December 29

In 1162 Henry II sought to bring the English Church under strict royal control by appointing to the archbishopric of Canterbury his chancellor and good friend, Thomas Becket. But in raising Becket to the primacy, Henry had misjudged his man. As chancellor, Becket had been a devoted royal servant, but as archbishop of Canterbury he became a fervent defender of ecclesiastical independence and an implacable enemy of the king. Henry and Becket became locked in a furious quarrel over the issue of royal control of the English Church. In 1164 Henry issued a list of pro-royal provisions relating to Church-state relations known as the “Constitutions of Clarendon,” which, among other things, prohibited appeals to Rome without royal license and established a degree of royal control over the Church courts. Henry maintained that the Constitutions of Clarendon represented ancient custom; Becket regarded them as unacceptable infringements of the freedom of the Church.

At the heart of the quarrel was the issue of whether churchmen accused of crimes should be subject to royal jurisdiction after being found guilty and punished by Church courts. The king complained that “criminous clerks” were often given absurdly light sentences by the ecclesiastical tribunals. A murderer, for example, might simply be banished from the priesthood (“defrocked”) and released, whereas in the royal courts the penalty was execution or mutilation. The Constitutions of Clarendon provided that once a cleric was tried, convicted, and defrocked by an ecclesiastical court, the Church should no longer prevent his being brought to a royal court for further punishment. Becket replied that nobody ought to be put in double jeopardy. In essence, Henry was challenging the competence of an agency of the international Church, whereas Becket, as primate of England, felt bound to defend the ecclesiastical system of justice and the privileges of churchmen. Two worlds were in collision.

Henry turned on his archbishop, accusing him of various crimes against the kingdom. And Becket, insisting that an archbishop cannot be judged by a king but only by the pope, fled England to seek papal support. Pope Alexander III, who was in the midst of his struggle with Frederick Barbarossa, could not afford to alienate Henry; yet neither could he turn against such an ardent ecclesiastical champion as Becket. The great lawyer-pope was forced to equivocate—to encourage Becket without breaking with Henry—and Becket remained in exile for the next six years. At length, in 1170, the king and his archbishop agreed to a truce. Most of the outstanding issues between them remained unsettled, but Henry permitted Becket to return to England and resume the archbishopric. At once, however, the two antagonists had another falling out. Becket excommunicated a number of Henry’s supporters; the king flew into a rage, and four enthusiastically loyal but dim-witted barons of the royal household dashed to Canterbury Cathedral, intimidated Becket and his monks, and then murdered him as he was saying Mass.

This dramatic atrocity made a deep impact on the age. Becket was regarded as a martyr; miracles were alleged to have occurred at his tomb, and he was quickly canonized. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, Canterbury was a major pilgrimage center, and the cult of St. Thomas enjoyed immense popularity. Henry, who had not ordered the killing but whose anger had prompted it, suffered acute embarrassment. He was obliged to do penance by walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and submitting to a flogging by the Canterbury monks (who seem to have enjoyed the episode immensely).

December 20

Trapped inside the doomed “cauldron” at Stalingrad, Wehrmacht pastor Kurt Reuber drew a charcoal picture of the Madonna and Child on the back of a map and labelled it “Life, Light and Love, Christmas in the Cauldron Fortress Stalingrad 1942”. He took it from bunker to bunker to cheer the troops at Christmas 1942. Reuber described the effect on displaying it:

When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall. …The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love. …Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.

The work was sent out on the last transport plane to leave the siege but the artist was left with the rest of the Sixth Army to fall captive to the Soviets. Reuber died in a Russian prisoner of war camp in 1944. The picture was suppressed by Nazi officials during the war but is now on display in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.


December 18

A couple of Christmas cards from the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Note that in the 1943 card he refers to the holiday by its name “Julfest” but in the next year he uses the usual German name for Christmas “Weihnachten”. The graphic in the 1944 card is the “Julleuchter”, a candle holder with Nazi symbols, often made in concentration camps.

December 2

Advent does not begin with a fixed date because the period can begin anywhere from November 27 to December 3. Consequently there is no one common custom to kick off the season. In Honduras there is a masked dancer called the Warini or Christmas Herald who goes door to door accompanied by singers and drummers to announce the season. And in Twente in Holland long wooden horns, carved out of saplings are sounded over a well to produce a deep foghorn like tone. In Oldenzaal trumpeters blow in Advent from the four corners of a medieval tower. Moravian churches will make the occasion by the erection of their famous multi-pointed stars.

Almost everywhere there is the compulsion to clean the house.  In fifteenth century Florence a religious revival led by the monk Savonarola resulted in the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities”, a public burning of luxuries that were deemed to keep the minds of believers off of God and salvation. A similar spectacle occurs every year at the beginning of the Christmas season in Guatemala. On December 7 (also the day to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary) Guatemalans haul out of their homes the things they think they don’t need anymore and set them on fire in a ceremony called “The Burning of the Evil” — with their homes thus purged of unnecessary encumbrances their souls can prepare for the coming of Christmas. In Trinidad and Tobago the house must be given a thorough cleaning and decorated; a portion of the Christmas budget always goes to buying something new for the house at this time of year. New curtains are hung, windows are washed, furniture is recovered, long-delayed repairs are made, a new piece of linoleum is laid and the paint brush is busy. In northern Europe Advent is also a time to tend to the graves of the family dead as well as sprucing up the house. In Moravian settlements in Labrador a common expression or question heard in December is “Is you ready yet?” This means basically, “Do you have your house thoroughly cleaned?”


For such a momentous occasion as the birth of the baby-god Jesus, one might think that the first Christians would be quick to celebrate the event. Christmas is the second-highest festival on the Christian calendar and the most widely-celebrated holy day in history, but the fact is that it was an after-thought to the early church. The first generations of believers concentrated on the death and resurrection of Jesus and lived in profound expectation of his imminent return. What need was there to make a fuss over his humble origins when he would soon return again in glory to judge the living and the dead and to usher in a new heaven and a new earth?

As the years went by, and Christ seemed to be tarrying, the circumstances of his birth attracted more interest. Pagan critics of the new religion, such as Celsus, made mock of the claims of a virgin birth and asserted that Jesus was the illegitimate product of an adulterous union. Certain 2nd-century Christians, influenced by Greek Gnosticism, were skeptical of the idea of a god dwelling in human flesh – this was a repellent notion to the philosophers; the very purpose of the soul was not to become trapped in a body but to escape its earthly prison of meat and bone. These criticisms prompted the second-century Church to emphasize the truth of the nativity stories told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and even to add to them in pious fictions such as The Protoevangelium of James which invented details about the youth of Mary and introduced the character of Salome, a midwife, to the events in Bethlehem.

By the year 200 Christian writers had begun to speculate about when the birth of Jesus had taken place and numerous dates were bandied about. This does not mean that Christians were seeking to know the date of the birth of Jesus in order to celebrate it. The theologian Origen declared that only pagan rulers had their birthdays trumpeted and, indeed, King Herod Antipas had given birthdays a bad name in the Christian community when he had used the occasion of his to order the execution of John the Baptist. Despite such a view, believers were growing fonder of recounting the story of the birth of Jesus. In Rome, where Christians gathered to worship in the funeral caves outside the city, they decorated a wall with a picture of the Nativity scene. The catacomb of St Priscilla bears an image of three Magi advancing toward the seated Virgin and child while a man standing beside her (probably meant to represent an Old Testament prophet) points to the guiding star in the heavens. Second and third-century pseudo-gospels such as The Revelation of the Magi were particularly interested in the appearance of the wise men who, guided by this miraculous star, became the first Gentiles to worship the Christ Child.

With the accession of the emperor Constantine in 312, Christianity became a legal religion, free to marks its holy days publicly, and the celebration of the Nativity soon was celebrated joyfully. During the 300s and 400s Christmas grew in importance on the church calendar as music, drama and liturgy were added in spectacular fashion. And then it occurred to someone – we know not who or where – that Christmas deserved a period of preparation such as Easter had with Lent. By the 500s there seems to have been a formally recognized fast beginning in mid-November on St Martin’s Day, a custom starting first in the Frankish church and then spreading in the West; other restrictions include a ban on matrimony, feasting  and games. In Rome itself the Advent period, as it was now known, named for the Latin “coming”,  was shorter, less penitential and more joyful and by the high Middle Ages the contrary tendencies had merged – the season had become shortened to a four-week fast with Lenten-type behaviour required.  These restrictions, however, were abolished in the twentieth century and the season is now one of reflection and spiritual preparation.

For liturgical churches of the West it marks the beginning of the Christian year. It is reckoned as a period of four Sundays beginning with the one closest to St Andrew’s Day on November 30. The faithful are to use this time to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love and also to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world. In church services, there are glorious hymns and lessons that point us to the prophecies and promises of coming redemption and the importance of heeding the injunction “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” 

November 30

November 30 is Saint Andrew’s Day. Andrew was a fisherman, the brother of Simon Peter and a follower of John the Baptist. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and was called by the Lord to be an apostle. Andrew appears a number of times in Gospels, such as when Jesus discusses the end of the world in Mark 13 and at the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6.

Legend says that after the death of Jesus Andrew travelled widely, spreading the faith to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, what is now Ukraine and Russia, Byzantium and the Balkans. The churches in Constantinople and Georgia thus claim an apostolic founder. In Greece he was martyred on an X-shaped cross which became his symbol. The saltire or St Andrew’s cross is on the flag of Scotland, which claims him as a patron saint, and on the naval flag of Russia, where he is also a patron. Because Andrew was the first disciple called by Jesus, his feast day heralds the start of the Christian calendar.

November 30 is also the birthday of Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, and the anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde.

For Winston Spencer Churchill I have nothing but praise. The greatest Briton of his era (and of all time according to a BBC poll which placed Princess Diana third, far ahead of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare) he saved civilization at the cost of the British Empire. He assumed office as the Allied position in the west was collapsing and the French government and army were too intent on speed-reading their German phrase books to defend their country. But herein lies a salutary lesson for those who think that the events of 1940 prove that Gauls are, by nature, cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Antony Beevor’s monumental history Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 notes that in the final few days of World War II, when Hitler lay dead and the survivors of the Nazi hierarchy were scuttling like rats out of the ruins of Berlin, the last Axis defenders in the city were Frenchmen. These remnants of the SS Charlemagne Division fought on in the wreckage of the Third Reich until they were overrun by the Red Army.

Mark Twain is little appreciated outside of the United States and for good reason. Next to Walt Whitman he is the most insufferable of American writers and next to Herman Melville the most unreadable.

There was a lot that was insufferable about Oscar Wilde too. He continually betrayed a loving wife and found furtive pleasure on the bodies of under-age servant boys and rancid young aristocrats. He made almost an entire career of far-too-artfully polished apothegms (‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.’) and a smirking inversion of received truths (‘As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them.’) He brought his sad end upon himself, but for the sake of his children’s stories, Oscar Wilde will be forgiven much. Requiescat in pace.

November 10

In these days when journalism is in so much disrepute and disrespect, it is useful to remember an earlier time when journalists might behave well. From Chambers’ Book of Days:

A remarkable instance was afforded, a few years ago, of the power of an English newspaper, and its appreciation by the commercial men of Europe. It is known to most readers at the present day, that the proprietors and editors of the daily papers make strenuous exertions to obtain the earliest possible information of events likely to interest the public, and take pride in insuring for this information all available accuracy and fulness; but it is not equally well known how large is the cost incurred by so doing. None but wealthy proprietors could venture so much, for an object, whose importance and interest may be limited to a single day’s issue of the paper.

In 1841, Mr. O’Reilly, the Times correspondent at Paris, received secret information of an enormous fraud that was said to be in course of perpetration on the continent. There were fourteen persons—English, French, and Italian—concerned, headed by a French baron, who possessed great talent, great knowledge of the continental world, and a most polished exterior. His plan was one by which European bankers would have been robbed of at least a million sterling; the conspirators having reaped about £10,000, when they were discovered. The grand coup was to have been this—to prepare a number of forged letters of credit, to present them simultaneously at the houses of all the chief bankers in Europe, and to divide the plunder at once. How Mr. O’Reilly obtained his information, is one of the secrets of newspaper management; but as he knew that the chief conspirator was a man who would not scruple to send a pistol-shot into any one who frustrated him, he wisely determined to date his letter to the Times from Brussels instead of Paris, to give a false scent. This precaution, it is believed, saved his life. The letter appeared in the Times on 26th May. It produced a profound sensation, for it revealed to the commercial world a conspiracy of startling magnitude.

One of the parties implicated, a partner in an English house at Florence, applied to the Times for the name of its informant; but the proprietors resolved to bear all the consequences. Hence the famous action, Bogle v. Lawson, brought against the printer of the Times for libel, the proprietors, of course, being the parties who bore the brunt of the matter. As the article appeared on 26th May, and as the trial did not come on till 16thAugust, there was ample time to collect evidence. The Times made immense exertions, and spent a large sum of money, in unravelling the conspiracy throughout. The verdict was virtually an acquittal, but under such circumstances that each party had to pay his own costs.

The signal service thus rendered to the commercial world, the undaunted manner in which the Times had carried through the whole matter from beginning to end, and the liberal way in which many thousands of pounds had been spent in so doing, attracted much public attention. A meeting was called, and a subscription commenced, to defray the cost of the trial, as a testimonial to the proprietors. This money was nobly declined in a few dignified and grateful words; and then the committee determined to perpetuate the memory of the transaction in another way. They had in their hands £2700, which had been subscribed by 38 public companies, 64 members of the city corporation, 58 London bankers, 120 London merchants and manufacturers, 116 county bankers and merchants, and 21 foreign bankers and merchants. In November, the committee made public their mode of appropriating this sum: namely, £1000 for a ‘Times Scholarship’ at Oxford, for boys in Christ’s Hospital; £1000 for a similar scholarship at Cambridge, for boys of the city of London School; and the remainder of the money for four tablets, to bear suitable inscriptions—one to be put up at the Royal Exchange, one at Christ’s Hospital, one at the City of London School, and one at the Times printing-office.