Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
Origins of the Mediaeval Drama—Dramatic Tendencies in the Liturgy—Latin Liturgical Plays—The Drama becomes Laicized—Characteristics of the Popular Drama—The Nativity in the English Miracle Cycles—Christmas Mysteries in France—Later French Survivals of Christmas Drama—German Christmas Plays—Mediaeval Italian Plays and Pageants—Spanish Nativity Plays—Modern Survivals in Various Countries—The Star-singers, &c.
From Broadside No. 305 in the Collection of the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House (by permission).
(Photo lent by Mr. F. Sidgwick, who has published the print on a modern Christmas broadside.)
In this chapter the Christian side only of the Christmas drama will be treated. Much folk-drama of pagan origin has gathered round the festival, but this we shall study in our Second Part. Our subject here is the dramatic representation of the story of the Nativity and the events immediately connected with it. The Christmas drama has passed through the same stages as the poetry of the Nativity. There is first a monastic and hieratic stage, when the drama is but an expansion of the liturgy, a piece of ceremonial performed by clerics with little attempt at verisimilitude and with Latin words drawn mainly from the Bible or the offices of the Church. Then, as the laity come to take a more personal interest in Christianity, we find fancy beginning to play around the subject, bringing out its human pathos and charm, until, after a transitional stage, the drama leaves the sanctuary, passes from Latin to the vulgar tongue, is played by lay performers in the streets and squares of the city, and, while its framework remains religious, takes into itself episodes of a more or less secular character. The Latin liturgical plays are to the “miracles” and “mysteries” of the later Middle Ages as a Romanesque church, solemn, oppressive, hieratic, to p. 122 a Gothic cathedral, soaring, audacious, reflecting every phase of the popular life.
The mediaeval religious drama 5-1 was a natural development from the Catholic liturgy, not an imitation of classical models. The classical drama had expired at the break-up of the Roman Empire; its death was due largely, indeed, to the hostility of Christianity, but also to the rude indifference of the barbarian invaders. Whatever secular dramatic impulses remained in the Dark Ages showed themselves not in public and organized performances, but obscurely in the songs and mimicry of minstrels and in traditional folk-customs. Both of these classes of practices were strongly opposed by the Church, because of their connection with heathenism and the licence towards which they tended. Yet the dramatic instinct could not be suppressed. The folk-drama in such forms as the Feast of Fools found its way, as we shall see, even into the sanctuary, and—most remarkable fact of all—the Church's own services took on more and more a dramatic character.
While the secular stage decayed, the Church was building up a stately system of ritual. It is needless to dwell upon the dramatic elements in Catholic worship. The central act of Christian devotion, the Eucharist, is in its essence a drama, a representation of the death of the Redeemer and the participation of the faithful in its benefits, and around this has gathered in the Mass a multitude of dramatic actions expressing different aspects of the Redemption. Nor, of course, is there merely symbolic action; the offices of the Church are in great part dialogues between priest and people, or between two sets of singers. It was from this antiphonal song, this alternation of versicle and respond, that the religious drama of the Middle Ages took its rise. In the ninth century the “Antiphonarium” traditionally ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great had become insufficient for ambitious choirs, and the practice grew up of supplementing it by new melodies and words inserted at the beginning or end or even in the middle of the old antiphons. The new texts were called “tropes,” and from the ninth to the thirteenth century many were written. An interesting Christmas p. 123 example is the following ninth-century trope ascribed to Tutilo of St. Gall:—
“Hodie cantandus est nobis puer, quem gignebat ineffabiliter ante tempora pater, et eundem sub tempore generavit inclyta mater. (To-day must we sing of a Child, whom in unspeakable wise His Father begat before all times, and whom, within time, a glorious mother brought forth.)
Quis est iste puer quem tam magnis praeconiis dignum vociferatis? Dicite nobis ut collaudatores esse possimus. (Who is this Child whom ye proclaim worthy of so great laudations? Tell us that we also may praise Him.)
Hic enim est quem praesagus et electus symmista Dei ad terram venturum praevidens longe ante praenotavit, sicque praedixit. (This is He whose coming to earth the prophetic and chosen initiate into the mysteries of God foresaw and pointed out long before, and thus foretold.)”
Here followed at once the Introit for the third Mass of Christmas Day, “Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis, &c. (Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.)” The question and answer were no doubt sung by different choirs. 5-2
One can well imagine that this might develop into a regular little drama. As a matter of fact, however, it was from an Easter trope in the same manuscript, the “Quem quaeritis,” a dialogue between the three Maries and the angel at the sepulchre, that the liturgical drama sprang. The trope became very popular, and was gradually elaborated into a short symbolic drama, and its popularity led to the composition of similar pieces for Christmas and Ascensiontide. Here is the Christmas trope from a St. Gall manuscript:—
“On the Nativity of the Lord at Mass let there be ready two deacons having on dalmatics, behind the altar, saying:
Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores, dicite? (Whom seek ye in the manger, say, ye shepherds?)p. 124
Let two cantors in the choir answer:
Salvatorem Christum Dominum, infantem pannis involutum, secundum sermonem angelicum. (The Saviour, Christ the Lord, a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, according to the angelic word.)
And the deacons:
Adest hic parvulus cum Maria, matre sua, de qua, vaticinando, Isaias Propheta: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium; et nuntiantes dicite quia natus est. (Present here is the little one with Mary, His Mother, of whom Isaiah the prophet foretold: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bring forth a son; and do ye say and announce that He is born.)
Then let the cantor lift up his voice and say:
Alleluia, alleluia, jam vere scimus Christum natum in terris, de quo canite, omnes, cum Propheta dicentes: Puer natus est! (Alleluia, alleluia. Now we know indeed that Christ is born on earth, of whom sing ye all, saying with the Prophet: Unto us a child is born.)” 5-3
The dramatic character of this is very marked. A comparison with later liturgical plays suggests that the two deacons in their broad vestments were meant to represent the midwives mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of St. James, and the cantors the shepherds.
A development from this trope, apparently, was the “Office of the Shepherds,” which probably took shape in the eleventh century, though it is first given in a Rouen manuscript of the thirteenth. It must have been an impressive ceremony as performed in the great cathedral, dimly lit with candles, and full of mysterious black recesses and hints of infinity. Behind the high altar a praesepe or “crib” was prepared, with an image of the Virgin. After the “Te Deum” had been sung five canons or their vicars, clad in albs and amices, entered by the great door of the choir, and proceeded towards the apse. These were the shepherds. Suddenly from high above them came a clear boy's voice: “Fear not, behold I bring you good tidings of great joy,” and the rest of the angelic message. The “multitude of the heavenly host” was represented by other boys stationed probably p. 125 in the triforium galleries, who broke out into the exultant “Gloria in excelsis.” Singing a hymn, “Pax in terris nunciatur,” the shepherds advanced towards the crib where two priests—the midwives—awaited them. These addressed to the shepherds the question “Whom seek ye in the manger?” and then came the rest of the “Quem quaeritis” which we already know, a hymn to the Virgin being sung while the shepherds adored the Infant. Mass followed immediately, the little drama being merely a prelude. 5-4
More important than this Office of the Shepherds is an Epiphany play called by various names, “Stella,” “Tres Reges,” “Magi,” or “Herodes,” and found in different forms at Limoges, Rouen, Laon, Compiègne, Strasburg, Le Mans, Freising in Bavaria, and other places. Mr. E. K. Chambers suggests that its kernel is a dramatized Offertory. It was a custom for Christian kings to present gold, frankincense, and myrrh at the Epiphany—the offering is still made by proxy at the Chapel Royal, St. James's—and Mr. Chambers takes “the play to have served as a substitute for this ceremony, when no king actually regnant was present.” 5-5 Its most essential features were the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem to the Magi, and their offering of the mystic gifts. The star, bright with candles, hung from the roof of the church, and was sometimes made to move.
In the Rouen version of the play it is ordered that on the day of the Epiphany, Terce having been sung, three clerics, robed as kings, shall come from the east, north, and south, and meet before the altar, with their servants bearing the offerings of the Magi. The king from the east, pointing to the star with his stick, exclaims:—
“Stella fulgore nimio rutilat. (The star glows with exceeding brightness.)”
The second monarch answers:
“Quae regem regum natum demonstrat. (Which shows the birth of the King of Kings.)”p. 126
And the third:
“Quem venturum olim prophetiae signaverant. (To whose coming the prophecies of old had pointed.)”
Then the Magi kiss one another and together sing:
“Eamus ergo et inquiramus eum, offerentes ei munera: aurum, thus, et myrrham. (Let us therefore go and seek Him, offering unto Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)”
Antiphons are sung, a procession is formed, and the Magi go to a certain altar above which an image of the Virgin has been placed with a lighted star before it. Two priests in dalmatics—apparently the midwives—standing on either side of the altar, inquire who the Magi are, and receiving their answer, draw aside a curtain and bid them approach to worship the Child, “for He is the redemption of the world.” The three kings do adoration, and offer their gifts, each with a few pregnant words:—
The clergy and people then make their offerings, while the Magi fall asleep and are warned by an angel to return home another way. This they do symbolically by proceeding back to the choir by a side aisle. 5-6
In its later forms the Epiphany play includes the appearance of Herod, who is destined to fill a very important place in the mediaeval drama. Hamlet's saying “he out-Herods Herod” sufficiently suggests the raging tyrant whom the playwrights of the Middle Ages loved. His appearance marks perhaps the first introduction into the Christian religious play of the evil principle so necessary to dramatic effect. At first Herod holds merely a mild conversation with the Magi, begging them to tell him when they have found the new-born King; in later versions of the play, however, his wrath is shown on learning that the Wise Men have p. 127 departed home by another way; he breaks out into bloodthirsty tirades, orders the slaying of the Innocents, and in one form takes a sword and brandishes it in the air. He becomes in fact the outstanding figure in the drama, and one can understand why it was sometimes named after him.
In the Laon “Stella” the actual murder of the Innocents was represented, the symbolical figure of Rachel weeping over her children being introduced. The plaint and consolation of Rachel, it should be noted, seem at first to have formed an independent little piece performed probably on Holy Innocents Day. 5-7 This later coalesced with the “Stella,” as did also the play of the shepherds, and, at a still later date, another liturgical drama which we must now consider—the “Prophetae.”
This had its origin in a sermon (wrongly ascribed to St. Augustine) against Jews, Pagans, and Arians, a portion of which was used in many churches as a Christmas lesson. It begins with a rhetorical appeal to the Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah in spite of the witness of their own prophets. Ten prophets are made to give their testimony, and then three Pagans are called upon, Virgil, Nebuchadnezzar and the Erythraean Sibyl. The sermon has a strongly dramatic character, and when chanted in church the parts of the preacher and the prophets were possibly distributed among different choristers. In time it developed into a regular drama, and more prophets were brought in. It was, indeed, the germ of the great Old Testament cycles of the later Middle Ages. 5-8
An extension of the “Prophetae” was the Norman or Anglo-Norman play of “Adam,” which began with the Fall, continued with Cain and Abel, and ended with the witness of the prophets. In the other direction the “Prophetae” was extended by the addition of the “Stella.” It so happens that there is no text of a Latin drama containing both these extensions at the same time, but such a play probably existed. From the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century, indeed, there was a tendency for the plays to run together into cycles and become too long and too elaborate for performance in church. In the eleventh century, even, they had begun to pass out into the churchyard or p. 128 the market-place, and to be played not only by the clergy but by laymen. This change had extremely important effects on their character. In the first place the vulgar tongue crept in. As early, possibly, as the twelfth century are the Norman “Adam” and the Spanish “Misterio de los Reyes Magos,” the former, as we have seen, an extended vernacular “Prophetae,” the latter, a fragment of a highly developed vernacular “Stella.” They are the first of the popular as distinguished from the liturgical plays; they were meant, as their language shows, for the instruction and delight of the folk; they were not to be listened to, like the mysterious Latin of the liturgy, in uncomprehending reverence, but were to be understanded of the people.
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw a progressive supplanting of Latin by the common speech, until, in the great cycles, only a few scraps of the church language were left to tell of the liturgical origin of the drama. The process of popularization, the development of the plays from religious ceremonial to lively drama, was probably greatly helped by the goliards or vagabond scholars, young, poor, and fond of amusement, who wandered over Europe from teacher to teacher, from monastery to monastery, in search of learning. Their influence is shown not merely in the broadening of the drama, but also in its passing from the Latin of the monasteries to the language of the common folk.
A consequence of the outdoor performance of the plays was that Christmas, in the northern countries at all events, was found an unsuitable time for them. The summer was naturally preferred, and we find comparatively few mentions of plays at Christmas in the later Middle Ages. Whitsuntide and Corpus Christi became more popular dates, especially in England, and the pieces then performed were vast cosmic cycles, like the York, Chester, Towneley, and “Coventry” plays, in which the Christmas and Epiphany episodes formed but links in an immense chain extending from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and representing the whole scheme of salvation. It is in these Nativity scenes, however, that we have the only English renderings of the Christmas story in drama, 5-9 and though they p. 129 were actually performed not at the winter festival 42 but in the summer, they give in so striking a way the feelings, the point of view, of our mediaeval forefathers in regard to the Nativity that we are justified in dealing with them here at some length.
As the drama became laicized, it came to reflect that strange medley of conflicting elements, pagan and Christian, materialistic and spiritual, which was the actual religion of the folk, as distinguished from the philosophical theology of the doctors and councils and the mysticism of the ascetics. The popularizing of Christianity had reached its climax in most countries of western Europe in the fifteenth century, approximately the period of the great “mysteries.” However little the ethical teaching of Jesus may have been acted upon, the Christian religion on its external side had been thoroughly appropriated by the people and wrought into a many-coloured polytheism, a true reflection of their minds.
The figures of the drama are contemporaries of the spectators both in garb and character; they are not Orientals of ancient times, but Europeans of the end of the Middle Ages. Bethlehem is a “faier borow,” Herod a “mody king,” like unto some haughty, capricious, and violent monarch of the time, the shepherds are rustics of England or Germany or France or Italy, the Magi mighty potentates with gorgeous trains, and the Child Himself is a little being subject to all the pains and necessities of infancy, but delighted with sweet and pleasant things like a bob of cherries or a ball. The realism of the writers is sometimes astounding, and comic elements often appear—to the people of the Middle Ages religion was so real and natural a thing that they could laugh at it without ceasing to believe in or to love it.
The English mediaeval playwrights, it may safely be said, are surpassed by no foreigners in their treatment of Christmas subjects. To illustrate their way of handling the scenes I may p. 130 gather from the four great cycles a few of the most interesting passages.
From the so-called “Ludus Coventriae” I take the arrival of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem; they ask a man in the street where they may find an inn:—
The scene immediately after the Nativity is delicately and reverently presented in the York cycle. The Virgin worships the Child, saluting Him thus:—
Joseph, who has gone out to get a light, returns, and this dialogue follows:—
The playwrights are at their best in the shepherd scenes; indeed these are the most original parts of the cycles, for here the writers found little to help them in theological tradition, and were thrown upon their own wit. In humorous dialogue and naïve sentiment the lusty burgesses of the fifteenth century were thoroughly at home, and the comedy and pathos of these scenes must have been as welcome a relief to the spectators, from the p. 133 long-winded solemnity of many of the plays, as they are to modern readers. In the York mysteries the shepherds make uncouth exclamations at the song of the angels and ludicrously try to imitate it. The Chester shepherds talk in a very natural way of such things as the diseases of sheep, sit down with much relish to a meal of “ale of Halton,” sour milk, onions, garlick and leeks, green cheese, a sheep's head soused in ale, and other items; then they call their lad Trowle, who grumbles because his wages have not been paid, refuses to eat, wrestles with his masters and throws them all. They sit down discomfited; then the Star of Bethlehem appears, filling them with wonder, which grows when they hear the angels song of “Gloria in excelsis.” They discuss what the words were—“glore, glare with a glee,” or, “glori, glory, glorious,” or, “glory, glory, with a glo.” At length they go to Bethlehem, and arrived at the stable, the first shepherd exclaims:—
Joseph is strangely described:—
Their gifts to the Infant are a bell, a flask, a spoon to eat pottage with, and a cape. Trowle the servant has nought to offer but a pair of his wife's old hose; four boys follow with presents of a bottle, a hood, a pipe, and a nut-hook. Quaint are the words of the last two givers:—
Let no one deem this irreverent; the spirit of this adoration of the shepherds is intensely devout; they go away longing to tell all the world the wonder they have seen; one will become a pilgrim; even the rough Trowle exclaims that he will forsake the shepherd's craft and will betake himself to an anchorite's hard by, in prayers to “wache and wake.”
More famous than this Chester “Pastores” are the two shepherd plays in the Towneley cycle. 5-16 The first begins with racy talk, leading to a wrangle between two of the shepherds about some imaginary sheep; then a third arrives and makes fun of them both; a feast follows, with much homely detail; they go to sleep and are awakened by the angelic message; after much debate over its meaning and over the foretellings of the prophets—one of them, strangely enough, quotes a Latin passage from Virgil—they go to Bethlehem and present to the Child a “lytyll spruse cofer,” a ball, and a gourd-bottle.
The second play surpasses in humour anything else in the mediaeval drama of any country. We find the shepherds first complaining of the cold and their hard lot; they are “al lappyd in sorow.” They talk, almost like modern Socialists, of the oppressions of the rich:—
To these shepherds joins himself Mak, a thieving neighbour. Going to sleep, they make him lie between them, for they doubt his honesty. But for all their precautions he manages to steal a sheep, and carries it home to his wife. She thinks of an ingenious plan for concealing it from the shepherds if they visit the cottage seeking their lost property: she will pretend that she is in child-bed and that the sheep is the new-born infant. So it is wrapped up and laid in a cradle, and Mak sings a lullaby. The shepherds do suspect Mak, and come to search his house; his wife upbraids them and keeps them from the cradle. They depart, but suddenly an idea comes to one of them:—
Mak tries to put him off, but the shepherd will have his way:—
So the secret is out. Mak's wife gives a desperate explanation:—
p. 136 Naturally this avails nothing, and her husband is given a good tossing by the shepherds until they are tired out and lie down to rest. Then comes the “Gloria in excelsis” and the call of the angel:—
The shepherds wonder at the song, and one of them tries to imitate it; then they go even unto Bethlehem, and there follows the quaintest and most delightful of Christmas carols:—
The charm of this will be felt by every reader; it lies in a curious incongruity—extreme homeliness joined to awe; the Infinite is contained within the narrowest human bounds; God Himself, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, a weak, helpless child. But a step more, and all would have been irreverence; as it is we have devotion, human, naïve, and touching.
It would be interesting to show how other scenes connected with Christmas are handled in the English miracle-plays: how Octavian (Caesar Augustus) sent out the decree that all the world should be taxed, and learned from the Sibyl the birth of Christ; how the Magi were led by the star and offered their symbolic gifts; how the raging of the boastful tyrant Herod, the p. 138 Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt are treated; but these scenes, though full of colour, are on the whole less remarkable than the shepherd and Nativity pieces, and space forbids us to dwell upon them. They contain many curious anachronisms, as when Herod invokes Mahounde, and talks about his princes, prelates, barons, baronets and burgesses. 73
The religious play in England did not long survive the Reformation. Under the influence of Protestantism, with its vigilant dread of profanity and superstition, the cycles were shorn of many of their scenes, the performances became irregular, and by the end of the sixteenth century they had mostly ceased to be. Not sacred story, but the play of human character, was henceforth the material of the drama. The rich, variegated religion of the people, communal in its expression, tinged everywhere with human colour, gave place to a sterner, colder, more individual faith, fearful of contamination by the use of the outward and visible.
There is little or no trace in the vernacular Christmas plays of direct translation from one language into another, though there was some borrowing of motives. Thus the Christmas drama of each nation has its own special flavour.
If we turn to France, we find a remarkable fifteenth-century cycle that belongs purely to the winter festival, and shows the strictly Christmas drama at its fullest development. This great mystery of the “Incarnacion et nativité de nostre saulveur et redempteur Jesuchrist” was performed out-of-doors at Rouen in 1474, an exceptional event for a northern city in winter-time. The twenty-four establies or “mansions” set up for the various scenes reached across the market-place from the “Axe and Crown” Inn to the “Angel.”
p. 139 After a prologue briefly explaining its purpose, the mystery begins, like the old liturgical plays, with the witness of the prophets; then follows a scene in Limbo where Adam is shown lamenting his fate, and another in Heaven where the Redemption of mankind is discussed and the Incarnation decided upon. With the Annunciation and the Visitation of the Virgin the first day closed. The second day opened with the ordering by Octavian of the world-census. The edict is addressed:—
Joseph, in order to fulfil the command of Cyrenius, governor of Syria, leaves Nazareth for Bethlehem. A comic shepherds scene follows, with a rustic song:—
When Joseph and Mary reach the stable where the Nativity is to take place, there is a charming dialogue. Joseph laments over the meanness of the stable, Mary accepts it with calm resignation.
At last Christ is born, welcomed by the song of the angels, adored by His mother. In the heathen temples the idols fall; Hell mouth opens and shows the rage of the demons, who make a hideous noise; fire issues from the nostrils and eyes and ears of Hell, which shuts up with the devils within it. And then the angels in the stable worship the Child Jesus. The adoration of the shepherds was shown with many naïve details for the delight of the people, and the performance ended with the offering of a sacrifice in Rome by the Emperor Octavian to an image of the Blessed Virgin. 5-19
The French playwrights, quite as much as the English, love comic shepherd scenes with plenty of eating and drinking and brawling. A traditional figure is the shepherd Rifflart, always a laughable type. In the strictly mediaeval plays the shepherds are true French rustics, but with the progress of the Renaissance classical elements creep into the pastoral scenes; in a mystery printed in 1507 Orpheus with the Nymphs and Oreads is introduced. As might be expected, anachronisms often occur; a peculiarly piquant instance is found in the S. Geneviève mystery, where Caesar Augustus gets a piece of Latin translated into French for his convenience.
From “Le grant Kalendrier compost des Bergiers” (N. le Rouge, Troyes, 1529).
(Reproduced from a modern broadside published by Mr. F. Sidgwick.)
p. 141 Late examples of French Christmas mysteries are the so-called “comedies” of the Nativity, Adoration of the Kings, Massacre of the Innocents, and Flight into Egypt contained in the “Marguerites” (published in 1547) of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, sister of François I. Intermingled with the traditional figures treated more or less in the traditional way are personified abstractions like Philosophy, Tribulation, Inspiration, Divine Intelligence, and Contemplation, which largely rob the plays of dramatic effect. There is some true poetry in these pieces, but too much theological learning and too little simplicity, and in one place the ideas of Calvin seem to show themselves. 5-20
The French mystery began to fall into decay about the middle of the sixteenth century. It was attacked on every side: by the new poets of the Renaissance, who preferred classical to Christian subjects; by the Protestants, who deemed the religious drama a trifling with the solemn truths of Scripture; and even by the Catholic clergy, who, roused to greater strictness by the challenge of Protestantism, found the comic elements in the plays offensive and dangerous, and perhaps feared that too great familiarity with the Bible as represented in the mysteries might lead the people into heresy. 5-21 Yet we hear occasionally of Christmas dramas in France in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In the neighbourhood of Nantes, for instance, a play of the Nativity by Claude Macée, hermit, probably written in the seventeenth century, was commonly performed in the first half of the nineteenth. 5-22 At Clermont the adoration of the shepherds was still performed in 1718, and some kind of representation of the scene continued in the diocese of Cambrai until 1834, when it was forbidden by the bishop. In the south, especially at Marseilles, “pastorals” were played towards the end of the nineteenth century; they had, however, largely lost their sacred character, and had become a kind of review of the events of the year. 5-23 At Dinan, in Brittany, some sort of Herod play was performed, though it was dying out, in 1886. It was acted by young men on the Epiphany, and there was an “innocent” whose throat they pretended to cut with a wooden sword. 5-24
p. 142 An interesting summary of a very full Nativity play performed in the churches of Upper Gascony on Christmas Eve is given by Countess Martinengo-Cesaresco. 5-25 It ranges from the arrival of Joseph and Mary at Bethlehem to the Flight into Egypt and the Murder of the Innocents, but perhaps the most interesting parts are the shepherd scenes. After the message of the angel—a child in a surplice, with wings fastened to his shoulders, seated on a chair drawn up to the ceiling and supported by ropes—the shepherds leave the church, the whole of which is now regarded as the stable of the Divine Birth. They knock for admittance, and Joseph, regretting that the chamber is “so badly lighted,” lets them in. They fall down before the manger, and so do the shepherdesses, who “deposit on the altar steps a banner covered with flowers and greenery, from which hang strings of small birds, apples, nuts, chestnuts, and other fruits. It is their Christmas offering to the curé; the shepherds have already placed a whole sheep before the altar, in a like spirit.” The play is not mere dumb-show, but has a full libretto.
A rather similar piece of dramatic ceremonial is described by Barthélemy in his edition of Durandus, 5-26 as customary in the eighteenth century at La Villeneuve-en-Chevrie, near Mantes. At the Midnight Mass a crèche with a wax figure of the Holy Child was placed in the choir, with tapers burning about it. After the “Te Deum” had been sung, the celebrant, accompanied by his attendants, censed the crèche, to the sound of violins, double-basses, and other instruments. A shepherd then prostrated himself before the crib, holding a sheep with a sort of little saddle bearing sixteen lighted candles. He was followed by two shepherdesses in white with distaffs and tapers. A second shepherd, between two shepherdesses, carried a laurel branch, to which were fastened oranges, lemons, biscuits, and sweetmeats. Two others brought great pains-bénits and lighted candles; then came four shepherdesses, who made their adoration, and lastly twenty-six more shepherds, two by two, bearing in one hand a candle and in the other a festooned crook. The same ceremonial was practised at the Offertory and after the close of the Mass. All was done, it is said, with such piety and edification that p. 143 St. Luke's words about the Bethlehem shepherds were true of these French swains—they “returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”
In German there remain very few Christmas plays earlier than the fifteenth century. Later periods, however, have produced a multitude, and dramatic performances at Christmas have continued down to quite modern times in German-speaking parts.
At Oberufer near Pressburg—a German Protestant village in Hungary—some fifty years ago, a Christmas play was performed under the direction of an old farmer, whose office as instructor had descended from father to son. The play took place at intervals of from three to ten years and was acted on all Sundays and festivals from Advent to the Epiphany. Great care was taken to ensure the strictest piety and morality in the actors, and no secular music was allowed in the place during the season for the performances. The practices began as early as October. On the first Sunday in Advent there was a solemn procession to the hall hired for the play. First went a man bearing a gigantic star—he was called the “Master Singer”—and another carrying a Christmas-tree decked with ribbons and apples; then came all the actors, singing hymns. There was no scenery and no theatrical apparatus beyond a straw-seated chair and a wooden stool. When the first was used, the scene was understood to be Jerusalem, when the second, Bethlehem. The Christmas drama, immediately preceded by an Adam and Eve play, and succeeded by a Shrove Tuesday one, followed mediaeval lines, and included the wanderings of Joseph and Mary round the inns of Bethlehem, the angelic tidings to the shepherds, their visit to the manger, the adoration of the Three Kings, and various Herod scenes. Protestant influence was shown by the introduction of Luther's “Vom Himmel hoch,” but the general character was very much that of the old mysteries, and the dialogue was full of quaint naïveté. 5-27
At Brixlegg, in Tyrol, as late as 1872 a long Christmas play was acted under Catholic auspices; some of its dialogue was in p. 144 the Tyrolese patois and racy and humorous, other parts, and particularly the speeches of Mary and Joseph—out of respect for these holy personages—had been rewritten in the eighteenth century in a very stilted and undramatic style. Some simple shepherd plays are said to be still presented in the churches of the Saxon Erzgebirge. 5-28
The German language is perhaps richer in real Christmas plays, as distinguished from Nativity and Epiphany episodes in great cosmic cycles, than any other. There are some examples in mediaeval manuscripts, but the most interesting are shorter pieces performed in country places in comparatively recent times, and probably largely traditional in substance. Christianity by the fourteenth century had at last gained a real hold upon the German people, or perhaps one should rather say the German people had laid a strong hold upon Christianity, moulding it into something very human and concrete, materialistic often, yet not without spiritual significance. In cradle-rocking and religious dancing at Christmas the instincts of a lusty, kindly race expressed themselves, and the same character is shown in the short popular Christmas dramas collected by Weinhold and others. 5-29 Many of the little pieces—some are rather duets than plays—were sung or acted in church or by the fireside in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even now may linger in remote places. They are in dialect, and the rusticity of their language harmonizes well with their naïve, homely sentiment. In them we behold the scenes of Bethlehem as realized by peasants, and their mixture of rough humour and tender feeling is thoroughly in keeping with the subject.
One is made to feel very vividly the amazement of the shepherds at the wondrous and sudden apparition of the angels:—
The cold is keenly brought home to us when they come to the manger:—
Very homely are their presents to the Child:—
One of the dialogues ends with a curious piece of ordinary human kindliness, as if the Divine nature of the Infant were quite forgotten for the moment:—
Far more interesting in their realism and naturalness are these little plays of the common folk than the elaborate Christmas dramas of more learned German writers, Catholic and Lutheran, who in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries became increasingly stilted and bombastic.
The Italian religious drama 5-34 evolved somewhat differently from that of the northern countries. The later thirteenth century saw the outbreak of the fanaticism of the Flagellants or Battuti, vast crowds of people of all classes who went in procession from church to church, from city to city, scourging their naked bodies in terror and repentance till the blood flowed. When the wild enthusiasm of this movement subsided it left enduring traces in the foundation of lay communities throughout the land, continuing in a more sober way the penitential practices of the Flagellants. One of their aids to devotion was the singing or reciting of vernacular poetry, less formal than the Latin hymns of the liturgy, and known as laude. 78 These laude developed a more or less dramatic form, which gained the name of divozioni. 79 They were, perhaps (though not certainly, for there seems to have been another tradition derived from the regular liturgical drama), the source from which sprang the gorgeously produced sacre rappresentazioni of the fifteenth century.
The sacre rappresentazioni corresponded, though with considerable differences, to the miracle-plays of England and France. Their great period was the fifty years from 1470 to 1520, and p. 147 they were performed, like the divozioni, by confraternities of religious laymen. The actors were boys belonging to the brotherhoods, and the plays were intended to be edifying for youth. They are more refined than the northern religious dramas, but only too often fall into insipidity.
Among the texts given by D'Ancona in his collection of sacre rappresentazioni is a Tuscan “Natività,” 5-36 opening with a pastoral scene resembling those in the northern mysteries, but far less vigorous. It cannot compare, for character and humour, with the Towneley plays. Still the shepherds, whose names are Bobi del Farucchio, Nencio di Pucchio, Randello, Nencietto, Giordano, and Falconcello, are at least meant to have a certain rusticity, as they feast on bread and cheese and wine, play to the Saviour on bagpipe or whistle, and offer humble presents like apples and cheese. The scenes which follow, the coming of the Magi and the Murder of the Innocents, are not intrinsically of great interest.
It is possible that this play may have been the spectacle performed in Florence in 1466, as recorded by Machiavelli, “to give men something to take away their thoughts from affairs of state.” It “represented the coming of the three Magi Kings from the East, following the star which showed the Nativity of Christ, and it was of so great pomp and magnificence that it kept the whole city busy for several months in arranging and preparing it.” 5-37
An earlier record of an Italian pageant of the Magi is this account by the chronicler Galvano Flamma of what took place at Milan in 1336:—
“There were three kings crowned, on great horses, ... and an exceeding great train. And there was a golden star running through the air, which went before these three kings, and they came to the columns of San Lorenzo, where was King Herod in effigy, with the scribes and wise men. And they were seen to ask King Herod where Christ was born, and having turned over many books they answered, that He should be born in the city of David distant five miles from Jerusalem. And having heard this, those three kings, crowned with golden crowns, holding in their hands golden cups with gold, incense, p. 148 and myrrh, came to the church of Sant Eustorgio, the star preceding them through the air, ... and a wonderful train, with resounding trumpets and horns going before them, with apes, baboons, and diverse kinds of animals, and a marvellous tumult of people. There at the side of the high altar was a manger with ox and ass, and in the manger was the little Christ in the arms of the Virgin Mother. And those kings offered gifts unto Christ; then they were seen to sleep, and a winged angel said to them that they should not return by the region of San Lorenzo but by the Porta Romana; which also was done. There was so great a concourse of the people and soldiers and ladies and clerics that scarce anything like it was ever beheld. And it was ordered that every year this festal show should be performed.” 5-38
How suggestive this is of the Magi pictures of the fifteenth century, with their gorgeous eastern monarchs and retinues of countless servants and strange animals. No other story in the New Testament gives such opportunity for pageantry as the Magi scene. All the wonder, richness, and romance of the East, all the splendour of western Renaissance princes could lawfully be introduced into the train of the Three Kings. With Gentile da Fabriano and Benozzo Gozzoli it has become a magnificent procession; there are trumpeters, pages, jesters, dwarfs, exotic beasts—all the motley, gorgeous retinue of the monarchs of the time, while the kings themselves are romantic figures in richest attire, velvet, brocade, wrought gold, and jewels. It may be that much of this splendour was suggested to the painters by dramatic spectacles which actually passed before their eyes.
I have already alluded to the Spanish “Mystery of the Magi Kings,” a mere fragment, but of peculiar interest to the historian of the drama as one of the two earliest religious plays in a modern European language. Though plays are known to have been performed in Spain at Christmas and Easter in the Middle Ages, 5-39 we have no further texts until the very short “Representation of the Birth of Our Lord,” by Gómez Manrique, Señor de Villazopeque (1412-91), acted at the convent at Calabazanos, of which the author's sister was Superior. The characters p. 149 introduced are the Virgin, St. Joseph, St. Gabriel, St. Michael, St. Raphael, another angel, and three shepherds. 5-40
Touched by the spirit of the Renaissance, and particularly by the influence of Virgil, is Juan del Encina of Salamanca (1469-1534), court poet to the Duke of Alba, and author of two Christmas eclogues. 5-41 The first introduces four shepherds who bear the names of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and are curiously mixed personages, their words being half what might be expected from the shepherds of Bethlehem and half sayings proper only to the authors of the Gospels. It ends with a villancico or carol. The second eclogue is far more realistic, and indeed resembles the English and French pastoral scenes. The shepherds grumble about the weather—it has been raining for two months, the floods are terrible, and no fords or bridges are left; they talk of the death of a sacristan, a fine singer; and they play a game with chestnuts; then comes the angel—whom one of them calls a “smartly dressed lad” (garzon repìcado)—to tell them of the Birth, and they go to adore the Child, taking Him a kid, butter-cakes, eggs, and other presents.
Infinitely more ambitious is “The Birth of Christ” 5-42 by the great Lope de Vega (1562-1635). It opens in Paradise, immediately after the Creation, and ends with the adoration of the Three Kings. Full of allegorical conceits and personified qualities, it will hardly please the taste of modern minds. Another work of Lope's, “The Shepherds of Bethlehem,” a long pastoral in prose and verse, published in 1612, contains, amid many incongruities, some of the best of his shorter poems; one lullaby, sung by the Virgin in a palm-grove while her Child sleeps, has been thus translated by Ticknor:—
Apart from such modern revivals of the Christmas drama as Mr. Laurence Housman's “Bethlehem,” Miss Buckton's “Eager Heart,” Mrs. Percy Dearmer's “The Soul of the World,” and similar experiments in Germany and France, a genuine tradition has lingered on in some parts of Europe into modern times. We have already noticed some French and German instances; to these may be added a few from other countries.
In Naples there is no Christmas without the “Cantata dei pastori”; it is looked forward to no less than the Midnight Mass. Two or three theatres compete for the public favour in the performance of this play in rude verse. It begins with Adam and Eve and ends with the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the shepherds. Many devils are brought on the stage, their arms and legs laden with brass chains that rattle horribly. Awful are their names, Lucifero, Satanasso, Belfegor, Belzebù, &c. They not only tempt Adam and Eve, but annoy the Virgin and St. Joseph, until an angel comes and frightens them away. Two non-Biblical figures are introduced, Razzullo and Sarchiapone, who are tempted by devils and aided by angels. 5-44 In Sicily too the Christmas play still lingers under the name of Pastorale. 5-45
p. 151 A nineteenth-century Spanish survival of the “Stella” is described in Fernan Caballero's sketch, “La Noche de Navidad.” 5-46 At the foot of the altar of the village church, according to this account, images of the Virgin and St. Joseph were placed, with the Holy Child between them, lying on straw. On either side knelt a small boy dressed as an angel. Solemnly there entered the church a number of men attired as shepherds, bearing their offerings to the Child; afterwards they danced with slow and dignified movements before the altar. The shepherds were followed by the richest men of the village dressed as the Magi Kings, mounted on horseback, and followed by their train. Before them went a shining star. On reaching the church they dismounted; the first, representing a majestic old man with white hair, offered incense to the Babe; the others, Caspar and Melchior, myrrh and gold respectively. This was done on the feast of the Epiphany.
A remnant possibly of the “Stella” is to be found in a Christmas custom extremely widespread in Europe and surviving even in some Protestant lands—the carrying about of a star in memory of the Star of Bethlehem. It is generally borne by a company of boys, who sing some sort of carol, and expect a gift in return.
The practice is—or was—found as far north as Sweden. All through the Christmas season the “star youths” go about from house to house. Three are dressed up as the Magi Kings, a fourth carries on a stick a paper lantern in the form of a six-pointed star, made to revolve and lighted by candles. There are also a Judas, who bears the purse for the collection, and, occasionally, a King Herod. A doggerel rhyme is sung, telling the story of the Nativity and offering good wishes. 5-47 In Norway and Denmark processions of a like character were formerly known. 5-48
In Normandy at Christmas children used to go singing through the village streets, carrying a lantern of coloured paper on a long osier rod. 5-49 At Pleudihen in Brittany three young men representing the Magi sang carols in the cottages, dressed in their holiday clothes covered with ribbons. 5-50
p. 152 In England there appears to be no trace of the custom, which is however found in Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Bohemia, Roumania, Poland, and Russia. 5-51
In Thuringia a curious carol used to be sung, telling how Herod tried to tempt the Wise Men—
But they answer:—
In Tyrol the “star-singing” is very much alive at the present day. In the Upper Innthal three boys in white robes, with blackened faces and gold paper crowns, go to every house on Epiphany Eve, one of them carrying a golden star on a pole. They sing a carol, half religious, half comic—almost a little drama—and are given money, cake, and drink. In the Ilsethal the boys come on Christmas Eve, and presents are given them by well-to-do people. In some parts there is but one singer, an old man with a white beard and a turban, who twirls a revolving star. A remarkable point about the Tyrolese star-singers is that before anything is given them they are told to stamp on the snowy fields outside the houses, in order to promote the growth of the crops in summer. 5-53
In Little Russia the “star” is made of pasteboard and has a transparent centre with a picture of Christ through which the light of a candle shines. One boy carries the star and another twirls the points. 5-54 In Roumania it is made of wood and adorned with frills and little bells. A representation of the “manger,” illuminated from behind, forms the centre, and the star also shows pictures of Adam and Eve and angels. 5-55
p. 153 A curious traditional drama, in which pagan elements seem to have mingled with the Herod story, is still performed by the Roumanians during the Christmas festival. It is called in Wallachia “Vicleim” (from Bethlehem), in Moldavia and Transylvania “Irozi” (plural from Irod = Herod). At least ten persons figure in it: “Emperor” Herod, an old grumbling monarch who speaks in harsh tones to his followers; an officer and two soldiers in Roman attire; the three Magi, in Oriental garb, a child, and “two comical figures—the paiaţa (the clown) and the moşul, or old man, the former in harlequin accoutrement, the latter with a mask on his face, a long beard, a hunch on his back, and dressed in a sheepskin with the wool on the outside. The plot of the play is quite simple. The officer brings the news that three strange men have been caught, going to Bethlehem to adore the new-born Messiah; Herod orders them to be shown in: they enter singing in a choir. Long dialogues ensue between them and Herod, who at last orders them to be taken to prison. But then they address the Heavenly Father, and shout imprecations on Herod, invoking celestial punishment on him, at which unaccountable noises are heard, seeming to announce the fulfilment of the curse. Herod falters, begs the Wise Men's forgiveness, putting off his anger till more opportune times. The Wise Men retire.... Then a child is introduced, who goes on his knees before Herod, with his hands on his breast, asking pity. He gives clever answers to various questions and foretells the Christ's future career, at which Herod stabs him. The whole troupe now strikes up a tune of reproach to Herod, who falls on his knees in deep repentance.” The play is sometimes performed by puppets instead of living actors. 5-56
Christmas plays performed by puppets are found in other countries too. In Poland “during the week between Christmas and New Year is shown the Jaselki or manger, a travelling series of scenes from the life of Christ or even of modern peasants, a small travelling puppet-theatre, gorgeous with tinsel and candles, and something like our Punch and Judy show. The market-place of Cracow, especially at night, is a very pretty spectacle, its sidewalks all lined with these glittering Jaselki.” 5-57 In Madrid p. 154 at the Epiphany a puppet-play was common, in which the events of the Nativity and the Infancy were mimed by wooden figures, 5-58 and in Provence, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas scenes were represented in the same way. 5-59
Last may be mentioned a curious Mexican mixture of religion and amusement, a sort of drama called the “Posadas,” described by Madame Calderon de la Barca in her “Life in Mexico” (1843). 5-60 The custom was based upon the wanderings of the Virgin and St. Joseph in Bethlehem in search of repose. For eight days these wanderings of the holy pair to the different posadas were represented. On Christmas Eve, says the narrator, “a lighted candle was put into the hand of each lady [this was at a sort of party], and a procession was formed, two by two, which marched all through the house ... the whole party singing the Litanies.... A group of little children, dressed as angels, joined the procession.... At last the procession drew up before a door, and a shower of fireworks was sent flying over our heads, I suppose to represent the descent of the angels; for a group of ladies appeared, dressed to represent the shepherds.... Then voices, supposed to be those of Mary and Joseph, struck up a hymn, in which they begged for admittance, saying that the night was cold and dark, that the wind blew hard, and that they prayed for a night's shelter. A chorus of voices from within refused admittance. Again those without entreated shelter, and at length declared that she at the door, who thus wandered in the night, and had not where to lay her head, was the Queen of Heaven! At this name the doors were thrown wide open, and the Holy Family entered singing. The scene within was very pretty: a nacimiento.... One of the angels held a waxen baby in her arms.... A padre took the baby from the angel and placed it in the cradle, and the posada was completed. We then returned to the drawing-room—angels, shepherds, and all, and danced till supper-time.” 5-60 Here the religious drama has sunk to little more than a “Society” game.
(Berlin: Kaiser Friedrich Museum)