Judas and Christmas

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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.

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