Sunday, December 21, 2008
Conventional wisdom would have it, that the date for Christmas was based upon the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, as the 25th of December was the date of the winter solstice (first day of winter) in the old Julian Calendar. We are further led to believe that the early Christians co-opted this celebration for their own, to commemorate the birth of their own Unconquered Son. Recent scholarship tells us that it was actually the other way around, that Saturnalia was inaugurated in response to the growing popularity of Christmas.
(Jordanes provides clarification: "You're conflating Saturnalia... with Natalis Solis Invictus...")
Whatever the history, it is safe to say which one came out on top.
The occasion of "Christ-Mass" is long associated with the ending of darkness and the coming of light, which manifests itself in nature with the lengthening of days and shortening of nights (if only above the equator). It is in this manner that ancient folk tales and folk rituals were sanctified by the heralding of the Gospel. The theme of dying and rising to new life was prevalent in the "mummer's play," an ancient performance custom from the British Isles, that over the centuries made its way through much of the English-speaking world.
In this video, we have the Ditchling Mummers (pictured above in a 2000 photo) performing in their 22nd year at the Bull Inn, Ditchling, on Boxing Day of 2007. The play was from the Sussex village of Sompting and raised money for St Patrick's Night Shelter in Brighton. (For all you Chesterton and Belloc fans out there, Ditchling was once a center of the Distributist movement.) The characters are, in order of appearance, Father Christmas (James Barry), the Noble Captain (John Bacon), the Bold Slasher (Barry Phillips), Saint George (Julian Burton), the Turkish Knight (Roger Vail), the Doctor (Jeremy Wakeham), and Little Johnny Jack (Mick O'Shea). If you've ever wanted to really spice up a Christmas pageant, this little number can be quite entertaining.
"The name of the hero is most commonly Saint George, King George, or Prince George. His principal opponents are the Turkish Knight (in southern England and Turkish Champion in Ireland), or a valiant soldier named Slasher (elsewhere). Other characters include: Old Father Christmas (who introduces some plays), Beelzebub, Little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience), Robin Hood (an alternative hero in the Cotswolds), Galoshin (a hero in Scotland), et cetera. Despite the frequent presence of Saint George, the Dragon rarely appears in these plays, though it is often mentioned..." (from Wikipedia) In some versions of the story, the Dragon survives, only to be cut down by a group of sword dancers, who surround him with their swords and eventually choke him by his neck. (Nice scene for the kiddies, huh?) Well, we don't have that to present here, but it looks something like this recent sword dance performance of a group from the Washington Revels, featured here in the second video.
Just imagine the Dragon in the middle. You get the idea.
If you and your fellow thespians would like to put on such a performance of St George and the Dragon yourselves, the Comberbach Swilltub Mummers (near Northwich, in Cheshire) have a script available for download, as well as photographs of their own production. There is also a resource page for mummer's plays compiled by the Sussex Mummers, which includes a script from the Chithurst Mummers, similar to that used by Dichtling.
It's not too late for Twelfth Night.
So it's rise up, Jock, and sing your song,
For the summer is short and the winter long.
Let's all join hands and form a chain
Til the leaves of springtime bloom again...