Adam & Eve & Christmas

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 Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, were first honoured as saints in the churches of Eastern Christianity and during the Middle Ages their cult spread into the West. Though the Catholic church never officially recognized them with a feast day, popular veneration of Adam and Eve was widespread, particularly on December 24 when it was thought fitting that those responsible for the Fall of mankind be linked with the birth of the Saviour who came to redeem humanity.

 Medieval dramas which told the story of Adam and Eve had as a stage prop a tree representing the Garden of Eden and the Tree of the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was decorated with apples or round wafers representing the host of the Mass and it is this “Paradise Tree” which historians see as a precursor to the modern Christmas tree. This link is evident when we note that as late as the nineteenth century some American and German Christmas trees had images of Adam and Eve and the Serpent underneath them. Godey’s magazine claimed “an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining itself. The apples were placed on the table on Christmas Eve to recall those through whose sin mankind first fell as well as the Virgin Mary, the new Eve.

Christmas 1941

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In 1941 the United States of America had just entered World War Two. The Japanese Empire was rapidly expanding across east Asia and had attacked American possessions in the Pacific including Hawaii, the Philippines, and Wake Island. In Europe the fascist armies of Germany and Italy had occupied much of the continent and were at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. At this critical moment British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sailed across the Atlantic to spend Christmas in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill made radio addresses. Said Roosevelt: “There are many men and women in America—sincere and faithful men and women—who asked themselves this Christmas: ‘How can we light our trees? How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted hearts in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death?'”  “Our strongest weapon in this war”, said Roosevelt, “is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas day signifies—more than any other day or any other symbol. Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.” 

Churchill spoke of his American heritage and noted: “This is a strange Christmas Eve.  Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other.  Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field.  Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.  Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.  Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.

“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter.  Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.  Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

“And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”

Horses and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Horses and Christmas

Yule was the time amongst the pagan Teutons for the sacrifice of a white horse. Christmas too has ceremonies that focus on horses, though not in such a fatal fashion.

For reasons that remain unclear St Stephen has come to be regarded as the patron saint of horses and therefore his day, December 26, is given over to horse parades, races and special treatment for the animals. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. In the sixteenth century Tusser noted: “Ere Christmas be passed,/ let Horsse be lett blood,/ For many a purpose/ it dooth him much good/ The day of St. Steeven,/ old fathers did use./ If that do mislike thee,some other day chuse.”

In Wales the Mari Llwyd (Grey Mare) ceremony involves a man under a white sheet carrying a pole topped by a horse’s head with snapping jaws — it capers, ringing the bells on its sheet, and bites people who have to pay a forfeit to be released. According to legend, the Mari Lwyd is the animal turned out of its stable to make room for the Holy Family; it has been looking for shelter ever since. Accompanied by a group of men, often in mummers’ costumes or bearing bells the Mari Lwyd will approach a house during the Christmas season and the group will beg admittance. After a ritual negotiation that may involve the exchange of humorous verses they will be let inside where the horse will dart about while hospitality is shared.

In England similar horse figures are Old Hob, who went about with a group of men singing and ringing hand bells for a gratuity, and the Hodening Horse of Kent. On the Isle of Man it is the Laare Vane or White Mare which appeared on New Year’s Eve. In Germany the hobby-horse is called Schimmel (or in some places Schimmelreiter to emphasize the rider). Like the Mari Lwyd it takes part in house visits; jumping about to entertain the children and dancing with pretty girls.

Candles and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Candles and Christmas

The image of Jesus as the light of the world and the mid-winter longing for the return of the sun has led to the candle being associated inextricably with Christmas. This can be seen in church ceremonies such as Candlemas, Christingle or candle-lit carol services and in numerous home devotions. In countries such as Ireland it is the custom to place a candle in the window during the Christmas season; in eastern Europe a large candle is placed in the centre of the table, sometimes stuck in a loaf of bread. In Germany the Advent wreath, the Lichstock or Christmas pyramid and Christmas tree all employ candles while in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico luminaria and farolitas light up the night. Australians flock in their hundreds of thousands to Carols by Candlelight while Filipinos place candles in their parols.

 A beautiful custom is carried on in the Auvergne on Christmas eve. A candle is lit by the oldest member of the family and used to make the sign of the cross. It is then extinguished and passed on to the eldest son who does the same and who then passes the candle to his wife, and so on. When the candle finally reaches the youngest, it is lit and placed in the middle of the table, a signal for the feast to begin. In Norway the thick Christmas candle must burn all night through on Christmas Eve or, it is believed, a family member will die that year. Gouda, the centre of Dutch candle industry, turns off all electrical lights in the city centre on Christmas Eve while the mayor, by candle-light, reads the Nativity story to the crowd.

Shaw vs Chesterton on Christmas

Home / Christmas / Shaw vs Chesterton on Christmas

George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton were both accomplished British writers at the turn of the twentieth century but in character the two could not have been more unlike each other. Shaw was a vegetarian contrarian, an atheist, a eugenicist, and a supporter of despots. (He was also the only man to be awarded both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.) Chesterton was a gourmand, an anti-fascist, and a devout Catholic. Despite their many differences, they enjoyed a friendly rivalry. At one point Chesterton mocked Shaws asceticism, saying, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.” 

One topic on which they disagreed was Christmas. Of the holiday Shaw said:

Like all intelligent people, I greatly dislike Christmas. It revolts me to see a whole nation refrain from music for weeks together in order that every man may rifle his neighbour’s pockets under cover of a ghastly general pretence of festivity. It is really an atrocious institution, this Christmas. We must be gluttonous because it is Christmas. We must be drunken because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous; we must buy things that nobody wants, and give them to people we don’t like; we must go to absurd entertainments that make even our little children satirical; we must writhe under venal officiousness from legions of freebooters, all because it is Christmas that is, because the mass of the population, including the all-powerful middle-class tradesman, depends on a week of licence and brigandage, waste and intemperance, to clear off its outstanding liabilities at the end of the year. As for me, I shall fly from it all tomorrow or next day to some remote spot miles from a shop, where nothing worse can befall me than a serenade from a few peasants, or some equally harmless survival of medieval mummery, shyly proffered, not advertised, moderate in its expectations, and soon over. In town there is, for the moment, nothing for me or any honest man to do. 

Chesterton loved Christmas and rebutted Shaw thusly:

If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkenness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings.


A Red River Christmas

Home / Christmas / A Red River Christmas

In the early nineteenth century, a settlement at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was an important outpost in the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company whose royal charter gave it rule over a vast swath of North America. The territory became part of Canada after 1867 and the settlement became the city of Winnipeg whence this blog emits. In 1884 the Canadian Illustrated News looked back in a condescending way on the little town colonized by Lord Selkirk’s settlers. The prose is suitably Victorian and ornate. The illustration below is from 1821 and the church on the far bank is the source of “the bells of St. Boniface” referred to.


But fifty years ago, on the banks of the great Red River of the North, only “forty hours”-in these modern times-from Chicago, the throbbing heart-city of America, ” the vesper ringing of the bells of St. Boniface” announced the advent of Christmas Eve to a people whom centuries might have separated from us, so different were they from any American community of to-day.

The links of the winding river’s “long red chain,” lately changed from gold to polished steel by that potent, old alchemist of the north – Jack Frost – lay, glittering in the rays of the setting sun. The “belts of dusky pine-land,” through which it sweeps northwards, no longer echoed the songs of returning voyageurs, the last wanderer having found his way back from his summer journeyings weeks before. The “gusty leagues of plain,” far around the clustered dwellings of the Selkirk settlement, lay white and still.

One uninterrupted level, as if stooping. the Creator with his hand had smoothed them over. The dazzling surface of snow seemed almost to reflect the gorgeous tints of the northern prairie sunset. No human figure relieved the monotonous expanse; for all within reach–the hunter, the trapper, the coureurs des bois, even the native children of the plains had sought the social warmth of the village at the Christmas season.

Cheerfully flashed the lights from the stockaded enclosures of “the fort,” as twilight quickly deepened into darkness. Answering gleams came from the casements of the stately log-and-plaster “mansions” of retired Hudson’s Bay Company magnates in the vicinity. Brightly twinkled the cabins of settlers along the river. Distantly glimmered the tapers of the French “mission” across the stream. Fainter still glowed the windows of the Swiss colony, half a mile lower down. At times ruddy glare burst upon the night as the curtain of a tent or the veiling buffalo-robe “tee-pee” was swept aside for a moment, revealing wildly-clad figures grouped around the blazing logs within.

That was strangely assorted social life which those various lights shone on. With the walls of “the fort,” perhaps they lit up a dinner party, progressing with the ceremonious decorum of London dining-room, amid incongruities of dress and surroundings that must have been infinitely diverting to young arrivals from the Old Country, with a properly developed sense of the ludicrous. The humorous potentialities of a dress-coat can only be fully appreciated by those who have seen it amid wild or semi-savage surroundings. Its effect, under such circumstances, can indefinitely heightened by attention the remainder of the toilet of him who displays it. Moccasins, substitute for “patent-leathers,” greatly enhance its picturesqueness. Indian leggings set it off still more. A coarse flannel shirt makes it a striking fore-ground. Sun-burnt hands, bronzed face and none too carefully trimmed hair and beard cap the climax. Thus was the dress-coat often exhibited on state occasions in the old Hudson’s Bay days. Thus perhaps it appeared at our Christmas Eve dinner.

But the social gatherings of the gentlemen of the Company’s service in those times were never wanting in dignity, while always abounding in good cheer, notwithstanding incidental peculiarities of toilet; so true is it that dress does not make the man. Fine, courtly personages they often were, those olden-time Hudson’s Bay officers, with their upright bearing and punctilious notions. Not infrequently well-born; well-nurtured, generally; if not always versed in current literature at least well read in the book of nature; trained to habits of thoughtfulness and close observation by their long seclusion from social frivolities, they almost invariably displayed in their intercourse with each other the characteristics of true and intelligent gentlemen. Overbearing to others they no doubt sometimes were, for they had long been accustomed to command. From this trait they have too often been harshly judged. We may be sure, however, that nothing but courtesy and good fellowship obtained among the members of our party, assembled around the upper-table of the great dining-hall at “the fort.”

There would be present the local officers and head clerks, visitors perhaps from the fur posts of the Saskatchewan and Athaboska [sic], come down to revel in metropolitan life on the banks of the Red River for a time, and the more favored of the retired “factors” settled in the neighboring colony. While enjoying feast of reason and a flow of soul, we may assure ourselves that the guests of the evening were not inattentive to the substantials set before them, for those were the days of princely bills-of-fare in the Selkirk settlements. The forest, the prairie, the river, vied with the farm and the garden in the abundance of their supplies. The days of pinching scarcity among the pioneers of the colony were happily over. Settlers had enough and to spare of the fruits of the field, while the storehouse of primitive nature in the vicinity was still overflowing. That must have been a royal repast then to which our party sat down; and well were they served, no doubt, by the army of Indian and half-caste waiters which “the fort” could command. How recollections of “bonny Scotland” and the long ago must have crowded in on those veterans of the Company’s service, when after dinner the cloth was drawn and the wine went round!

Preparatory revelry, of not highly commendable sort, among certain element of the settlement, was of course, not wanting, in which rum, the beverage of the place and period, was by far too prominent a factor.

One by one, as the night advanced, the lights of the village disappeared and the lonely farm-houses were darkened. Overhead the stars continued their cold vigil in an ink-blue, northern sky. The auroral curtain, its luminous, many-colored folds rustled or seemingly rustled by an unseen hand, gradually hushed into deeper repose the restlessly expectant beings over whom it floated. Slowly the last sound died out. The intense chill of a sub-Arctic night quieted even the motions of the air. And ” the great, lone land” lay apparently as still, and cold, and dead as it had lain many a long Christmas Eve ” before the daring genius of Columbus pierced the night of ages,” opening up the remotest regions of the vast American continent to Christianity and light.

Women Will Have Their Will or Give Christmas His Due

Home / Christmas / Women Will Have Their Will or Give Christmas His Due

During the rule of the Puritan republic of the 1640s and 1650s, the observance of Christmas was banned. This proved very unpopular and hard to enforce; riots and disobedience were common. A subversive print war was waged by Christmas supporters with some authors earnestly arguing for the holiday using religious and historical examples while others, probably more effective, were satirical. The tract Women Will Have Their Will or Give Christmas His Due, which appeared in December 1648, seems to have been aimed particularly at a female audience. It contains a dialogue between ‘Mistress Custom’, a victualler’s wife in Cripplegate and ‘Mistress New-Come’ an army captain’s wife living in Reformation Alley near Destruction Street’.

New-Come finds Custom decorating her house for Christmas and they fall into a discussion about the feast. Custom exclaims that:
I should rather and sooner forget my mother that bare me and the paps that gave me suck, than forget this merry time, nay if thou had’st ever seen the mirth and jollity that we have had at those times when – was young, thou wouldst bless thyself to see it.She claims that those who want to destroy Christmas are:
A crew of Tatter-demallions amongst which the best could scarce ever attain to a calves-skin suit, or a piece of neckbeef and carrots on a Sunday, or scarce ever mounted (before these times) to any office above the degree of scavenger of Tithingman at the furthest.

When New-Come suggests she should abandon her celebrations because they have been banned by the authority of Parliament, she replies:
God deliver me from such authority; it is a Worse Authority than my husband’s, for though my husband beats me now and then, yet he gives my belly full and allows me money in my purse Cannot keep Christmas, eat good cheer and be merry without I go and get a licence from the Parliament. Marry gap, come up here, for my part I’ll be hanged by the neck first.

The turmoil continued until 1660 when Christmas celebrations were restored along with the return of the Stuart monarchy of Charles II.

Prosperity Spectacle

Home / Christmas / Prosperity Spectacle

During his heyday, megachurch preacher Robert Schuller(1926-2015) presided over his Crystal Cathedral and ordained many a Christmas spectacle. The production wrought for 1994 was particularly gaudy as it was meant to celebrate his 40th anniversary as a clergyman. The “Glory of Christmas” nativity show turned his church into what one visitor described as “a cross between a zoo and the set of Les Miserables”. Eight darting and swooping angels accompanied a 200-member chorus in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”; a local football team mounted on real horses played a detachment of Roman soldiers; ballet dancers interpreted the nativity story; the Star of Bethlehem was represented by a 2,000-watt searchlight shining out of the crib, and the Magi arrived on real camels. In addition there was a host of baby animals — kids, lambs, calves and donkeys — specially bred for the show by the Cathedral’s animal handler.

Here is a link to the show in its entire cheesy splendour: (The video is too large to be inserted directly into this post.)


Not in the Christmas Spirit

Home / Christmas / Not in the Christmas Spirit

The conversion of a savage people to Christianity was not an overnight process. We can see this in the reactions of some Scandinavian leaders to the new behaviours required of believers at Christmas time. Consider the case of King Sigurd of Norway who had some difficulty with Christian strictures on eating meat in Advent and consorting with concubines on Christmas Eve.

So befell on a time on Yule-eve, as the king sat in the hall and the boards were set, that the King said: “Fetch me fleshmeat.” “Lord,” said they, “it is not wont in Norway to eat flesh-meat on Yule-eve.” He answered : “If it be not the wont, then will I have it the wont.” So they came and had in porpoise. The king stuck his knife into it, but took not thereof. Then said the king : “Fetch me a woman into the hall.” They came thither and had a woman with them, and she was coifed wide and side. The king laid his hand to her head, and looked on her, and said : “An ill-favoured woman is this, yet not so that one may not endure her.” Then he looked at her hand and said : “An ungoodly hand and ill-waxen, yet one must endure it.’ Then he bade her reach forth her foot he looked thereon, and said “A foot monstrous and mickle much ; but one may give no heed thereto ; such must be put up with.” Then he bade them lift up the kirtle, and now he saw the leg, and said : “Fie on thy leg; it is both blue and thick, and a mere whore must thou be.” And he bade them take her out, “for I will not have her.”

I do wonder what it was liked to be “coifed wide and side”.

Judas and Christmas

Home / Christmas / Judas and Christmas

You might think that Judas, who sold Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver, would be the last of the associates of Christ to figure in the legends of Christmas but there are two stories told about the unfortunate fellow and the holy season. 

The oldest of these says that on the Feast of Candlemas, February 2 and the last day of Christmas-tide, Judas is allowed out of Hell and given a respite from the torments he was sentenced to suffer. The poor soul is allowed to cool himself in the sea for a day before he returns to the infernal regions.

The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold took that legend and reworked in a piece called “St Brandan”. St Brandan, or Brendan as he is more commonly called, was an Irish monk (c. 484-c.577) who was supposed to have crossed the Atlantic in a small boat in search of the Isle of the Blessed. On his voyage, says Arnold, on Christmas night he spies an iceberg with a man on it. It is Judas who tells him that because he was once kind to a leper the angels allow him temporary relief from the fires of Hell.

Once every year, when carols wake, 

On earth, the Christmas-night’s repose, 

Arising from the sinner’s lake, 

I journey to these healing snows.

I stanch with ice my burning breast, 

With silence balm my whirling brain.