alike.

The great majority of people in the Empire still celebrated the old pagan holidays, worshiping the gods and goddesses they had grown up to know. Constantine’s proclamation helped to decrease the persecution of Christians, and occurrences of such maltreatment began to back lash upon their pagan perpetrators. Constantine put it upon the shoulders of the Church of Rome to bring about the conversion of the Empire to Christianity with all haste.

It would be another three years until Constantine called together the first Council of Nicaea in an effort to solidify Christian beliefs throughout the Empire. At this point, he had just defeated Licinius and solidified his own rule as Emperor.

*

A year or two later, on a balcony above a street near the Temple of Saturn, two Christian leaders watch the Roman crowd below celebrating the festivities of Saturnalia. Their conversation might have gone like this:

“Father Vincentius, it will be difficult to get the people to give up this pagan celebrating in exchange for the pure worship of the child of the Holy Virgin. Listen to them down there.”

In the streets below, celebrating Romans were shouting, “Io Saturnalia!” and taking part publicly in every excess of vice known to man. On top of the release of moral restrictions, presents were passed around, small clay dolls and wax candles. Slaves were given temporary freedom and a mock king was chosen. The people celebrated as they do today at our modern Mardi Gras.

Vincentius looked out over the merriment. The longer he watched, the stronger an idea burned into his mind. “They celebrate the birth of the god Mithras, do they not?”

“Yes Father. Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis – The Day of the Invincible Sun.”

“And wasn’t Constantine a worshiper of Mithras before accepting the true religion?”

“Again, that is true.”

“What we need to do, Vincentius, is to transfer these old pagan holidays to Christian holidays so the people won’t have to give up their old ways to become Christian.”

“Father Victor?”

“We have some time until next year. Dress our priests in the same sort of garb used by their pagan counterparts. We have power now and it should be used to establish a Christian hierarchy. Set up statues of the Apostles, Mary, and the Saints in the churches so it appears we worship more than one God. But most importantly, merge this Dies Invicti Solis and the Saturnalia and make it all one holiday celebrating the birth of the Christ child. We have the stories in Matthew and Luke. It shouldn’t be that difficult. Allow them their revelry for the sake of the conversion of millions.”

“You know Victor, there are people that dislike the fact that the Emperor has accepted our faith. They are spreading vicious rumors. My own brother told me his daughter was accosted on the street and asked why her father worships the son of a woman raped by Panthera, a Roman legionary.”

“Yes, Vincentius, I’m aware of such things. This is why we must make changes – to appeal to the people. If my plans are carried out, few will make issue of lies like that. We must get Constantine to agree and make public declarations. By this time next year the Saturnalia will be a Christian holiday and after a few years, the people won’t think twice about it.”

“I think we must continue to get Constantine to promote a council to solidify our beliefs as well. We need to put one face on our beliefs for all time, Vincentius. Will you support me in this?”

“Of course Father Victor. I certainly will.”

*

It all came about as planned. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was held in 325 AD and Victor and Vincentius were attendees. Twenty Church canons were agreed upon and those not agreeing to the formula were anathematized. The Christian religion, along with its celebration of Christmas had begun to take shape. Of course the narrative above is fictional, but the facts contained are historical and indisputable.

History of Christmas: Day 4 – The Roman Saturnalia (16 BCE) December 20, 2012

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The History of Christmas
Day 4: The Roman Saturnalia – 16 BCE

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By all accounts, the celebration of Saturnalia, commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the god of the harvest, grew to be the largest and most popular in ancient Rome. By 16BCE, the festivities lasted a full week, starting on the seventeenth and ending around the twenty-third day of December.

At the temple, a massive couch would be placed in front of it and the ropes which tethered the statue of Saturn for the rest of the year were let loose. It was a time to eat, drink and be merry. Celebrants even replaced the traditional toga with the synthesis – a colorful, informal dinner clothing.

Saturnalia included both public and private celebrations. Schools closed and a special market, the Sigillaria, opened to the public. Public gambling, usually frowned upon, grew to be a highlight of the merriment. The tomfoolery included the switching of places between masters and slaves, though this did not subvert the status quo.

*

In the city of Rome, it is yet ten years before the birth of Christ. On December 17th, the festival of the Saturnalia has begun as two good friends meet in the street near the Temple of Saturn.

“Caelianus! Have you been to temple yet? Have they loosed his bonds?”

Quintis Nepius Caelianus smiled at his good friend. “Io Saturnalia, Sidonius. Yes, they’ve loosened the god and the holiday has officially begun.”

“Good! And as old Saturn has been liberated so shall young Romans be liberated for celebration! Will the sweet Paccia Marciana be accompanying you to the banquet today, Caelianus?”

“Again, yes. I’m sure that her beauty will recommend seats near the head of Saturn himself. Who will you be attending with? Spirited Poppaea or the lovely Didia?”

“A very good question. I have purchased candles for both of them but I fear if I ask one and not the other I shall be in dire straits. Still I am leaning toward Poppaea. Didia would certainly look grand on my arm, but Poppaea will be more fun to party with.”

Caelianus nodded. “Well deserved straits too, by my way of thinking. Poppaea would be an excellent choice for Saturnalia.”

“At any rate will the two of you visit my doma afterwards?”

“I can’t think of anywhere else we would rather celebrate the festival, Sidonius. How many other couples will be attending?”

“Fifty in all. It should be quite a party.”

“What of Durio and Ulpia?”

“Both confirmed. Is there still bad blood between you and Durio? Oh remember, no togas. Everyone will be comfortable and relaxed. There will be plenty of wine, food and gifts; enough to party for days.”

“There is nothing between Durio and me that can’t be put off for the holidays. That’s encouraging, Sidonius. What kind of gifts?”

“Sigillaria, of course. Statues for everyone!”

“Fascinating. I have quite a collection already. I must leave to gather my flower. The streets are already crammed and we don’t want to arrive late for the public feast. See you there, Sidonius. Io Saturnalia.”

“Io Saturnalia, Caelianus. Give my love to Paccia!”

*

The Saturnalia brought many firsts to the celebration of Christmas:  Schools being closed for the holiday, the giving of gifts, and public feasts are only a few.  One of the most noticeable to my mind is the salutation of “Io Saturnalia,” heard everywhere during the holiday.  This phrase became the forerunner of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”