Christmastide

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm,
So hallow’d and gracious is the time. –Hamlet

I thought today, Dec 27, the Feast of St John (and my own name day), would be an apt time to reflect on it, and to urge my fellow traditionalists to continue the Christly and Christian work of Keeping the Feast and Partyin’ On! Let us pause for unsolemn reflection on these solemnities.

We all know the Twelve Days of Christmas from a famous nonsense song about a lady whose true love gives her 184 birds of various types, not to mention 12 fruit trees, 40 golden rings, 106 persons of the various professions either musical or milkmaidenly, and 32 members of the aristocracy variously cavorting.

No doubt you have ever wondered how the lady in the song feeds all the leaping lords and dancing ladies, pipers, drummers, and milkmaids now living in her parlor, the answer is that she feeds them the 22 turtledoves, 30 French hens, 36 colly birds, and 42 swans, not to mention the nice supply of eggs from the geese, milk from the cows and pears from the pear trees.

You may have heard that the lyrics contain a secret meaning, referring to Catholic doctrines or rites forbidden by Oliver Cromwell. This is true. The secret meaning is that the Walrus is St. Paul, and if you listen to a record of the carol backward, it says “Cromwell under his wig is bald.” All this is well known.

What is not as well known is that traditionally, these are twelve days of feasts which start on Christmas Day and run through to Epiphany on January 6th, which is the festival variously of the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple. (Really hard core Christmasteers extend Christmastide 40 days, ending on Candlemas February 2).

Before Christmas, during the season of Advent, while everyone else is shopping and partying, we who keep the traditions fast, pray, do penance, and make ourselves miserable. It makes the holiday much brighter by contrast.

After Christmas, the radio stations shut off their Xmas music and shops fold up their Santa Claus decorations at the stroke of Midnight on Dec 25th, just as Santa passes overhead in his sleigh, so as to make room for the Season of Returned Gifts for Store Credit which comes next in the Secular Calendar, followed by New Year’s Day and Saint Valentine’s Day. (The ACLU has not yet discovered that word ‘Saint’ in Saint Valentine’s Day nor Saint Patrick’s Day, nor hidden in Spanish in the names for San Francisco or Sacramento or San Diego or Santa Monica to have them removed and sterilized. The Bureau of Unmemory, commanded by Big Brother to remove all traces of Christ from Christendom, alas, has work that is never done.)

So the secular world never actually celebrates the real Christmas, which is two days shy of a fortnight of feast and festivity. And since the seculars never forswear self-indulgence (except during sports training) they don’t have the peculiar joy of following a fast with as feast. (For a similar reason, seculars don’t get to celebrate a Honeymoon. When you marry your artificially sterile live-in paramour of the last two years, nor does she change her last name, what differs except your income tax returns?)

So what are the Twelve Days? And why are there Thirteen of them?

I have not been able to find easy to hand a list of the Twelve Days of Christmas for 2011-2012. Here is my own list I have gathered from various sources:

Christmas: December 25th–The Nativity of Our Lord
December 26th—Feast of St. Stephen, first martyr
December 27th—Feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist
December 28th—Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs
December 29th—Memorial of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury, bishop and martyr
December 30th—Feast of the Holy Family
December 31st—Memorial of St. Sylvester I, pope (in Eastern Church, this is the Apodosis, or final day of the Afterfeast)
January 1st —Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
January 2nd —Memorials of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors
January 3rd —Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus
January 4th —St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
January 5th —Memorial of St. John Neumann, bishop & St. Telesphorus, pope and martyr
January 6th —Epiphany (traditional)

And, for the sake of completeness, for those of you who want another few Christmas days tacked onto the twelve:
January 7th —Memorial of St. Raymond of Penafort, priest
January 8th —The Epiphany of the Lord Old Calendar(new) Feast of the Holy Family (traditional)
January 9th —Baptism of the Lord

First, why are there a Baker’s Dozen of days in the Twelve Days? That answer is easy enough. Christianity was invented before people learned how to count. That is why there is no Year Zero, and why the Millennium began on 2001 rather than on 2000 like everyone expected, and why the Twentieth Century is in the 1900’s. This is also why Christ was said to be “three days and three nights in the grave” even though tradition puts the Crucifixion on a Friday and Resurrection on a Sunday (which is only two nights). The inability of Christians to count also explains why Martin Luther, who taught that scripture and scripture alone was the sacrosanct and sole and sufficient and complete embodiment of Christian teaching, did not get all the books in scripture that are supposed to be there: he miscounted by seven. This is all because the Arabs did not invent the zero until the year 1000 (which, at that time, was written 1???) and so Bakers in Dark Ages, as well as everyone else, added an extra one to everything.

Second, what are the Twelve Days?

The Feast of Stephen we all remember from the words of that Carol no one remembers all the words to, Good King Wenceslaus.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”

(Some stanzas about the page boy whining about the snow omitted. Wimp.)

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!

Saint Stephen’s is the day when, traditionally, the scraps and leftovers from the Christmas feasting of the day before would be given to the wretched, poor and needy so that they could make merry, and also catch infectious disease from the goose leg you took one bite out of, before passing out from wassail fumes.

Particularly nice Christians (also known as “saints”) like Wenceslas, would actually get clean food from the larder (also know as “not-previously-owned-food”) and carry it to the poor — including wine and flesh and, if the poor people were REALLY hungry, pine logs.

The traditional celebration for the Feast of St Stephen is to share your bounty with the poor, such as by giving them the Christmas presents you don’t really want. Also, the day is set aside for horse parades and races, and as a feast for Deacons of the Church. It is a day for the blessing of oats and hay.

The Feast of Saint John the Evangelist is Dec 27th. Tradition holds that the saint was forced to drink of cup in which poison lurked, but took no hurt from it. In sacred art, this is often represented by showing John with a cup from which snakes rise. Traditionally, it is the day to bless the wine. It is also the festival for Priests.

The feast day of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, is Dec 28th and commemorates the massacre of the children of Bethlehem by Herod the Great. These children are considered martyrs by the Church.

The traditional celebration is to get into a theological argument with a Protestant about infant baptism and limbo. It is a contest where, whose ever theology makes God sound more arbitrary and cruel, wins. As of last round, the Calvinists are ahead of the Albigensians.

Just kidding. It is feast for choir boys and the youngsters. The tradition holds it as a time to bless the crib, or to place the youngest novice in charge of the Abbey for a day. You eat pudding or some other food fit for babies on the day.

The Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury is an optional memorial. The traditional celebration I think is to drink cider and stab a bishop to death in an English cathedral.

The Feast of the Holy Family is the 3oth of December this year. (The Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated on the Sunday following Christmas, unless that Sunday is January 1st.) I am not sure what the tradition is on this day, either uprooting your family because of a bad dream and fleeing to Egypt or else getting your twelve-year-old lost in Jerusalem and not noticing he’s missing for the whole day.

Saint Sylvester’s Day is Dec 31st. His papacy is commemorated for the end of the persecutions under the Roman Emperors, and so his day becomes a symbol for peace on Earth. The tradition is to have the father bless all members of his family on that day, and for children to give thanks to their parents for their love and care.

The Solemnity of Mary is the same day as the Circumcision of the Lord. Unlike every other feast in the season, this is somewhat subdued memorial, since, technically speaking, the precious blood of Our Lord was shed this day. We also like to be solemn when the rest of the world is drunk and happy, just to be contrary.

The tradition in Patagonia, I believe, is for men to reflect on this day by clutching the groin and wincing, and giving thanks to Saint Paul that the Laws of Moses do not apply to Christians in their literal full force; and for wives slyly to point out that, of the two out of the three members of the Holy Family who were conceived immaculate and without sin, and ascended to heaven or were assumed to heaven for their coronation, neither one was the man of the household. Traditionally the men then grumble in mutters about uppity women and listen with agog disbelief to feminist complaining that the Roman Catholic Church is misogynistic.

Just kidding. There are no feminists in Patagonia. In reality January 1st is the feast for subdeacons.

New Year’s Eve is also the Feast of Fools, which, come to think of it, a lot of people still keep, in their own way, usually by trying to operate a motor vehicle while beer-blurred.

The Memorial of the Holy Name is on January 3rd and the Epiphany is on the 6th. Epiphany is actually three celebrations in one, since it commemorates the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, and the Wedding Feast at Cana, each one of which, in its own way, can claim to be the first revelation of the Christ to the world.

Mormons and Christian Scientists celebrate Christ turning water into wine by refusing to drink wine. Or something like that.

The traditions of his day include the blessing of the waters, the eating of King’s Cake. A particularly cute tradition is to move the figurines of the Three Kings of the Nativity scene closer to the manger every day, and let them touch it on Epiphany.

It is also Twelfth Night, for which the Shakespeare play is named, is traditionally a fancy dress masquerade. It represents the topsy turvy nature of the Incarnation, the the King disguised as poor child, and shepherds hearing the tidings kings and high priests are not told. The various antics in the Shakespeare play, disguises and mistaken identities, capture this spirit of foolery.

The Sunday after Epiphany was the older date for the Feast of the Holy Family. As Pope Leo XIII explains, there is a lesson in this family for everyone: for fathers, for mothers, for children; for nobility (the Holy Family was from the royal house of David), for the poor (they gave up their possessions in fleeing to Egypt), and so on. On this day was held the “Shepherds’ Procession” as the children marched through the church dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses.

So, dear readers, there are a lot of old traditions around, like toys in a grandfather’s attic, our mothers’ dolls or fathers’ tin soldiers, still worth taking down and playing with.

Again, these traditions are like faded photographs showing scenes of joy it is better we not forget, lest, in our forgetfulness, we become too much like the world.

 

15 Comments

  1. Comment by Bobby Trosclair:

    Kind of off-topic, but I just (re)read the wonderful Gene Wolfe Christmas short story “No Planets Strike,” whose titled derives from the lines from Hamlet you quoted:

    The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
    No fairy takes, no witch has power to charm,
    So hallow’d and gracious is the time. –Hamlet

    Although the reference is to the neutralization of any malign supernatural astrological influences at Christmastime, as a kid when I originally read those lines I thought (like Gene) that it meant we were safe from extraterrestrial invasion on Christmas Eve (contra the film “Santa Claus Versus the Martians”). It helped me sleep a little better!

    (Gene’s Christmas stories are wonderful – “Le Befana,” “War Under the Tree,” and even the dark “And When They Appear.)

    It seems modern culture has its priorities backwards in many ways. Instead of spiritually preparing for Christmas through Advent, we now often make consumerist preparation the focus. Instead of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, many are in a hurry to take down the tree and lights and forget the whole thing.

  2. Comment by Raphael:

    Thank you; I enjoyed this. Here at my house we are very strict in our observances. Invariably, we decorate a Jesse tree with rather idiosyncratic ornaments throughout Advent; we then watch It’s a Wonderful Life on the 23rd, decorate for Christmas on the 24th, and take everything down at Epiphany. Christmas Eve dinner is always tamales with rice and mole sauce and fried plantains. We also light lumenarias out front. But our tree, alas, is artificial, because here in South Texas it’s pretty hard to get a real one close to the holiday.

    I’m half Puerto Rican. When I was a kid we would leave hay out at Epiphany (which we always called Three Kings Day) for the camels of the magi, rather like leaving cookies out for Santa. In return we would get a small gift. Sometimes, if my parents didn’t have it together, we would leave lettuce instead of hay, which they assured us was also eaten by camels.

  3. Comment by Cambias:

    I thought the tradition was to spend the Feast of St. Sylvester trying to capture a golden bird. Whoever gets the golden bird gains the ability to cure speech impediments.

  4. Comment by idontknowbut@gmail.com:

    Fleeing to Egypt was a little easier than it might have been because of some expensive presents they’d just received.

    It got to be almost a joke with our family: if an unexpected windfall arrived, something was about to break on the car. God’s “just-in-time” provision: too soon and we’d have spent it on something else, too late and we’d lose work time… Not a tradition, exactly, but something in common with the Holy Family.
    jim

    I persuaded my better half that we should have a “traditional” tree, i.e. the same tree every year. In recent years we’ve invited international students (usually Chinese) over for dinner and tree decoration, with explanations of family history and the Christmas story that go with the ornaments.

  5. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    not to mention the nice supply of eggs from the geese, milk from the cows and pairs from the pair trees.

    Pardon me, but I do believe she and her retinue would be better fed with pears than “pairs” as I’m not sure how well one can eat a numerical concept.

    Though a tree that only grows things in twos is begging for a place in a fantasy if it hasn’t had one already.

  6. Comment by arkanabar:

    You actually made the mistake twice, and only repaired the pear tree, which is the second of that pair of errors. My lady is still feeding her retinue pairs from the pear tree.

  7. Comment by arkanabar:

    Oh, and by the way, those are calling birds.

  8. Comment by bobsykes:

    There cannot be a year zero because time is a continuous real number and not an integer. There can be, and is, an infinitesimal moment in time that we can, and do, label zero. I had no end of trouble with my senior engineering students about when the Third Millennium began. People have a similar problem with whether noon is am or pm. Literally it’s neither (ante and post), but it completes the am period and so by analogy is am. Midnight is pm.

    By the way, some people could count and do complex calendrical and geometric calculations for 3,000 years or more before Jesus’ birth. (Perhaps tens of thousands of year if some interpretations of Cromagnon artifacts are true.) And among them was Jesus’ step father Joseph, who was a carpenter (or possibly construction manager) and therefore both literate and numerate.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      By the way, some people could count and do complex calendrical and geometric calculations for 3,000 years or more before Jesus’ birth.

      Interesting. I was unaware of that. Next you will be telling me people in Christopher Columbus’ time knew the world was round; whereas we all know that Aristarchus of Samos discovered the world was banana-shaped.

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