Sunday, December 19, 2010

Looking Forward to the Festival

On this the last Sunday in Advent, we sang our final refrain of "Saviour of the Nations Come" as we looked forward to the anniversary of our Saviour's birth. How we came to celebrate Christmas on December 25 is another story, but one I have heard is that ancient pagan festivals were conquered by Christ and given new meaning by men. All this so that we might be brought to celebrate His life instead of false idols, sacred poles, and the worship in the high places that so bedeviled our ancestors.

A while back, while researching the obscure details of the statutes of the church of Toul, I had a chance to stumble upon The Burlesque Festivals of the Middle Ages (pp155-158) and found the following that might pertain to this time of the year (excerpted, minor corrections made, and highlighting added).

"In the first ages of Christianity, when—a persecuted sect—it trusted to the force of individual conviction for its converts, these latter, in joining the religion of the Saviour, gave up at once all their old superstitions and prejudices. But when, in course of time, it became established as the religion of the state, the mass of the people soon disbelieved in the power of their old gods, and accepted the faith of the emperor. Churches took the place of temples, and the statues of their idols were thrown down and broken without much repugnance. But there was a host of old superstitions, customs, and observances, intimately connected with the old idolatry of the people, which were so deeply rooted in their habits and social life, that it was not an easy thing to persuade converts made under such circumstances to consent to their abolition. In fact, the Christian teachers found an advantage in chewing forbearance in the great religious revolution in which they were engaged, and they were wise in not shocking by a too abrupt change the deeply rooted prejudices of so many ages. It was their policy to substitute gradually Christian festivals in the place of pagan ceremonies ; and thus, amid the most riotous feasts and processions of the ancient ceremonial, new names and new objects kept the popular mind fixed to a better faith. In course of time, however, as the church itself became corrupt and its ministers venal, these popular excesses, which had at first been tolerated from necessity, were encouraged by the very persons whose duty it was to discountenance them ; and, during the middle ages, at certain periods of the year, even the holiest places became the scene of riotous festivals, which recalled in many of their characteristics the most licentious of the feasts of antiquity. It is true that these pseudo-Christian ceremonies were condemned by the better and wiser of the ecclesiastics, and that they were repeatedly proscribed by the councils of the church ; but these condemnations were either merely formal, or they were rendered ineffectual by the supineness and backwardness of those who ought to have put them in force. Too congenial with the general laxity of manners which characterised the feudal period, these ceremonies increased in force and intensity during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, until they became so great an object of public scandal that they could no longer be tolerated. Yet in Catholic countries, such as France, and Italy, and Spain, they continued to be observed in a suppressed form until the great dislocation of society produced by the French revolution at the close of the eighteenth century.

Among the Romans the latter part of the month of December was devoted to the noisy and licentious festivities of the Saturnalia. In the earliest times of Rome this festival had been restricted to one day in the middle of the month ; but the period of celebration was afterwards extended to seven days, and it was followed by a multitude of other festivals of the same character, called, from the circumstance of their commencing in the Calends of January, the feriae Kalendarum, which were continued during the month of January, and were but just closed at the time of the somewhat analogous festival of the Lupercals in February. This answers precisely to the period extending from the festivities of Christmas to the time of the carnival of modern times, of which the Roman festivities were undoubtedly the prototype. The resemblance between the old and the modern observances is too strongly marked to be easily mistaken. During the seven days of the Saturnalia masters were placed on an equality with their slaves, and all classes and ranks and even sexes were confounded together by disguises and masks, under cover of which were enacted a thousand different follies and extravagances. These were precisely the characteristics of the joyous festivals of the middle age. A curious coincidence is perhaps worth pointing out. It is well known that at the Lupercalia the Luptrcals ran about the streets in a state of nudity : a similar practice characterised the Saturnalia...

A theological writer who lived in 1182, Beleth, informs us that, in his time, in the archbishopric of Rheims and in other dioceses in France, at the festival of Christmas the archbishops and bishops and other high ecclesiastics went to play at various games with the inferior clergy in the religious houses. We trace this custom among the clergy, called by Beleth Decembrian liberty, in other writers. In the Saturnalia a mock king was elected by lot, who ruled at the festival. The practice of choosing mock officers, under the names in different places of kings, popes, abbots, was retained in all the burlesque festivals of the middle ages : in some parts a king is still chosen on the twelfth night. Public gambling was allowed at the Saturnalia. It is probable from the extract from Beleth that it was practised even by ecclesiastics at Christmas in former days, and from this custom we seem to have derived that of playing at cards at that period of the year. It is not necessary to point out the libertinism of speech and action which characterised the old as well as the modern Saturnalia.

These latter were chiefly prevalent in the countries which have derived their language and customs from the Romans, such as the French, Italians, and Spaniards, and are not found to have prevailed so generally among the purer Germanic tribes. The English festival of Christmas is of Saxon origin, and consisted chiefly in eating and drinking ; the mummery and masquerading, as well as the few burlesque festivals we shall have to notice as belonging to England in the middle ages, having been apparently imported from France. "
This year, I hope to not get so caught up in the modern versions of these festivities that I lose sight of the gift we should stay focused on this season: the gift of His incarnation, and His promise of our salvation.

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  1. I happened to be pondering the Old Testament, specifically the injunctions about tolerating foreign religions. Of course, the Israelites failed to completely purge the land of those religions, and ultimately were ruined by them as more and more pagan ceremonies were incorporated into their worship.

    A parallel with today, methinks, given that our religion of consumerism/commercialism has almost completely swallowed the meaning of Christmas.


  2. Randall,

    You are correct, things are working in reverse.

    The pagans are also taking over Episcopal Cathedrals. You probably missed this from St. Mark's Seattle, (YouTube video)