Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christmas in the Middle Ages

Although medieval people celebrated Christmas with gusto, their celebration was very different from what we now take for granted.  There were no Christmas trees, no Santa equivalents, and no presents!  They did however celebrate with singing.  The time for presents was New Year's, when gifts might be exchanged between lovers, or a lord might distribute small gifts to his faithful followers.

Children did not get presents, but they did have their own holiday, the Feast of Fools, halfway between Christmas and New Year's.  This was often celebrated as an upside-down day, when children got a chance to boss the grownups.  On a more serious note, the Feast recalled the slaughter of the Innocents, the babies Herod killed when trying (unsuccessfully) to kill the baby foretold to be a greater king than he.

I've just written a short book on Christmas, entitled Contested Christmas, combining the history of the celebration (and of Santa) with commentary on the modern holiday.  It has just been released as an ebook on Amazon on Friday:

Keep reading for a sneak preview of the opening:

Ah, the “true meaning of Christmas.”  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s one hears the term constantly, on everything from made-for-TV movies playing essentially non-stop, to exhortations that we all wish each other Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays, to websites devoted to tips on crafting handmade ornaments.
But the “true meaning of Christmas” is highly contested.  Most would agree that over-commercialization is ruining Christmas, even as great piles of expensive and beautifully wrapped presents, to make children’s eyes glow with excited anticipation, are considered part of the season’s true meaning.
Magazine articles in November and December routinely urge readers to simplify their holiday celebrations to avoid stress and over-spending, even while other magazines—and often the same ones!—show elaborately decorated interiors, provide recipes for lavish feasts, and contain ads promoting luxury purchases.
Christmas is supposed to require snow, even though in the US, where the song “White Christmas” is recorded by dozens of artists, the majority celebrate the holiday with no snow on the ground.  And in the southern hemisphere, including Australia, Christmas comes in the middle of the summer.  (December snow, interestingly, puts one in the Christmas spirit, while January snow makes one yearn for Florida.)  Family, faith, and friendship are identified with 4H and with Kwanzaa, yet are also considered true aspects of Christmas.
Part of the true meaning of the Christmas season revolves around its (relative) shortness, extending only from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.  During a period of not much over a month, it is expected that we will pack in a good six months’ worth of shopping, decorating, eating, socializing, worshipping, and attending concerts—not to mention relaxing and taking it all in.  Everybody knows about the Twelve Days of Christmas, which traditionally began on Christmas Day and ended on January 6, the Feast of the Wise Men.  But in practice the US has forty days or so of Christmas, and the season is definitely over well before Twelfth Night.
(New Year’s both recapitulates the gaiety and celebration that are supposed to define Christmas and marks the end of the season.  It’s easy to tell what Christmas is over.  It’s when the TV news anchors and sports commentators remove the poinsettias from their desks.  This happens January 2.)
The holiday comes laden with powerful and conflicting expectations, expectations that require a great deal of work, organizing, and spending in order to achieve the simple joys that are supposed to convey its true meaning.   The season is intended to be one of mirth and joy, and so we set to work with grim seriousness to make sure that the mirth’s meaning is properly joyous.  As everyone strives to make this the best (and doubtless truest) Christmas ever, it is worth pondering:  why is Christmas the only holiday that gets to have a true meaning?
It certainly isn’t the religious aspect that makes Christmas special.  You never see a heart-warming TV movie about a family discovering the true meaning of Easter.  Yet Easter is a much more important Christian holiday than is Christmas.  Easter has been celebrated since the earliest church, but Christmas began only as a fourth-century reaction to pagan efforts to make December 25 a birthday for the sun-god Apollo.  After all, anyone can have a birthday, but rising from the dead has got to be special.
Incidentally, the winter solstice on December 21, Christmas (and Apollo’s birthday) on the 25th, and New Year’s are now spread out over a ten day period, but originally they were all celebrations of the darkest day of the year, the solstice, and the beginning of the sun’s return as the days start to grow longer.  Keeping track of that pesky leap year, celebrated every four years except when it’s not, messes calendars right up.
The darkest days of the year were an important time for celebration long before the spread of Christianity.  The Romans, the Greeks, the Babylonians, everyone had one or more holidays or feasts around that time, times for food and drink, for merry-making with friends, for gifts, and often for a fairly raucous breakdown of normal social conventions.  It is perhaps ironic that many of these ancient pagan aspects are continued in what is supposed to be a thoroughly Christian holiday.
Comparing the celebrations of Christmas and Easter indicates how differently the holidays are viewed.  When was the last time you saw a billboard, “Keep Christ in Easter”?  Probably never.  How many singers bring out an Easter album?  Remarkably few.  How many radio stations blast the airways with Easter songs non-stop all during Lent?  None at all.  Compared to big discussions of whether Santa Claus is a jolly old elf, a saint, or a satanic being (in Dijon in 1951, the cathedral priests burned Père Noël in effigy on Christmas Eve as a pagan impostor), the Easter Bunny gets off remarkably easy.  For a great many people, Easter means chocolate eggs and new spring outfits, and maybe that annual attendance at church.

Perhaps it is not worth thinking too deeply about rabbits, a symbol of promiscuity in most cultures, laying little brown pellets that children are encouraged to eat.  Sex and coprophagia, not a good combination.  At least the rabbits do not represent any “true meaning.”

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

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