Posted by: jkirkby8712 | December 24, 2010

Friday, 24 December [2], 2010 – what about today?

Well, for a start, it’s the 358th day of the year (359th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar, with just seven days remaining of 2010. And certainly in the western world,  the day is commonly known as Christmas Eve.  Now I wanted to remind myself as to just what was the Gregorian Calendar [some call it the Christian, or Western Calendar]?  This is the interpretation I found recently somewhere, and we might accept it as ‘close enough’. The Gregorian Calendar is the internationally accepted civil calendar. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom the calendar was named, by a decree signed on 24 February 1582, a papal bull known by its opening words Inter gravissimas. The reformed calendar was adopted later that year by a handful of countries, with other countries adopting it over the following centuries. From here, I could go on with a description of the motivation for the Gregorian reform, but I might leave that to the scientific types out there who could digest with little difficulty that explanation far better than I could ever explain it.

Of course in the Christian world, it’s celebrated as the eve of the birth of Jesus Christ, so you will see a plethora of prayers and verses such as the following, being quoted within religious circles of the many denominations and ‘sects’ of the Christian Church.

Lord God,
we thank you for making this holy night shine
with the true light of your Son.
As we celebrate his birth as a human child,
fill us with the joy of heaven.
For he lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

Meanwhile, I want to turn to a more secular source of literary culture, as might be applied to Christmas, for those who are interested.  An artistic piece of verse, going back to so-called ‘olden times’ comes from the pen of one writer named Sir Walter Scott.  This is about as graphic as you could get in those times!  Have a read!

On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then opened wide the baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doffed his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘ post and pair.

All hailed, with uncontrolled delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down!

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubbed till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s-head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garbed ranger tell,
How, when, and where the monster fell
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked: hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas-eye;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high-tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, oh! what masquers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.’

In order to investigate the origin of many of our Christmas customs,  we need to really go back to our ‘mother country [Great Britain]  – though in many cases, the Australian climate, and the gradual move towards a more secular, and multicultural society, means some of these customs are not so relevant any more  –  nevertheless, I will quote from an unnamed writer, who was looking at the question from an English viewpoint.

In this article, we are told that:-   “It becomes necessary to wander far back into the regions of past time, long ere Julius Caesar had set his foot on our shores, or St. Augustine preached the doctrines of Christianity to the men of Kent. We have frequently, in the course of this work, had occasion to remark on the numerous traces still visible in popular customs of the old pagan rites and ceremonies. These, it is needless here to repeat, were extensively retained after the conversion of Britain to Christianity, partly because the Christian teachers found it impossible to wean their converts from their cherished superstitions and observances, and partly because they themselves, as a matter of expediency, ingrafted the rites of the Christian religion on the old heathen ceremonies, believing that thereby the cause of the Cross would be rendered more acceptable to the generality of the populace, and thus be more effectually promoted. By such an amalgamation, no festival of the Christian year was more thoroughly characterized than Christmas; the festivities of which, originally derived from the Roman Saturnalia, had afterwards been intermingled with the ceremonies observed by the British Druids at the period of the winter-solstice, and at a subsequent period became incorporated with the grim mythology of the ancient Saxons. Two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe, and the burning of the Yule log.

We’ll look at the first one here, because in Australia, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be sitting around an open fire at Christmas time [although looking at December 2010, there may be even some doubt on that idea!].

As regards the former of these practices, it is well known that, in the religion of the Druids, the mistletoe was regarded with the utmost veneration, though the reverence which they paid to it seems to have been restricted to the plant when found growing on the oak—the favorite tree of their divinity Tutanes—who appears to have been the same as the Phenician god Baal, or the sun, worshiped under so many different names by the various pagan nations of antiquity. At the period of the winter-solstice, a great festival was celebrated in his honour, as will be found more largely commented on under our notice of Christmas Day. When the sacred anniversary arrived, the ancient Britons, accompanied by their priests, the Druids, sallied forth with great pomp and rejoicings to gather the mystic parasite, which, in addition to the religious reverence with which it was regarded, was believed to possess wondrous curative powers. When the oak was reached on which the mistletoe grew, two white bulls were bound to the tree, and the chief Druid, clothed in white (the emblem of purity), ascended, and, with a golden knife, cut the sacred plant, which was caught by another priest in the folds of his robe. The bulls, and often also human victims, were then sacrificed, and various festivities followed. The mistletoe thus gathered, was divided into small portions, and distributed among the people, who hung up the sprays over the entrances to their dwellings, as a propitiation and shelter to the sylvan deities during the season of frost and cold. These rites in connection with the mistletoe, were retained throughout the Roman dominion in Britain, and also for a long period under the sovereignty of the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles”..

Now, something of more relevance to the children – again, perhaps in past years more than present day,  but as the saying went  ‘Tis December 24, the day before Christmas, and all through the land, families send excited children to bed with a reading of Clement Moore’s classic poem,   ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas”.

Again, from more literary sources than I,

“Moore is thought to have composed the tale, now popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” on December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey to fill the last of several baskets that his family was accustomed to donating to the poor during the holiday season.  Perhaps inspired by the plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City, Moore penned A Visit from St. Nicholas for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. His vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears at Christmas time, and was likely influenced by descriptions of St. Nicholas appearing in several publications from recent years, including Washington Irving’s ‘A History of New York’ (1809).  Ironically, Moore  is said to have been embarrassed by the light-hearted verse, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823, and he did not publish it under his name until 1844”.

Back to 2010, and after a shortened day at the office – as with most organisations I imagine, although in my case, it was home to a peaceful afternoon, with no need for last minute shopping [all done and dusted – completed!!!], nor was there anything in the way of an office party to end the working year – beyond all of that!  A relaxing few hours, before heading up to my radio station for our annual ‘Christmas Eve’ live broadcast celebrations  – a night when we try an encourage as many of our presenters as are available to come and join their fellow broadcasters for a few hours of general socialising, Christmas cheer, play a few Christmas songs, and in the main, encourage our listeners to join the atmosphere of the night.  One necessary addition to this year’s program, the need to keep the ‘front door’ closed at all times – we seem to have collected, just near the studio door, on an external part of the building, a ‘bee’s hive’ [hope they’re not wasps], and with the likelihood of some sweet food and drink being on site tonight, we really don’t want a ‘bee’ invasion inside the building! Nor does this presenter want to come in on Christmas morning to be greeted by those little winged creatures!!

And then, time to encourage children all and sundry to the bedsheets and pillow, cos’ it’s time for a visit from St. Nicholas:-

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there….

Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

I must finish with one of  my favourite stories from the history of special events on this day  –  the Christmas truce of World War I. There was a very good European movie made of this event a few years – can’t recall the name,  but it was screened at the Art House Cinema here in Sunbury a couple of years ago, and I had a bit of a ‘blog’ review of the movie at the time.  Here’s a brief paragraph from an article written about the occasion,  which I found on the internet recently, and  I thought it worth sharing here. If only such truces could be an ‘all time’ occasion, and of course, it illustrates the futility of war!

“During World War I in 1914 and 1915 an unofficial Christmas truce took place, particularly that between British and German troops. The truce began on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols. The two sides shouted Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were calls for visits across the “No man’s land” where small gifts were exchanged. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently-fallen soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Funerals took place as soldiers from both sides mourned the dead together and paid their respects. At one funeral in No Man’s Land, soldiers from both sides gathered and read a passage from Psalm 23. The truce occurred in spite of opposition at higher levels of the military command. Earlier in the autumn, a call by Pope Benedict XV for an official truce between the warring governments had been ignored” [author unknown].

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