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A Marchpane for Christmas

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

In what season was Christ born? Milton makes positive reply:

  It was the winter wild
  While the Heaven-born child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies.

But the second century of the Christian era would have answered that Christ was born in the spring, the season when the earth was created; for of course it would have been created in the hour of its perfect beauty and equally of course it would have worn its loveliest aspect to welcome its divine guest. Favorite dates were March 28, April 19, April 20 and May 20. As for the day of the week, some theologians claimed that the Light of the World first shone forth on a Wednesday, because on the fourth day God created the sun, moon, and stars, while others felt it more seemly that Christ should have been born on Sunday and baptized the following Wednesday.

In the absence of record, scholars in the fields of primitive life and myth have been searching out the reasons that determined such a wintry date for the world’s blithest festival. These wise men tell us that the year, for the fighting pastoral tribes of Aryan stock that had possessed themselves of Europe, knew but two seasons; winter, beginning about mid-November, when the rough weather drove warriors and herders back from the open to the comfort of their own villages, and summer, reckoned from about mid-March when the river ice was breaking up and the fresh life of nature was, in Chaucer’s phrase, pricking men in their hearts, so that they longed to be up and away. The home-coming at the close of summer was naturally the occasion for a festival, a Thanksgiving, with prodigious eating and drinking. Such a Winter Feast is the scene of Charles Rann Kennedy’s drama of that name, but as the action takes place in Iceland, where summers are short, the time is mid-October. Further south November was the “blood-month,” so called from the general slaughtering of cattle, for there was not enough fodder to feed all the herd till spring. But in course of the centuries these forest-dwellers became interested in agriculture, felled trees and tamed the lands about their settlements to the bearing of crops. To the great trenchers of meat were added “bakes of griddles” and there was fodder enough to keep the kine longer. So the Winter Feast, as it moved south, gradually advanced in date to December. It had always had the double quality of family affection and religion. Forest wood, heaped high on the hearth for the “new fire,” blazed cheerily, lighting the eager faces of children as they leaned shyly against the fathers and big brothers, almost strangers after the summer of absence, while the maidens passed the mead-cup and the mother saw to it that goodly portions for the household dead were set outside the door. There were sacrifices to the gods, whose healths were drunk in even deeper draughts than those of the family ancestors. Our Christmas merry-making is not far removed from the home joys and simple pieties of those primeval reunions around the Yule log, whose name, at least, is of the North.

It was under the Roman empire that the exact and permanent date for Christmas was established, not through Church tradition but by way of compromise with paganism. It is believed that the mother of the Emperor Aurelian (270-275) had been a priestess of the Syrian sun god Baal and brought his cult to Rome, where his birthday was celebrated on December 25, incorrectly fixed by the Julian calendar as the winter solstice. It is then, when the days are at their shortest, that the sun manifests himself as Sol Novus, Sol Invictus, and proceeds to lengthen his course. The Romans were already accustomed to revel on this date as it marked the close of the Bruma (brevissima), a solar feast, borrowed from Thrace, which began November 24 and kept the sun lively company through his diminishing period to December 25. Later emperors, notably Diocletian and, even after his conversion to Christianity, Con-stantine the Great, maintained the worship of Sol Invictus, by that time identified in the Empire with Mithra. This was a solar deity so ancient that he had been adored by the Aryans in Central Asia before the Persians had parted from the Hindoos. It was by way of Persia that he came to Europe about 70 B. C. A fierce, bull-slaughtering figure, the Greeks would have none of him, but he made strong appeal to the Roman legions. The intellectual circles, too, as well as the court and aristocracy, were won to the worship of this foreign god, this Sol Invictus interpreted by the philosophers, in his winter waning and waxing, as symbolic of death and resurrection. By the third century Mithra was the most formidable rival to Christianity, but he had made the fatal mistake of excluding women from his Mysteries. Not even the fervent devotion of Julian the Apostate, who in the fourth century brought the cult of Mithra to Constantinople, could impose upon humanity an exclusively masculine religion.

To the people at large the two religions would not have seemed much unlike. Both were democratic and fraternal in spirit and, to some degree, in organization; both kept Sunday, used bell and candle and holy water, had sacraments of baptism and of a Last Supper with consecrated bread and wine; both taught a Heaven above, a Hell below, and a Day of Judgment to come; both urged self-control and self-denial. How, then, were young Christians to be kept out of the fun of the feast held in honor of Mithra’s birthday on December 25? This high festival was sandwiched in between two still more riotous revels, the Saturnalia, beginning December 17, and the Kalends, properly covering the three days January 1-3, but in fact these two folk jubilees ran to meet each other, forming a continuous Carnival. In the midst of the merrymaking came the impressive ceremonies of December 25, honoring the birth of Mithra. The Fathers of the Church, apparently before the middle of the fourth century, met the situation by proclaiming the Feast of the Nativity on this same date. Our Christmas joy still holds not only the far-off echoes of the Northern Winter Feast but many features ingrafted from these Roman holidays. From the Saturnalia, when the world went topsy-turvy, masters carousing with their slaves and even waiting upon them, came the Lord of Misrule, who, in the old English Christmas, carried on the tradition of license and disorder. Presents were given, too, chiefly of little clay images. From the many representations of Mithra in art still found all over the extent of the Roman Empire, it may be assumed that these festival gifts figured him in various guises, as sun god, soldier god, and especially in his miraculous birth, leaping forth in the full force of young manhood from the Generative Rock, in the view only of shepherds, who hastened to kneel before him and lay at his feet their rustic offerings. While the disciples of Mithra exchanged these gifts, what more natural than that the Christians, their neighbors and fellow artisans, should fashion for one another those Nativity groups which still, in the Catholic countries of Latin blood or influence, are the distinctive Christmas, tokens? In Spain, for instance, one sees the Nacimiento everywhere, life-size and giant-size in the churches and cathedrals, richly wrought by sculptors, manufactured for sale in almost all substances from bronze to paste; often, as proudly displayed in household windows, the product of family skill. In collecting a group to bring home, we enjoyed capping a selection of costly Magi from a studio and moderately priced Holy Family from the shops, with angels, three for a penny, from a peasant’s stall by the Guadalquivir. While waiting for customers to bargain for his onions and peppers this laughing Andalusian would scoop up a handful of wet clay from the river bank, mould it deftly into winged cherubs with chubby legs crossed and with tambourines, fiddles, or castanets in hand, and set them in the sun to dry. Then a few touches of his cheap pigments would adorn them with gay caps and gaiters, with fly-away coats in the Madonna blue and, above all, with toper-red, jovial faces. If he wanted to be an angel, that was the kind of angel he wanted to be.

Often these Christmas craftsmen carry on their mouldings or carvings into scores of kindred scenes—the journey into Egypt, an angel leading the ass which bears Mary and the Holy Child, while Joseph, a staff tall as himself in hand, trudges behind; the home at Nazareth, Mary busy with her basket of sewing, while the Christ Child fondles his pet Iamb; the carpenter’s shop, Joseph planing a board, while a rosy little Jesus is picking up the shavings. We visited at Seville in Christmas week a Refuge for the Aged Poor and found the old men and old women laboring in emulous pride on Nacimientos that covered the east walls of their respective sitting-rooms—walls hidden behind cork mountains, plaster rocks, troops of clay mules and donkeys laden with wee water-jars, tiny bundles of firewood and bales of elfin merchandise. The ancianos had the more varied and spirited panorama, including an isinglass river on which sailed ships and swans of equal size; but the ancianas scored in composition, the manger scene being the center of their representation, while the old men had crowded the Holy Famity to one side in order to make room for an encounter between smugglers and the Civil Guard. The only battle-scene portrayed by the women claimed to be Scriptural in that a black-bearded Herod, thrusting his head over a gilt balcony, watched his soldiers running away from the brooms of the Rachels.

At the Kalends, too, presents were given, not after our lavish, indiscriminate fashion but as emblems of good wishes for the New Year—sugared cakes, pots of honey, flasks of wine, that the year might be full of sweetness; candles or lamps that it might abound in light. Originally the New Year’s gift in Rome was a twig from the sacred grove of Strenia, so that a popular feaster would come home with his arms piled with greenery. At the Kalends, too, the doors of the houses were crowned with laurels. As we hang pine wreaths on our own doors and trim our rooms with holly and mistletoe, ghostly hands are helping us. The bands of revellers that went through the Roman streets singing, and often pausing at one of the branch-bedecked, window-lighted houses for hospitality, have their descendants in the Christmas carollers.

In the midst of these festivities Christmas was kept, by human necessity forcing ecclesiastical decree, on December 25 at Rome. Thence it slowly made its way over Christendom, reaching Antioch about 375 and Alexandria about 430. It was not before the sixth century that it won recognition at Jerusalem. It probably came to the British Isles with St. Augustine and his procession of chanting monks in 592, for the ten thousand British converts of 598 were baptized on Christmas day. Germany did not adopt it until 813, and Norway not until the middle of the tenth century. The date of Christmas was by this time held to be the literal date of the birthday—a belief that has had popular acceptance ever since.

By the middle of the eighth century, Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter were generally recognized as the three main feasts of the Church. Epiphany antedated Christmas, being established in the East during the second century as the anniversary of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. By a grudging exchange, Rome in the fifth century accepted Epiphany, and the Greek Church Christmas. Their ceremonies, with pagan admixture in both, were naturally somewhat confused. Greek peasants still look upon the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as peculiarly open to the invasion of goblins, especially the Lame Needles, whose dreaded name has a rheumatic suggestion, while Shakespeare, spokesman for western Europe, maintains quite the opposite view:

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 can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Heathen superstition and Christian love, working together in the childlike heart of the folk, have woven the Christmas story into a curious tapestry. If the devotees of Mithra worshipped the stars, Christianity claims the Star of Bethlehem for its own. The Golden Legend depicts it as “a right fair child, which had a cross in his forehead.” If shepherds brought their gifts to the new-born Mithra, Christianity has made its own three shepherds such familiar friends that it knows the names even of their dogs. Many a sheep-dog of Spain and Portugal and South America will never go mad because it answers to the name Melampo, Cubilon or Lobina. Of course the Three Kings are everywhere known by name, Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar, and in Provence perhaps known by sight, since for generations the boys of that Land of Song, running out on Epiphany just before the falling of the dusk, have glimpsed them riding in their splendor on white camels through the sunset. On many a balcony in both hemispheres and in the far islands of the sea the camels will find a row of little sandals holding for their refreshment wisps of hay. In the morning there will be found, in place of the hay, some simple token of gratitude—a few figs wrapt in a green leaf, a diminutive donkey in marchpane, a handful of almonds in a twist of gay paper. In other countries there are strange stories told of those who have heard the Magi riding by and followed them on to various adventures. Sweetest of these stories is that of old Babushka, the little peasant grandmother of Russia, who, drawn to the window of her forest hut at night, saw the glistening cavalcade and heard the call to come and worship the Christ Child. Fearing the dark, she waited for dawn, when—alas!—the camel tracks were blurred with fresh-fallen snow. All in vain was her wild search for the manger, but ever since, on Epiphany, she catches a far-off sound of bells and hurries forth through forest and over plain, bearing on her arm a basket of tiny warm garments that she has knitted for the Babe of Bethlehem—garments that she gives away to the babies of the poor; for never, never may she overtake those stately riders.

The scene of Mithra’s birth was savage. The Prince of War, most often represented as the fierce slayer of the sacrificial bull, his heart may well have been as hard as the Rock from which he was born; but upon the Bethlehem manger has been poured out the tenderness of human imagination. Paintings, carols, miracle plays, artists and poets of many lands and ages have elaborated its every feature. The Prince of Peace, over whose first slumber star-choirs of angels sing, is warmed by the breath of horses and kine, one kneeling on either side. His birth was made known to the animals so long ago that barnyards still talked Latin. “Christus natus est,” crowed the cock. “Quando?” croaked the raven. “Hac nocte,” brayed the donkey. “Ubi?” lowed the ox. “In Bethlehem,” bleated the lamb. Thomas Hardy, the Doubting Thomas of English poetry, testifies to the haunting tradition of the stable creatures kneeling on the miraculous midnight.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
  “Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
  By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
  They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
  To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
  In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
  “Come; see the oxen kneel

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
  Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
  Hoping it might be so.

The ass has his own part in the legend. It is this very ass that brought the weary Mary to Bethlehem and thence carried her and the Holy Child to Egypt, this very ass that comes, silvery as moonlight, shining through the mists of death, to poor little donkeys, worn out by blows and burdens, the world over, and guides them to the clover pastures of Paradise.

The Holy Family are great wanderers. In any clime there may be met, especially at the Christmas season, that tired little group, the Madonna, with the starry Child in her arms, seated on the gray donkey, with old Saint Joseph trudging alongside. Hospitality to these travellers is often rewarded by the fairy gift of three wishes, as notably in the case of Smetse Smee of Flanders, the cunning smith who was thus enabled to trick the devils out of his soul which, like a less learned but more resourceful Faustus, he had signed away to hell. But sometimes the Madonna comes alone, a drooping but smiling lady in a blue mantle with the rose of Jericho in her hair. In Italy II Santissimo Bambino goes roaming by himself, while in the North he knocks at your door as a young boy with a bundle of evergreen across his shoulders. In the course of time he has drawn to himself a queer retinue of Christmas saints, Bishop Nicholas beloved as jolly St. Nick, Santa Claus, Kriss Kringle, Pere Noel, Frau Holle, Kolyada of the Golden Hair, all on the friendliest terms with such pagan brownies as Knecht Clobes of Holland and old Jule-Nissen of Denmark.

There are plants, as the Glastonbury Thorn, cherry trees and apple trees, that are said to blossom at Christmas; even the pennyroyal that Sicilian children tuck into their shoes knows the blessed date; but the Christmas Tree is a comparatively new feature of the celebration, traced back in its homeland, Germany, only to the beginning of the seventeenth century. That its ornaments are symbolic of Norse mythology is but one more instance of the Christmas welcome to old heathen faiths and practices. To bear in mind the relation of our December festival to the Winter Feast of the North and the Sun Feast of the South, those immemorial jubilees in which home fondness and neighborhood friendliness, with worship of the highest divinities then known, were the main elements, only binds God’s children into a closer circle. Who can doubt that his blessing rested on those anticipatory revels of joy and goodwill? Whatever the name given to the Yule log, the hearth glowed with the glory of fire. Southwell’s Wassail Song carries the mirth of a million ancestral voices:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town!
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl is made of a maplin tree;
We be good fellows all—I drink to thee.

Here and there a special survival of hoary usage, as in Queen’s College, Oxford, where a boar’s head, wreathed with greens, is borne in to the Christmas banquet with song in which the feasters join, takes the race memory back over uncharted centuries. As William Morris has it:

E’en so the world of men may turn
At even of some hurried day
And see the ancient glimmer burn
Across the waste that hath no way.

The three Magi kneeling before the Lord of Love and tendering him their best of gifts—are they not the Past, the Present, and the Future?


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