The Evolution of Christmas By William Shepard Walsh 1909
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If all the devils in hell had put their heads together to devise a feast that should utterly scandalize Christianity, they could not have improved upon this one.
Now I must own that at first sight it is difficult to explain how the Christ-child of the past—the Holy One whose birth is remembered and honored in that feast which we call Christmas, should gradually have been changed into the white-haired, white-bearded, merry-hearted and kindly old pagan whom we sometimes call Christ-Kinkle but more frequently Santa Klaus.
Yet at the very moment when we come face to face with this difficult problem we have reached the explanation which seemed impossible when we strove to understand the much less startling transformation of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, into Santa Klaus, patron of the Christmas season.
We remember that the Christmas festival of to-day is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period. We remember that though it celebrates the mightiest event in the history of Christendom, it was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial.
This was no mere accident. It was a necessary measure at a time when the new religion was forcing itself upon a deeply superstitious people. In order to reconcile fresh converts to the new faith, and to make the breaking of old ties as painless as possible, these relics of paganism were retained under modified forms, in the same way that antique columns, transferred from pagan temples, became parts of the new churches built by Christians in honor of their God and his saints.
Thus we find that when Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine as a missionary to convert Anglo-Saxon England he directed that so far as possible the saint should accommodate the new and strange Christian rites to the heathen ones with which the natives had been familiar from their birth. For example, he advised Saint Augustine to allow his converts on certain festivals to eat and kill a great number of oxen to the glory of God the Father, as formerly they had done this in honor of the devil. All pagan gods, it should be explained, were looked upon as devils by the early Christians.
On the very Christmas after his arrival in England Saint Augustine baptized many thousands of converts and permitted their usual December celebration under the new name and with the new meaning. He forbade only the mingling together of Christians and pagans in the dances.
From these early pagan-Christian ceremonies are derived many of the English holiday customs that have survived to our day.
Now get clearly into your head one very important fact. Although at the time when Augustine visited England the date of Christmas had been fixed upon as December 25 there is no biblical reason why this should be so. The gospels say nothing about the season of the year when Christ was born. On the other hand they do tell us that shepherds were then guarding their flocks in the open air. Hence many of the early fathers of the Church considered it most likely that the Nativity took place either in the late summer or the early fall. The point was of no great moment to them, as the early Church made more fuss over the death day of a great or holy person than over his birthday. The birthday is only the day when man is born into mortality, the death-day chronicles his birth into immortality.
The important fact then which I have asked you to get clearly into your head is that the fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism.
For countless centuries before the Christian era pagan Europe, through all its various tribes and peoples, had been accustomed to celebrate its chief festival at the time of the winter solstice, the turning point when winter, having reached its apogee, has also reached the point when it must begin to decline again towards spring.
The last sentence requires further explanation. I shall try to put it into words as simple as possible.
You must be aware of the fact that the shortest day in the year is December 21st. Therefore that is the day when winter reaches its height.
It was on or about December 21st that the ancient Greeks celebrated what are known to us as the Bacchanalia or festivities in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. [Bacchus is the Latin name for this God. The Greek name was Dionysos. This festival therefore is more properly the Dionysiac feast, but the habit of calling Greek Gods by their Roman names is so general among us that it is as well to stick to Bacchus and Bacchanalia.] In these festivities the people gave themselves up to songs, dances and other revels which frquently passed the limits of decency and order.
In ancient Rome the Saturnalia, or festivals in honor of Saturn, the god of time, began on December 17th and continued for seven days. These also often ended in riot and disorder. Hence the words Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times.
We are most interested in the festivals of the ancient Teutonic (or German) tribes because they are most closely linked with Christmas as we ourselves celebrate it.
The pagan feast of the Twelve Nights was religiously kept by them from December 25th to January 6th, the latter day being known, as it is still known to their descendants, as Twelfth Night. The Teutonic mind personified the active forces of nature,— that is to say it pictured them as living beings.
The conflicts between these forces were represented as battles between gods and giants.
Winter, for example, was the Ice-giant,—cruel, boisterous, unruly, the destroyer of fife, the enemy alike of gods and men. Riding on his steed, the all-stiffening North Wind, he built up for himself great castles of ice. Darkness and death followed in his wake.
But the Sun-god and the South Wind, symbols of light and life, gave battle to the Ice-giant. At last Thor, the god of the Thunderstorm, riding on the wings of the air, hurled his thunderbolt at the winter castle, and demolished it. Then Freija, the goddess of fruits and flowers, resumed her former sway. All of which is only a poetical way of saying that after the Ice-giant had conquered in winter he was in his turn overthrown by the Sun-god in spring.
Now the twenty-first day of December, the depth of winter, marked the period when the Ice-giant was in the full flush of his triumph and also marked the beginning of his overthrow. It was the turning point in the conflict of natural forces. The Sun-god having reached the goal of the winter solstice, now wheeled around his fiery steeds and became the sure herald of the coming victory of light and life over darkness and death of spring over winter.
A thousand indications point to the fact that Christmas has incorporated into itself all these festivals, Greek, Roman and German, and given them a new meaning. The wild revels of the Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia and the Twelve Nights survive in a milder form in the merriment and jollity which mark the season of Christmas to-day.
Christmas gifts themselves remind us of the presents that were exchanged in Rome during the Saturnalia. In Rome, it might be added, the presents usually took the form of wax tapers and dolls,—the latter being in their turn a survival of the human sacrifices once offered to Saturn.
It is a queer thought that in our Christmas presents we are preserving under another form one of the most savage customs of our barbarian ancestors!
The shouts of "Bona Saturnalia!" which the Roman people exchanged among themselves are the precursors of our "Merry Christmas!" The decorations and illuminations of our Christian churches recall the temples of Saturn, radiant with burning tapers and resplendent with garlands. The masks and mummeries which still survive here and there, even in the America of to-day, and which were especially prominent in the Middle Ages, were prominent also in the Saturnalian revels.
And a large number of the legends, superstitions and ceremonials which have crystallized around the Christian festival in Europe and America are more or less distorted reminiscences of the legends, superstitions and ceremonials of the Twelve Nights of ancient Germany.
And now you may be tempted to ask, "What bearing has all this stuff about the pagan festivals upon the question of the identity of our old friend Santa Klaus?
I am coming to that. In every one of these festivals the leading figure was an old man, with a lot of white beard and white hair rimming his face.
In the Bacchanalia the representative god was not the young Bacchus, but the aged, cheery and decidedly disreputable Silenus, the chief of the Satyrs and the god of drunkards.
In the Saturnalia it was Saturn, a dignified and venerable old gentleman—the god of Time.
In the Germanic feasts it was Thor, a person of patriarchal aspect, and a warrior to boot.
Now, although the central figure of the Christian festival was the child-god—the Christ-Kindlein— none the less the influence of long pagan antecedents was too strong within the breast of the newly Christianized world to be readily dismissed. The tradition of hoary age as the true representative of the holiday period, a tradition, it will be seen, in which all pagan nations agreed, still remained smouldering under the ashes of the past. It burst into flame again when the past was too far back to be looked upon with dislike or disquietude by the Church. No longer did there seem to be any danger of a relapse into the religious errors of that past.
At first the more dignified representative was chosen as more in keeping with a solemn season. Saturn was preferred to Silenus, and was almost unconsciously rebaptized as Saint Nicholas, the latter being the greatest saint whose festival was celebrated in December and the one who in other respects was most nearly in accord with the dim traditions of Saturn as the hero of the Saturnalia.
If you look at the pictures printed in this book you will see that in face and figure the Saint Nicholas of the early painters was not unlike the ancient idea of Saturn.
And it was many, many years before Saint Nicholas had ousted the Christ-child from the first place in the Christmas festivities. Indeed, as we shall see, he often accompanied his Master on His Christmas rounds. It may be added that he still does so in certain country places in Europe where the modern spirit has been least felt.
In course of time, as the idea of worldly merriment at the Christmas season prevailed over that of prayer and thanksgiving, the name Saint Nicholas gradually merged into the affectionate diminutive of Santa Klaus. Under the new name the old saint lost all his austerity. He became ruddier, jollier, more rubicund in aspect, while the Christ-Kindlein faded more and more into the background, until at last the very name of the latter, under the slightly different form of Kris-Kinkle, was transferred to his successor.
And now compare the pictures of Santa Klaus which are scattered through this book with that of Silenus. Is it not evident that the one is a revival of the other, changed, indeed, in certain traits of character, sobered up, washed and purified, clad in warm garments that are more suited to the wintry season which he has made his own, but still the god of good fellows,-the representative of good health, good humor and good cheer?
Extremes meet once more. The most modern hero of the season of merriment is a return to the most ancient. The Santa Klaus of to-day is the Silenus of an unknown antiquity.
Let us learn a little more about Silenus. He was the tutor of Bacchus and seems to have had so much respect for his pupil that his life after the invention of wine was one long spree. It was a merry and good-natured spree, however. Silenus never became maudlin or quarrelsome in his cups. He was the most jovial of tipplers. His outlook upon life was as rosy as his nose. A cheery laugh beamed over his large fat face, the light of humor twinkled in his beady eyes, his rotund stomach spoke of good cheer, his smile beamed assurance of an unruffled disposition.
Among all the brute creation he chose an ass, that caricature of the ·horse, as his favorite charger. He always appeared with a troupe of laughing fauns and satyrs around him, and his advent was everywhere the signal for quips and cranks and wreathed smiles.
Now Saint Nicholas, also, in former times used to ride abroad on an ass, and still continues to do so in certain portions of Europe. In fact, as already noted, all the genial traits of Silenus, save only that of drunkenness, are reproduced in Santa Klaus, the jolly pagan who is to-day the personification of Christmas.
But though a modernized pagan god holds this important position in our festival, everything that could be offensive in the old pagan way of celebrating it has been abolished.
It was not always so. The Church which so wisely sought to retain the old heathen fonns, found it often very hard, and sometimes impossible, to subdue the heathen spirit. In spite of the protests of priests and the anathemas of popes, in spite of the condemnation of all wise and good men, Christians in the early days frequently reproduced all the worst follies and vices of the Bacchanalia and the Saturnalia. Even the clergy were for a period whirled into the vortex. A special celebration, called the Feast of Fools, was instituted in their behalf with a view, said the doctors of the Church, that "the folly which is natural to and born with us might exhale at least once a year." The intention was excellent. But in practice the liberty so accorded speedily degenerated into license.
Early in the history of the Church excesses were so great that a council of bishops held at Auxerre was moved to inquire into the matter. Gerson, the most noted theologian of the day, made an immense sensation by declaring that "if all the devils in hell had put their heads together to devise a feast that should utterly scandalize Christianity, they could not have improved upon this one."
If even among the clergy heathen traditions survived so strenuously, what wonder that they survived among the laity? The wild revels, indeed, of the Christmas period in olden times almost stagger belief. No amount of drunkenness, no blasphemy, no obscenity was frowned upon. License was carried to the utmost limits of licentiousness. Even in the seventeenth century, when the revels had been slightly toned down, Master William Prynne discovered in them those vestiges of paganism which are apparent enough to the historian of to-day.
"If we compare," he says in his Histrio-Mastix, "our Bacchanalian Christmas and New Year's tides with these Saturnalia and feasts of Janus, we shall find such near affinity between them, both in regard of time,—they being both in the end of December and the first of January—and in their manner of solemnizing—both being spent in revelling, epicurism, wantonness, idleness, dancing, drinking, stage-plays, masques and carnal pomp and jollity—that we must conclude the one to be but the ape, or issue, of the other."
The very excesses of the Christmas period proved their own eventual cure. In England the Puritans revolted so bitterly that they for a period put an end to Christmas altogether. In Europe the revolution was more gradual. But everywhere a change of manners and of morals has purified the festival over which Santa Klaus presides, and Santa Klaus himself, even if we look upon him as a revival of the pagan Silenus, is a Silenus freed from all the offensive features of paganism, a Silenus who with his new baptismal name has taken on a new character.
It must be remembered, however, that Santa Klaus does not rule all over the Christian world. There is even a wide difference between our Santa Klaus and the Saint Nicholas of Southern France and Germany. The latter, grave, sedate, severe, preserves more of the Saturn than the Silenus type. He is Saturn christianized and dignified with episcopal robes. He distributes gifts like our Santa Klaus, but in addition to gifts for good little boys and girls, he carries a birch-rod for bad ones. In the more primitive sections, such as certain parts of Lorraine, the Tyrol, Bohemia and so on, he is attended by an evil spirit called Ruprecht who looks after bad boys and girls.
It is also frequently the custom on Christmas Day for a couple or more of maskers to dress themselves up as Saint Nicholas and Ruprecht, and other attendants, such as the Christ-child or St. Peter or who not,—these additional characters varying with the locality. They go from house to house rewarding the good children and punishing the bad.
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