English: Russian poet Boris Pasternak. Русский: Русский поэт Борис Пастернак. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Happy Christmas (when it comes; Christmas Day is on 7th in the Julian calendar) to all my Russian friends, colleagues, and former Russian-speaking students, as well as to other Eastern Orthodox adherents from other cultures. Just as we in the West finish our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations, so they begin in what was once the Eastern half of Christendom. I once took a group of Hungarian students ‘west’ for the first time on 6th January 1991, to Birmingham. We began with a tour of Selly Oak and Bourneville. We visited the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there was a truly wonderful Christmas Eve service taking place, led by a male voice choir singing vespers, the congregation standing in the domed auditorium. Even in the dim candle-light, the colourful frescoes added to the sacred atmosphere. We had travelled west to be transported east!
Here, I’ve ‘imported’ an ‘iconic’ picture from a sixteenth century text held in the Hungarian National Library, ‘A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata’ (‘The Oriental Wise Astrologers’). A print of this appears in a multi-lingual anthology of poetry, ‘Karácsonyi csillag’, published by Európa Press, Budapest, in 1990, which I was given for my first Christmas in Hungary, just two weeks before the sojourn in Birmingham.
The illustration (below) appears opposite Boris Pasternak‘s poem in Russian, ‘Christmas Star’, with a translation into Hungarian provided by Judit Pór.
A Napkeleti Bölcsek Hódolata, Francia Művész, 15. Század Vege. Hóráskönyv.
- Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of Soviet Writers, in 1934 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ez a tél. Ez a tél.
Feleútban a hegynek
fel a sziklaodúban fázik a gyermek
Fuj a pusztai szél
Ökör melegíti, meleg lehelet.
Csak állnak a barlang
középben a barmok,
a valyu felett dús pára lebeg.
Lerázza a pásztornép
szalmát a subárol
félébren a távol
éjfélbe bámul már odafent.
Lenn hóban a kis temető meg a rét
meg a kert, kocsi rúdja
mered ki a bucka
alól, tele van csillaggal az ég.
Köztük mécsnél bátortalanabb
csillag – sose járt itt
azelőtt – haloványlik,
és Betlehemét keresi, oda tert…..
Journey of the Magi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With the ‘Octave of Christmas‘ now over and having celebrated Jesus ‘the light of the gentiles’, non-Jews, we look forward to the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ to those people, as represented in the journey and visit of the ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’. Of course, it has become traditional and convenient to place them in the crib scene on Christmas Eve, three of them, but they didn’t arrive until some time after the visit of shepherds arrived at the manger and probably visited Jesus at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. We don’t know how many there were of them, only that they presented three types of gift. Only Luke mentions the ‘manger’, simply a feeding trough for animals, and the story of the magi’s visit to ‘a house’ is found only in Matthew’s gospel, along with the escape into Egypt along the Via Maris, the Sea Road, to the south of Gaza, and Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem.
The Magi Journeying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, in the final days of Christmas we can think about the journey of the magi, their visit to Herod, and their search for the child. Much has been written about this, in both words and music, perhaps the most well-read passage being from
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey.
In my family, there are three brothers, and when my Baptist Minister father was still alive, we would gather round the piano, each singing a solo verse of ‘We Three Kings‘ as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, each explaining the purposes of the gifts. There’s a story that when the three wise men first met on their journey to Palestine, the first was convinced that the child was to be a great King and that it was fitting to take a gift of gold. The second was equally sure that the child they were going to greet was to be a great High Priest, to be worshipped over all the world and for him the symbol of praise, incense, would be appropriate. The third wise man said that they were both wrong and that the child would grow up to be the one who would, by sacrifice of his own life, save the world. For such a person, myrrh was correct.
They journeyed together. As they neared the home of the infant Jesus they heard Mary singing The Magnificat. They listened to the words, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. ‘Ah,’ said the first wise man, ‘I was right. He will be a great Lord, a King.’ They paused as Mary continued her song with ‘My spirit doth rejoice in God‘. ‘There you are,’ said the second, ‘He is to be a great High Priest, a God.’ Then Mary added, ‘My Saviour’, and the third wise man congratulated himself on his prophecy that Jesus would be both sacrifice and saviour. Of course, they were all correct in their prophesies and all three gifts were significant and appropriate to celebrate the birth of the whole world’s King, High Priest and Saviour.
Malvolio and the Countess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, is not marked in Britain with the ceremonies accorded to it over a century ago. Some Churches still have their ‘Christingle’ services or ‘Crib’ services at this time, placing the three wise men, together with pages, or servants, in their positions in the stable, to complete the Christmas scene. All that remains in most homes on Twelfth Night in Britain is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the tree. However, four hundred years ago, the Night was important enough for Shakespeare to write a play about it, since parties were held in almost every household. As evening closed in, pastry cooks’ windows gleamed and good trade was had in the sale of ‘Twelfth Cakes’, large and small, decorated with stars, castles, dragons, kings, palaces and churches in white icing with varied colours. At each party a king or queen had to be discovered. This was a kind of lottery, for in each cake was hidden a pea or a bean. The child who found the bean became king, and the one finding the pea became queen. If the bean was first found by a girl, or vice versa, the finders had to choose a partner. Sometimes the peas and beans were replaced by silver coins. At some parties a complete court was appointed, and due honours paid to its various members.
In apple-producing areas of the West Country, until the late nineteenth century, men and women went out after dark, the men armed with shot guns and one of them carrying a bucket of cider which was then set down among the trees. Each man took a cup of cider and after drinking some, poured the remainder over the roots of the tree. He then placed a piece of Twelfth Cake in the fork of the tree ‘for the robin’. The company then called out, ‘Wes hal’ (‘wassail’) meaning ‘good health’. The men then raised their guns and shot into the air. The ceremony was intended to secure a good crop of apples in the coming year, and the final days of Christmas in these areas were known as ‘wassailing’ days, with each county developing its own song, the most famous of which are the Gower (south Wales), Somerset and Gloucestershire ‘wassails’. Naturally, there’s often a lot of overlap between them in both words and music:
Wassail (Photo credit: Celtic Myth Podshow)
‘Wassail, and wassail, all over the town!
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;
Our cup it is made of the good ashen tree,
And so is our malt of the best barley:
No harm boys, no harm; no harm, boys, no harm;
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.‘
‘We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear,
So that we may have cider when we come next year;
And where we have one barrel we hope you have ten,
So that we may have cider we come again:
For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail!
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail!‘
Perhaps the carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was an attempt to transform these ancient customs into Christian symbols. Certainly, following Twelfth Night, we look forward to the childhood of Jesus, about which we know very little. The only story the gospel-writers give us is Luke’s story about his second visit to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years of age, in which we see him as a lively lad noted for the way he went on asking questions. Luke also tells us twice that he grew strong in body and wisdom, gaining favour with both God and men. Rather like the apple trees, having God’s blessings upon him. So, may…
7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
‘God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children,
That round the table go:
Love and Joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you
‘And all your kin and kinsfolk,
That dwell both far and near;
I wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a happy New Year:
Love and Joy….!‘
From Ritson’s Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1829, copied from a seventeenth century manuscript.