A little Christmas lore

In the city of Mérida, Venezuela, a fascinating local custom is the La Paradura del Niño, or The Standing Up of the Christ Child. Here the Nativity scenes in homes are particularly cherished; some are table-top size, some are room-size with all of Bethlehem portrayed in the Venezuelan context — the landscape is mountainous and divided by rivers. The figures often look like local people. On Christmas Eve the Holy Family is placed in the scene with the Wise Men nearby and moving closer daily. On New Year’s Day the tradition dictates that the baby Jesus must be moved to an upright position and stay there until Candelaria (February 2). If a friend or neighbour sees this is not done, the baby may be kidnapped and the family who neglected their duty must hold a parandura party for the kidnappers and friends. 

This consists of choosing godparents for the Niño— they will not only bring home the baby in a basket or handkerchief but arrange for the musicians, candles, fireworks and refreshments. The procession consists of first of fireworks boys, followed by the musicians who will be mute until the baby is found, a pair of teens as Mary and Joseph, children as shepherds singing a carol about searching for the baby and, lastly,  the godparents. When the candle-lit procession get to the house where the baby is stored, it is handed over to the kerchief and its god-parents and the joyous music breaks out. All march home joyfully where the party awaits after the baby is replaced standing up. Little kids may offer a poem of welcome, women will say the rosary and then all eat, dance and drink until dawn.

St Patrick’s Day

From The Catholic Encyclopedia, the magisterial 1912 edition, comes this account of St Patrick’s final days and the concessions he won from God for the people of Ireland. Some pretty bold claims here.

The saint, however, would not, as yet, descend from the mountain. He had vanquished the demons, but he would now wrestle with God Himself, like Jacob of old, to secure the spiritual interests of his people. The angel had announced to him that, to reward his fidelity in prayer and penance, as many of his people would be gathered into heaven as would cover the land and sea as far as his vision could reach. Far more ample, however, were the aspirations of the saint, and he resolved to persevere in fasting and prayer until the fullest measure of his petition was granted. Again and again the angel came to comfort him, announcing new concessions; but all these would not suffice. He would not relinquish his post on the mountain, or relax his penance, until all were granted. At length the message came that his prayers were heard:

  • many souls would be free from the pains of purgatory through his intercession
  • whoever in the spirit of penance would recite his hymn before death would attain the heavenly reward
  • barbarian hordes would never obtain sway in his Church
  • seven years before the Judgement Day, the sea would spread over Ireland to save its people from the temptations and terrors of the Antichrist; and 
  • greatest blessing of all, Patrick himself should be deputed to judge the whole Irish race on the last day.

Such were the extraordinary favors which St. Patrick, with his wrestling with the Most High, his unceasing prayers, his unconquerable love of heavenly things, and his unremitting penitential deeds, obtained for the people whom he evangelized.

At Saul (Sabhall), St. Patrick received the summons to his reward on 17 March, 493. St. Tassach administered the last sacraments to him. His remains were wrapped in the shroud woven by St. Brigid’s own hands. The bishops and clergy and faithful people from all parts crowded around his remains to pay due honour to the Father of their Faith. Some of the ancient Lives record that for several days the light of heaven shone around his bier. His remains were interred at the chieftan’s Dun or Fort two miles from Saul, where in after times arose the cathedral of Down.

The Luddite Resistance

Chamber’s Book of Days, a 19th-century source tells us about these resisters of technology:

March 11th, 1811, is a black-letter day in the annals of Nottinghamshire. It witnessed the commencement of a series of riots which, extending over a period of five years, have, perhaps, no parallel in the history of a civilized country for the skill and secrecy with which they were managed, and the amount of wanton mischief they inflicted. The hosiery trade, which employed a large part of the population, had been for some time previously in a very depressed state. This naturally brought with it a reduction in the price of labour.

During the month of February 1811, numerous bands of distressed framework-knitters were employed to sweep the streets for a paltry sum, to keep the men employed, and to prevent mischief. But by the 11th of March their patience was exhausted: and flocking to the market-place from town and country, they resolved to take vengeance on those employers who had reduced their wages. The timely appearance of the military prevented any violence in the town, but at night no fewer than sixty-three frames were broken at Arnold, a village four miles north of Nottingham. During the succeeding three weeks 200 other stocking frames were smashed by midnight bands of distressed and deluded workmen, who were so bound together by illegal oaths, and so completely disguised, that very few of them could be brought to justice. These depredators assumed the name of Luddites; said to have been derived from a youth named Ludlam, who, when his father, a framework-knitter in Leicestershire, ordered him to ‘square his needles,’ took his hammer and beat them into a heap.

Their plan of operation was to assemble in parties of from six to sixty, as circumstances required, under a leader styled General or Ned Ladd, all disguised, and armed, some with swords, pistols, or firelocks, others with hammers and axes. They then proceeded to the scene of destruction. Those with swords and firearms were placed as a guard outside, while the others broke into the house and demolished the frames, after which they reassembled at a short distance. The leader then called over his men, who answered not to names, but to certain numbers: if all were there, and their work for the night finished, a pistol was fired, and they then departed to their homes, removing the black handkerchiefs which had covered their faces. In consequence of the continuance of these daring outrages, a large military force was brought into the neighbourhood, and two of the London police magistrates, with several other officers, came down to Nottingham, to assist the civil power in attempting to discover the ringleaders: a secret committee was also formed, and supplied with a large sum of money for the purpose of obtaining private information; but in spite of this vigilance, and in contempt of a Royal Proclamation, the offenders continued their devastations with redoubled violence, as the following instances will shew.

On Sunday night, November 10th, a party of Luddites proceeded to the village of Bulwell, to destroy the frames of Mr. Rollingworth, who, in anticipation of their visit, had procured the assistance of three or four friends, who with firearms resolved to protect the property. Many shots were fired, and one of the assailants, John Woolley, of Arnold, was mortally wounded, which so enraged the mob that they soon forced an entrance: the little garrison fled, and the rioters not only destroyed the frames, but every article of furniture in the house. On the succeeding day they seized and broke a waggonload of frames near Arnold: and on the Wednesday following proceeded to Sutton-in-Ashfield, where they destroyed thirty-seven frames: after which they were dispersed by the military, who took a number of prisoners, four of whom were fully committed for trial.

During the following week only one frame was destroyed, but several slacks were burned, most probably, as was supposed, by the Luddites, in revenge against the owners, who, as members of the yeoman cavalry, were active in suppressing the riots. On Sunday night, the 24th of November, thirty-four frames were demolished at Basford, and eleven more the following day. On December the 6th, the magistrates published an edict, which ordered all persons in the disturbed districts to remain in their houses after ten o’clock at night, and all public-houses to be closed at the same hour. Notwithstanding this proclamation, and a great civil and military force, thirty-six frames were broken in the villages around Nottingham within the six following days. A Royal Proclamation was then issued, offering £50 reward for the apprehension of any of the of-fenders: but this only excited the men to further deeds of daring.

They now began to plunder the farmhouses both of money and provisions, declaring that they ‘would not starve whilst there was plenty in the land.’ In the month of January 1812, the frame-breaking continued with unabated violence. On the 30th of this month, in the three parishes of Nottingham, no fewer than 4,348 families, numbering 15,350 individuals, or nearly half the population, were relieved out of the poor rates. A large subscription was now raised to offer more liberal rewards against the perpetrators of these daring outrages: and at the March assize seven of them were sentenced to transportation. In this month, also, an Act of Parliament was passed, making it death to break a stocking or a lace frame.

In April, a Mr. Trentham, a considerable manufacturer, was shot by two ruffians while standing at his own door. Happily the wound did not prove mortal: but the offenders were never brought to justice, though a reward of £600 was offered for their apprehension. This evil and destructive spirit continued to manifest itself from time to time till October 1816, when it finally ceased. Upwards of a thousand stocking frames and a number of lace machines were destroyed by it in the county of Nottingham alone, and at times it spread into the neighbouring counties of Leicester, Derby, and York, and even as far as Lancaster. Its votaries discovered at last that they were injuring themselves as much or more than their employers, as the mischief they perpetrated had to be made good out of the county rate.

More Bad Bulwer

She was like my ex-girlfriend Ashley, who’d stolen my car, broken my heart, murdered my father, robbed a bank, and set off a pipe bomb in Central Park – tall.

As the first shovelful of earth fell on her father’s coffin, Emily kneeled at the gravesite sobbing, overwrought by the sudden realization that, not only had she lost her only living relative, but she had somehow forgotten to set her DVR to record this week’s episode of “House of Cards,” an episode she had particularly wanted to see because of a rumored and breathlessly anticipated guest appearance by a nephew of Don Ho.

It was a dark and stormy night, and that translated into unchecked pandemonium among Los Angeles residents who hadn’t worn anything but open-toed shoes for five years, but tourist Alwyn Brewster was thankful for the scant traffic on Sunset Boulevard as he desperately accelerated his rental car through the tony neighborhoods, too preoccupied with the raging rivers of high-end, plastic patio-ware, which were making a break for the ocean, to notice a black Land Rover with diplomatic plates hot on his trail.


Bulwer-Lytton Prize Winners

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” So wrote Edward, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, the 19th-century English author of “The Last Days of Pompeii” and much other florid prose. 

The University of San Diego conducts an annual Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for imitations of such rotten writing in various categories. We will reproduce a few of them here.

In 2011 the Grand Prize went to a Wisconsin professor for this pithy gem: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories”.

The Romance award that year: “As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had”.

The History winner: “Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.”


The Feast of Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.