Sunday, December 21, 2008

Welcome Yule!

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...



Confitebor said...

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.

Whoops. You’re conflating Saturnalia, a pagan Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn that ended on Dec. 24, a celebration that unquestionably predated the birth of Christ, with Natalis Solis Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, a pagan Roman festival in honor of the sun god that happened on Dec. 25. It has been thought, with good reason, that the popular customs of Saturnalia influenced the way Christians would celebrate during the Christmas season. It has also been thought that Christmas was placed on Dec. 25 to supplant the pagan Natalis Solis Invictus festival. It is this latter hypothesis that has been questioned, because as it turns out there is no evidence that pagan Romans celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of any god until the 200s A.D., and it looks like it was in the early 200s A.D. – prior to the institution of the pagan Dec. 25 birthday – that we have our earliest surviving evidence of Christians saying Jesus was born on Dec. 25 (which of course is not the same thing as celebrating His birth on Dec. 25). It has been suggested that the pagan Dec. 25 feast was instituted to counter the growing influence of Christianity. Who knows, maybe that’s what happened. Or maybe Christmas was placed on Dec. 25 to counter the popular pagan solstice celebrations. Or maybe it was a little of both. It could even be that the Jews’ festival of Hanukkah on Kislev 25 had a little something to do with the institution of the celebration of Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. These explanations are mutual exclusive, after all. Maybe Jesus really was born on Dec. 25 --- perhaps because God wanted to fulfill some Old Covenant typology pertaining to the Temple (temple = body, see Incarnation) which was rededicated on Kislev 25 (the Incarnation cleansed and “rededicated” the human temple, the body, which was stricken down by the Fall) --- but it wasn’t actually celebrated by Christians until the time of Constantine, a decision made by the Church to supplant the pagan Dec. 25 festival, after which time some of the prior pagan customs were “baptised” and attached themselves to the Christian celebration.

Confitebor said...

"These explanations are mutual exclusive, after all."

Arrghh! Make that "AREN'T mutualLY exclusive." Duh.