English: Crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A ‘Waits’ Carol’ (1642) to the tune ‘Greensleeves’, for New Year:
‘The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is enteréd,
Then let us now our sins down-tread,
And joyfully all appear;
Let’s merry be this day,
And let us now both sport and play:
Hang grief, cast care away!
From the Celtic Druids to the Romans to the Saxons, the British made a feature of welcoming the New Year, so the festival has been celebrated in Britain throughout its entire history, back at least as far as the time of Christ, and before Christmas was even thought of by an Early Church which was, in any case, more concerned with the powerful image of the King on the Cross rather than the babe in the manger. For three-quarters of that history, however, New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31st March. It was the French who changed the start of the year to Jan 1st in 1564, so that New Year gifts and cards were then transferred to January.
Obviously, everyone likes fresh starts and new opportunities, the chance to make resolutions, so the largely secular festival has won out over the Church’s celebration of the naming of Jesus, which I introduced yesterday and will write more about tomorrow. For the Eve of this celebration, the Methodist leader inaugerated the Watch Night Service still held in many parishes and wrote a special hymn for it, ‘Come let us anew our journey pursue’.
However, most people welcome in the New Year in Britain outside the Church, in pubs, clubs, hotels, in the streets, or at home. I remember, as a teenager, being sent by my school at New Year for a ‘Council for Education in World Citizenship’ Conference, which meant staying in a London hotel on New Year’s Eve. Naturally, our group wanted to go to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations, but on the way there by ‘tube’ I got off the train a stop early. Before I had noticed, the ‘sliding doors’ had closed and I was stranded, on my own in a strange city. As I made my way towards Nelson’s Column, looking for my own schoolmates, and failing to find them, I enjoyed a series of ‘interactions’ and conversations with revellers from all parts of London and further afield. After midnight, when everyone greeted everone else they could with ‘Happy New Year’ and kisses from strange girls were abundant, I was almost glad I’d lost my friends and been forced out of my natural shyness, introversion and traditional British reserve! Looking back on it now, and having since watched the film ‘Sliding Doors‘, I often wonder what would have happened had I been able to get back on that train, and not had to renew and ‘pursue’ my journey alone. Would I have missed one of those crucial turning points in my formative experiences? Trafalgar Square was, quite literally as well as metaphorically, just that for me.
In Scotland, the New Year is called ‘Hogmanay’, from the Old French ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ – ‘To the Mistletoe, the New Year’, the Druidical greeting given by revellers returning from the woods with boughs of mistletoe, like the one hanging from my first floor balcony. At midnight comes a note of solemnity and slight apprehension with the New Year ceremony of ‘first footing’. The household, in silence, listens for the stroke of midnight. As the last stroke of the twelve is sounded a knock at the door is heard. The door opens, revealing a strange man with dark hair. He enters without greeting, carrying a branch and a sprig of mistletoe. The branch he puts on the fire, the mistletoe on the mantelpiece. Then the silence is broken and he is given wine and cake by the master of the house and all greet each other with the New Year toast. The stranger may also bring bread, salt and coal, the symbols of hospitality and warmth. He can be offered a piece of silver and usually the stranger takes the mistletoe under which he kisses all the ladies!
The stranger represents the new-born year which comes in uninvited and cannot be turned away, bringing the promise of the light and warmth of the sun, made welcome in the darkest days of midwinter. The stranger might be asked to ‘first foot’ several times in the neighbourhood, but if no stranger was available, a member of the household would perform the ceremony, masked. More recently, a new variant of the custom has arisen, one which I participated in on my only visit to Edinburgh at New Year. All the men at a party go out just before midnight and all re-enter, following the youngest of the group. This merges the pagan tradition with the Christian one whereby the whole company went out shortly after midnight to offer triangular mince-pies known as ‘God’ cakes which symbolised the Trinity.
- English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert burns.jpg Replacement of existing commons image with higher res version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In 1841 Queen Victoria ordered New Year to be welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets, which, she observed ‘had a fine solemn effect which quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale, and had tears in his eyes, and pressed my hand very warmly.’ Of course, most of us ordinary folk have to make do with rather badly and incorrectly sung versions of ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ by Robert Burns.
- 37 Auld Lang Syne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Burns’ last line was not ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’…but…
‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
And gies a hand o’thine
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne’
Happy New Year! I hope it brings you resolutions to current conflicts and problems, fresh opportunities and turning points, with the courage to set off anew in pursuit of different routes on your journey.
When anyone asks me, ‘did you have a good Christmas?’ around this time, I usually answer in the present continuous. As Shakespeare knew well, there are twelve days to the festival, though these days the New Year celebration comes in the middle of these. Apparently, it was the French who ruined our traditional Christmas by, in 1564, decreeing that the New Year began on 1st January, not 1st April, as it had done up to then. We’re not exactly sure when the English followed suit, but the tradition of giving New Year cards and gifts and cards continued, for a joke, on what then became ‘April Fools’ Day‘. Jokes have to be made by mid-day on the day because that was originally when everybody had to get back to work after the first twelve hours of the New Year. Of course, most ‘gifts’ would have been given shortly after mid-night and people would have been given the twelve hours to sleep off the excesses of the night before.
When the Puritan Parliament prohibited Christmas festivities in the early 1640s, it was following the example set by the Scottish Presbyterians, since it needed their support in their increasingly common cause against the King and his revision of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, together with the imposition of an Episcopalian system on the Scots. Of course, at this time Scotland and England had separate parliaments, though ruled over by the same monarch. Christmas was viewed as a ‘Papist’ festival, lasting over twelve days of feasting, when little work got done. It was obvious to all that many of these festivities were pagan in origin and had no more to do with Christ’s birth than May Day had to do with Mary. While such festivities were restored in the “Merrie England” of Charles II, in Scotland they continued to be frowned upon until the 1950s, when the power of the Kirk finally began to wane, and the two-day Christmas holiday was officially reinstated. This explains why, to this day, the secular festival of “Hogmanay” or New Year remains the more important festival in Scotland, marked there by a two-day public holiday.
‘Holy Days’ are now reverting to being ‘holidays’ of course, as the now ubiquitous American English greeting ‘Happy holidays’ indicates, though, as my Vicar once reminded me, neither should Christians greet with ‘Happy Christmas’ until it actually comes, on the 25th, unless they are going away from their own parish. When St Augustine came to Canterbury, he realised the impracticability of eliminating former pagan customs in England. He didn’t object to people slaughtering an ox for the feast at a Christian celebration as they had done at their former rituals. This was called a ‘barbecue’, a word which describes the framework or table on which the ox is roasted, possibly an altar. It’s amusing to think that every time British or Australian people wheel out the ‘barbie’, they are in fact partaking in an ancient, pagan ritual, worshiping at the altar, no doubt with the ‘high-priest’ or ‘arch-druid’ in charge! A case of life imitating religion! Of course, only Aussies are able to do this ‘al fresco’ at Christmas, though our more hardy perennial ancestors would have seen it as being as much a winter custom as a fair-weather one, if not more so, gathering round the huge fire for warmth.
The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of course, these customs were not always welcomed by some clerics and certainly received a set-back under the strict Presbyterian governments of the mid-seventeenth century in England and Scotland. The easy return of ‘Merrie England’ under Charles II suggests that this has been exaggerated in its long-term effects, however. The motivation behind the discouragement of holidays was not solely religious, often reflecting a dissatisfaction with industrial or agricultural output, like Henry Ford‘s more recent support for Prohibition in the USA. In twelfth century Europe, including England, peasants’ holidays amounted to eight weeks in the year, with major festivals occupying ‘the octave’, eight days. Christmas, of course, headed the list, with its twelve days, with fun and games extending until Twelfth Night, with no New Year to get in the way then. While Church attendance was duly observed throughout, much of the celebration continued to owe far more to pre-Christian customs, which were not always very reverent.
Many festivals were lost with the new working patterns required by industrialisation from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, when Prince Albert and Charles Dickens effectively re-invented Christmas, importing German customs and reviving other more traditionally English ones. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often misread, with Scrooge appearing as an isolated miser, whereas the author actually meant it as an attack on the widespread support the Malthusian Poor Law System which all but did away with the system of outdoor relief for the ‘deserving poor’ which had existed since Elizabethan times. Just as a culture of ‘austerity’ has grown up in recent years, the 1830s had seen much popular support among the Victorian middle classes for the need to ‘reduce the surplus population’. Dickens was reminding these better-off Anglicans and Nonconformists of an older form of puritanism, which was most recently epitomised in the maxim of the great Methodist preacher John Wesley – earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Dickens was not against the values of diligence and thrift, but he urged people not to forget the ‘greatest’ value, ‘love’ of fellow humans, or caritas in Latin, giving us the word charity, or philanthropy and philadelphia from the Greek. A holiday visit to the theatre to see a clever adaptation of the great story reminded me of these original themes, its title, in Hungarian, Isten Pénze, reminding audiences that, in the end, all the wealth that any of us have belongs to God.
In the twentieth century, with automation and computerisation, we experienced a return to a shorter working week, broken up by longer holidays, taken at different times, according to personal preferences and family priorities, rather than being dictated by the Church, Government, or corporate industrialists. However, we still feel the need for common customs, whether Christian or pagan in origin, perhaps even more so in a fast-changing world.
[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
Festivals need not be spectacular events, but events which bind us together with significant activities. There is nothing so sad as a child on holiday saying, ‘I’m bored…I have nothing to do!’ Some festivals in Britain have been brought into our lives by followers of other faiths, enabling mutual understanding and integration in schools and society. All religions celebrate with festivals of light, their longing for a future world which is pure, peaceful and commonly good.
New Year and Christmas have competed for popularity since the calendar has been in its present form and the two festivals have never been equally celebrated, for instance, in England, Wales and Scotland. As already noted, in England and Wales, Christmas has been the major festival, although as one travels north and west the emphasis on New Year ‘wassails’ and ‘waits’ increases, whereas in Scotland, certainly since the Calvinist Reformation, New Year, or ‘Hogmanay’ is kept with greater vigour and excitement.
Here in Hungary, everyone is getting ready for ‘Szilveszter Nap’ (St Silvester’s Day) as it is known. So, whether continuing to celebrate Christmas, or welcoming the New Year, we’re all looking forward, or trying to!
Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), Royal Collection, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Fourth Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents: The Killing of the Children and the Escape to Egypt
The fourth day of Christmas, 28th, belongs to the Holy Innocents, recalling the fury of Herod when he learned that the wise men had found the child they looked for, but not returned to his court to report the find, choosing to return to their own country by another road, ‘since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’ (Matthew 2 v 12). The gospel-writer continues (vv 13-18, ‘Good News for Modern Man’):
The Escape to Egypt
‘After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and sais “Herod will be looking for the child in
order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”
‘Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my son out of Egypt.” ‘
The Killing of the Children
‘When Herod realised that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger – this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true:
“A sound is heard in Ramah,
the sound of bitter weeping.
Rachel is crying for her children;
she refuses to be comforted,
for they are dead.”
This story evokes memories of the Jewish captivity in Egypt when, fearing that the Jewish population was growing too numerous, the Pharaoh ordered all Jewish boy children to be killed at birth. Moses was saved then through the courage and ingenuity of his sister Miriam, and an angel of the Lord later avenged the deaths of the children, ‘passing over’ the homes of the Hebrews in visiting plague upon the new-born Egyptians, as the story goes.
- Ceausescu still present in our public space (Photo credit: energeticspell)
1989: The Fall of Romania’s Herod
The story is also a poignant and timely reminder of the evils of dictatorship. It was at this Christmas time, twenty-five years ago, in 1989, that the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu fell in Bucharest in the last of a series of revolutions which swept across Central-Eastern Europe in 1989. I remember the parallels which were dawn at that time between Ceausescu and Herod, though it was only some time later that the full horror of Romania’s orphanages were revealed. The revolution had begun in Transylvania, in the Hungarian-minority and dissident city of Timisoara, or Temesvár, where the secret police had opened fire on protesters who had gathered in support of the outspoken Reformed Church ‘pasztor’, Laszló Tökes.
On 22 December, Ceausescu staged a ‘demonstration of support’ in Bucharest which was infiltrated by dissidents who began cat-calling, booing and whistling. They were joined by those more forcibly assembled, and Ceausescu was forced to break off his speech, retire from the balcony and flee with his hated wife, Elena. They were caught, put on trial by the new military regime which had won a three day battle for control of the capitol, and shot on Christmas Day, their bodies being shown on television. By the end of 1989, the leaders of nearly all the ‘satellite’ Soviet states had been forced to hand over power. Except for Romania, hardly a drop of blood had been spilt. It was an ‘annus mirablis’ in the way that 2011 will be seen, if it isn’t already earning that accolade due to the uncertain outcome of violent events in Syria and elsewhere.
Since the time of King Saul, God had warned the Hebrews of the consequences of choosing Kings to rule over them, and ignoring the prophets. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Escape to Egypt, with Jesus becoming a refugee almost at birth, is a reminder of the costs of upholding dictatorship which are almost always visited on innocent generations to come. Pharaohs, Caesars and Herods will continue to come to power, unless challenged. Jesus himself epitomised this by ‘speaking truth to power’ to both Pilate and Herod, confrontations which led to his own bloody sacrifice for our freedom from tyrrany.
The ‘Coventry Carol‘ was performed as part of the pageant of the Guild of ‘Shearmen’ and Tailors on the 28th December, Holy Innocents’ Day, outside the Medieval Cathedral, the ruins of which themselves later became a symbol of resistance to dictatorship and commitment to reconciliation, linking the city to cities throughout the world, including Kecskemét in Hungary, where I live now. The dramatic contrast between Mary’s peaceful lullaby and Herod’s raging must have served as a warning to the city’s citizens about the ever-present proximity of violence and tyranny, at a time when Yorkist and Lancastrian Kings were warring with each other outside the city’s gate. We know that the Mystery Plays were watched in 1484 and 1492 respectively by both Richard III, whom Shakespeare later portrayed as a hunch-backed tyrant, murdering the innocent young princes in the Tower of London, and Henry VII, who had deposed Richard at nearby Bosworth Field, and was struggling to establish his Tudor dynasty with a combination of terror and guile. One wonders what was going through their minds as they watched the portrayal of ‘Herod’s Raging’ and the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’:
‘Charged he hath this day,
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.
‘That woe is me,
Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting,
Neither say nor sing,
By by, lully lullay!’
English: St John the evangelist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The third day of Christmas, 27th December, apart from its association with ‘three French hens’ in the popular song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, is devoted by the Church to St John the Evangelist, the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved‘ and the writer of the fourth gospel. The opening of this gospel provides the ninth ‘lesson’ in the service of nine lessons and carols, and is a fitting ‘lesson’ on the significance of Christ‘s Coming, contrasting with the narratives of Matthew and Luke which precede it.
Ninth lesson: John 1, vv1-14:
‘Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. The Word was the source of life, and this source of life, and this life brought life to mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
‘God sent his messenger, a man named John, who came to tell people about the light, so that all should hear the message and believe. He himself was not the light; he came to tell about the light. This was the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind.
‘The Word was in the world, and though God made the world through him, yet the world did not recognise him. Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God’s children. They did not become God’s children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.
‘The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father‘s only son.’
English: Harlequin and Columbine from the mime theater at Tivoli, Denmark. Dansk: Harlekin og Columbine i pantomimeteatret i Tivoli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Boxing Day and the days following often see the start of the pantomime season in Britain, although the 20th century shows presented in the professional theatres are often little more than musical reviews paying lip-service to the stories advertised in their titles. Even after the growth of the ‘sophisticated’ adult pantomimes of the English theatre, based on popular fairy tales like Cinderella, Puss-in-Boots and Dick Whittington, some respect was paid to the real pantomime of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte by adding an impromptu Harlequinade after the main presentation. This little comedy with Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon the clown, and so on, using numerous swing-doors and trap-doors, was still a part of English pantomime well into the 1920s. With the revival of pantomime in the 1970s, some companies have reintegrated these elements in the main pantomime, for young audiences, involving them through interactive participation. However, health and safety inspectors have made this more difficult, banning the throwing of boiled sweets into the audience, etc., perhaps with some justification. Playing ‘Five Wits’ in a performance of ‘Everyman’ in the 1980s, I was reprimanded for throwing a bread roll into the audience, accidentally hitting the Chairman of Governor’s wife!
- Weston Mummers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Another form of theatrical presentation with an even older ancestry, often seen at Christmas time, is the presentation of the Mummers’ Play, probably as popular today in some places as ever, following the folk revival and the enduring popularity of Morris (‘Moorish’) Dancing since the 1960s. The words of the play are rarely written down, as it is meant to be open to interpretation and improvisation. Traditionally, the players are ordinary country folk, getting together to rehearse and then, at Christmas, presenting an ancient story evoking the England of the Crusades and perhaps stirring even more distant memories of the Slain God of the Winter Solstice, yet not so dead as to be able to live again with the coming lengthening days. The principal characters are Father Christmas, Turkey Snipe (no connection with the bird!), Quack Doctor, Robin Hood and so on. Aside from these common personae, there are as many versions as there are companies that present the plays, often accompanied by a programme of Morris Dancing.
This year, 2015, we are keeping up this theatrical tradition by going to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Katona Theatre in Kecskemét, Hungary. A familiar piece in any language!