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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at

Part II—Pagan Survivals

p. 160 p. 161 



The Church and Superstition—Nature of Pagan Survivals—Racial Origins—Roman Festivals of the Saturnalia and Kalends—Was there a Teutonic Midwinter Festival?—The Teutonic, Celtic, and Slav New Year—Customs attracted to Christmas or January 1—The Winter Cycle of Festivals—Rationale of Festival Ritual: (a) Sacrifice and Sacrament, (b) the Cult of the Dead, (c) Omens and Charms for the New Year—Compromise in the Later Middle Ages—The Puritans and Christmas—Decay of Old Traditions.

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An Asiatic example of animal masks.

We have now to leave the commemoration of the Nativity of Christ, and to turn to the other side of Christmas—its many traditional observances which, though sometimes coloured by Christianity, have nothing to do with the Birth of the Redeemer. This class of customs has often, especially in the first millennium of our era, been the object of condemnations by ecclesiastics, and represents the old paganism which Christianity failed to extinguish. The Church has played a double part, a part of sheer antagonism, forcing heathen customs into the shade, into a more or less surreptitious and unprogressive life, and a part of adaptation, baptizing them into Christ, giving them a Christian name and interpretation, and often modifying their form. The general effect of Christianity upon pagan usages is well suggested by Dr. Karl Pearson:—

“What the missionary could he repressed, the more as his church grew in strength; what he could not repress he adopted or simply left unregarded.... What the missionary tried to repress became mediaeval witchcraft; what he judiciously disregarded survives to this p. 162 day in peasant weddings and in the folk-festivals at the great changes of season.” 7-1

We find then many pagan practices concealed beneath a superficial Christianity—often under the mantle of some saint—but side by side with these are many usages never Christianized even in appearance, and obviously identical with heathen customs against which the Church thundered in the days of her youth. Grown old and tolerant—except of novelties—she has long since ceased to attack them, and they have themselves mostly lost all definite religious meaning. As the old pagan faith decayed, they tended to become in a literal sense “superstition,” something standing over, like shells from which the living occupant has gone. They are now often mere “survivals” in the technical folk-lore sense, pieces of custom separated from the beliefs that once gave them meaning, performed only because in a vague sort of way they are supposed to bring good luck. In many cases those who practise them would be quite unable to explain how or why they work for good.

Mental inertia, the instinct to do and believe what has always been done and believed, has sometimes preserved the animating faith as well as the external form of these practices, but often all serious significance has departed. What was once religious or magical ritual, upon the due observance of which the welfare of the community was believed to depend, has become mere pageantry and amusement, often a mere children's game. 7-2

Sometimes the spirit of a later age has worked upon these pagan customs, revivifying and transforming them, giving them charm. Often, however, one does not find in them the poetry, the warm humanity, the humour, which mark the creations of popular Catholicism. They are fossils and their interest is that of the fossil: they are records of a vanished world and help us to an imaginative reconstruction of it. But further, just as on a stratum of rock rich in fossils there may be fair meadows and gardens and groves, depending for their life on the denudation of the rock beneath, so have these ancient religious products largely supplied the soil in which more spiritual and more p. 163 beautiful things have flourished. Amid these, as has been well said, “they still emerge, unchanged and unchanging, like the quaint outcrops of some ancient rock formation amid rich vegetation and fragrant flowers.” 7-3

The survivals of pagan religion at Christian festivals relate not so much to the worship of definite divinities—against this the missionaries made their most determined efforts, and the names of the old gods have practically disappeared—as to cults which preceded the development of anthropomorphic gods with names and attributes. These cults, paid to less personally conceived spirits, were of older standing and no doubt had deeper roots in the popular mind. Fundamentally associated with agricultural and pastoral life, they have in many cases been preserved by the most conservative element in the population, the peasantry.

Many of the customs we shall meet with are magical, rather than religious in the proper sense; they are not directed to the conciliation of spiritual beings, but spring from primitive man's belief “that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them.” 7-4 Even when they have a definitely religious character, and are connected with some spirit, magical elements are often found in them.

Before we consider these customs in detail it will be necessary to survey the pagan festivals briefly alluded to in  I, to note the various ideas and practices that characterized them, and to study the attitude of the Church towards survivals of such practices while the conversion of Europe was in progress, and also during the Middle Ages.

The development of religious custom and belief in Europe is a matter of such vast complexity that I cannot in a book of this kind attempt more than the roughest outline of the probable origins of the observances, purely pagan or half-Christianized, clustering round Christmas. It is difficult, in the present state of knowledge, to discern clearly the contributions of different peoples to the traditional customs of Europe, and even, in many cases, to say whether a given custom is “Aryan” or pre-Aryan. The proportion of the Aryan military aristocracy to the peoples whom they conquered was not uniform in all countries, and p. 164 probably was often small. While the families of the conquerors succeeded in imposing their languages, it by no means necessarily follows that the folk-practices of countries now Aryan in speech came entirely or even chiefly from Aryan sources. Religious tradition has a marvellous power of persistence, and it must be remembered that the lands conquered by men of Aryan speech had been previously occupied for immense periods. 7-5 Similarly, in countries like our own, which have been successively invaded by Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, and Normans, it is often extraordinarily hard to say even to what national source a given custom should be assigned.

It is but tentatively and with uncertain hands that scholars are trying to separate the racial strains in the folk-traditions of Europe, and here I can hardly do more than point out three formative elements in Christian customs: the ecclesiastical, the classical (Greek and Roman), and the barbarian, taking the last broadly and without a minute racial analysis. So far, indeed, as ritual, apart from mythology, is concerned, there seems to be a broad common ground of tradition among the Aryan-speaking peoples. How far this is due to a common derivation we need not here attempt to decide. The folk-lore of the whole world, it is to be noted, “reveals for the same stages of civilization a wonderful uniformity and homogeneity.... This uniformity is not, however, due to necessary uniformity of origin, but to a great extent to the fact that it represents the state of equilibrium arrived at between minds at a certain level and their environment.” 7-6

The scientific study of primitive religion is still almost in its infancy, and a large amount of conjecture must necessarily enter into any explanations of popular ritual that can be offered. In attempting to account for Christmas customs we must be mindful, therefore, of the tentative nature of the theories put forward. Again, it is important to remember that ritual practices are far more enduring than the explanations given to them. “The antique religions,” to quote the words of Robertson Smith, “had for the most part no creed; they consisted entirely of institutions and practices ... as a rule we find that while the practice was p. 165 rigorously fixed, the meaning attached to it was extremely vague, and the same rite was explained by different people in different ways.” 7-7

Thus if we can arrive at the significance of a rite at a given period, it by no means follows that those who began it meant the same thing. At the time of the conflict of the heathen religions with Christianity elaborate structures of mythology had grown up around their traditional ceremonial, assigning to it meanings that had often little to do with its original purpose. Often, too, when the purpose was changed, new ceremonies were added, so that a rite may look very unlike what it was at first.

With these cautions and reservations we must now try to trace the connection between present-day or recent goings-on about Christmas-time and the festival practices of pre-Christian Europe.

Christmas, as we saw in  I, has taken the date of the Natalis Invicti. We need not linger over this feast, for it was not attended by folk-customs, and there is nothing to connect it with modern survivals. The Roman festivals that really count for our present purpose are the Kalends of January and, probably, the Saturnalia. The influence of the Kalends is strongest naturally in the Latin countries, but is found also all over Europe. The influence of the Saturnalia is less certain; the festival is not mentioned in ecclesiastical condemnations after the institution of Christmas, and possibly its popularity was not so widespread as that of the Kalends. There are, however, some curiously interesting Christmas parallels to its usages.

The strictly religious feast of the Saturnalia 7-8 was held on December 17, but the festal customs were kept up for seven days, thus lasting until the day before our Christmas Eve. Among them was a fair called the sigillariorum celebritas, for the sale of little images of clay or paste which were given away as presents. 81 Candles seem also to have been given away, perhaps p. 166 as symbols of, or even charms to ensure, the return of the sun's power after the solstice. The most remarkable and typical feature, however, of the Saturnalia was the mingling of all classes in a common jollity. Something of the character of the celebration (in a Hellenized form) may be gathered from the “Cronia” or “Saturnalia” of Lucian, a dialogue between Cronus or Saturn and his priest. We learn from it that the festivities were marked by “drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,” and that slaves had licence to revile their lords. 7-9

The spirit of the season may be judged from the legislation which Lucian attributes to Cronosolon, priest and prophet of Cronus, much as a modern writer might make Father Christmas or Santa Klaus lay down rules for the due observance of Yule. Here are some of the laws:—

All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight. Let none follow their avocations saving cooks and bakers.

All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another.

Anger, resentment, threats, are contrary to law.

No discourse shall be either composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity. ”

There follow directions as to the sending of presents of money, clothing, or vessels, by rich men to poor friends, and as to poor men's gifts in return. If the poor man have learning, his return gift is to be “an ancient book, but of good omen and festive humour, or a writing of his own after his ability.... For the unlearned, let him send a garland or grains of frankincense.” The “Cronosolon” closes with “Laws of the Board,” of which the following are a few:—

Every man shall take place as chance may direct; dignities and birth and wealth shall give no precedence.p. 167 

All shall be served with the same wine.... Every man's portion of meat shall be alike.

When the rich man shall feast his slaves, let his friends serve with him. ” 7-11

Over the whole festival brooded the thought of a golden age in the distant past, when Saturn ruled, a just and kindly monarch, when all men were good and all men were happy.

A striking feature of the Saturnalia was the choosing by lot of a mock king, to preside over the revels. His word was law, and he was able to lay ridiculous commands upon the guests; “one,” says Lucian, “must shout out a libel on himself, another dance naked, or pick up the flute-girl and carry her thrice round the house.” 7-12 This king may have been originally the representative of the god Saturn himself. In the days of the classical writers he is a mere “Lord of Misrule,” but Dr. Frazer has propounded the very interesting theory that this time of privilege and gaiety was once but the prelude to a grim sacrifice in which he had to die in the character of the god, giving his life for the world. 7-13 Dr. Frazer's theory, dependent for its evidence upon the narrative of the martyrdom of a fourth-century saint, Dasius by name, has been keenly criticized by Dr. Warde Fowler. He holds that there is nothing whatever to show that the “Saturn” who in the fourth century, according to the story, was sacrificed by soldiers on the Danube, had anything to do with the customs of ancient Rome. 7-14 Still, in whatever way the king of the Saturnalia may be explained, it is interesting to note his existence and compare him with the merry monarchs whom we shall meet at Christmas and Twelfth Night.

How far the Saturnalian customs in general were of old Latin origin it is difficult to say; the name Saturnus (connected with the root of serere, to sow) and the date point to a real Roman festival of the sowing of the crops, but this was heavily overlaid with Greek ideas and practice. 7-15 It is especially important to bear this in mind in considering Lucian's statements.

The same is true of the festival of the January Kalends, a few days after the Saturnalia. On January 1, the Roman New p. 168 Year's Day, the new consuls were inducted into office, and for at least three days high festival was kept. The houses were decorated with lights and greenery—these, we shall find, may be partly responsible for the modern Christmas-tree. As at the Saturnalia masters drank and gambled with slaves. Vota, or solemn wishes of prosperity for the Emperor during the New Year, were customary, and the people and the Senate were even expected to present gifts of money to him. The Emperor Caligula excited much disgust by publishing an edict requiring these gifts and by standing in the porch of his palace to receive them in person. Such gifts, not only presented to the Emperor, but frequently exchanged between private persons, were called strenae, a name still surviving in the French étrennes (New Year's presents). 7-16

An interesting and very full account of the Kalends celebrations is given in two discourses of Libanius, the famous Greek sophist of the fourth century:—

“The festival of the Kalends,” he says, “is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend.... Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow.... People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.... The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts.... As the thousand flowers which burst forth everywhere are the adornment of Spring, so are the thousand presents poured out on all sides, the decoration of the Kalends feast. It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom.... p. 169 Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.” 7-17

The resemblances here to modern Christmas customs are very striking. In another discourse Libanius speaks of processions on the Eve of the festival. Few people, he says, go to bed; most go about the streets with singing and leaping and all sorts of mockery. The severest moralist utters no blame on this occasion. When morning begins to dawn they decorate their houses with laurels and other greenery, and at daybreak may go to bed to sleep off their intoxication, for many deem it necessary at this feast to follow the flowing bowl. On the 1st of January money is distributed to the populace; on the 2nd no more presents are given: it is customary to stay at home playing dice, masters and slaves together. On the 3rd there is racing; on the 4th the festivities begin to decline, but they are not altogether over on the 5th. 7-18

Another feature of the Kalends, recorded not in the pages of classical writers but in ecclesiastical condemnations, was the custom of dressing up in the hides of animals, in women's clothes, and in masks of various kinds. 7-19 Dr. Tille 7-20 regards this as Italian in origin, but it seems likely that it was a native custom in Greece, Gaul, Germany, and other countries conquered by the Romans. In Greece the skin-clad mummers may have belonged to the winter festivals of Dionysus supplanted by the Kalendae. 7-21

The Church's denunciations of pagan festal practices in the winter season are mainly directed against the Kalends celebrations, and show into how many regions the keeping of the feast had spread. Complaints of its continued observance abound in the writings of churchmen and the decrees of councils. In the second volume of his “Mediaeval Stage” 7-22 Mr. Chambers has made an interesting collection of forty excerpts from such denunciations, ranging in date from the fourth century to the eleventh, and coming from Spain, Italy, Antioch, northern Africa, Constantinople, Germany, England, and various districts of what is now France.

p. 170 As a specimen I may translate a passage describing at some length the practices condemned. It is from a sermon often ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo, but probably composed in the sixth century, very likely by Caesarius of Arles in southern Gaul:—

“On those days,” says the preacher, speaking of the Kalends of January, “the heathen, reversing the order of all things, dress themselves up in indecent deformities.... These miserable men, and what is worse, some who have been baptized, put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces, at which one should rather be ashamed and sad. For what reasonable man would believe that any men in their senses would by making a stag (cervulum) turn themselves into the appearance of animals? Some are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men.... How vile, further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women's dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women's garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.... There are some who on the Kalends of January practise auguries, and do not allow fire out of their houses or any other favour to anyone who asks. Also they both receive and give diabolical presents (strenas). Some country people, moreover, lay tables with plenty of things necessary for eating ... thinking that thus the Kalends of January will be a warranty that all through the year their feasting will be in like measure abundant. Now as for them who on those days observe any heathen customs, it is to be feared that the name of Christian will avail them nought. And therefore our holy fathers of old, considering that the majority of men on those days became slaves to gluttony and riotous living and raved in drunkenness and impious dancing, determined for the whole world that throughout the Churches a public fast should be proclaimed.... Let us therefore fast, beloved brethren, on those days.... For he who on the Kalends shows any civility to foolish men who are wantonly sporting, is undoubtedly a partaker of their sin.” 7-23

There are several points to be noted here. First, the zeal of the Church against the Kalends celebrations as impious relics of p. 171 heathenism: to root them out she even made the first three days of the year a solemn fast with litanies. 7-24 Next, the particular offences should be observed. These are: first, the dressing up of men in the hides of animals and the clothes of women; next, the New Year auguries and the superstition about fire, the giving of presents, and the laying of tables with good things; and last, drunkenness and riot in general. All these we shall find fully represented in modern Christmas customs.

That Roman customs either spread to Germany, or were paralleled there, is shown by a curious letter written in 742 by St. Boniface to Pope Zacharias. The saint complained that certain Alamanni, Bavarians, and Franks refused to give up various heathen practices because they had seen such things done in the sacred city of Rome, close to St. Peter's, and, as they deemed, with the sanction of the clergy. On New Year's Eve, it was alleged, processions went through the streets of Rome, with impious songs and heathen cries; tables of fortune were set up, and at that time no one would lend fire or iron or any other article to his neighbour. The Pope replied that these things were odious to him, and should be so to all Christians; and next year all such practices at the January Kalends were formally forbidden by the Council of Rome. 7-25

So much for Roman customs; if indeed such practices as beast-masking are Roman, and not derived from the religion of peoples conquered by the imperial legions. We must now turn to the winter festivals of the barbarians with whom the Church began to come into contact soon after the establishment of Christmas.

Much attention has been bestowed upon a supposed midwinter festival of the ancient Germans. In the mid-nineteenth century it was customary to speak of Christmas and the Twelve Nights as a continuation of the holy season kept by our forefathers at the winter solstice. The festive fires of Christmas were regarded as symbols of the sun, who then began his upward journey in the heavens, while the name Yule was traced back to the Anglo-Saxon word hwéol (wheel), and connected with the circular p. 172 course of the sun through the wheeling-points of the solstices and equinoxes. More recent research, however, has thrown the gravest doubts upon the existence of any Teutonic festival at the winter solstice. 82 It appears from philology and the study of surviving customs that the Teutonic peoples had no knowledge of the solstices and equinoxes, and until the introduction of the Roman Calendar divided their year not into four parts but into two, three, and six, holding their New Year's Day with its attendant festivities not at the end of December or beginning of January, but towards the middle of November. At that time in Central Europe the first snowfall usually occurred and the pastures were closed to the flocks. A great slaughter of cattle would then take place, it being impossible to keep the beasts in stall throughout the winter, and this time of slaughter would naturally be a season of feasting and sacrifice and religious observances. 83 7-26

The Celtic year, like the Teutonic, appears to have begun in November with the feast of Samhain—a name that may mean either “summer-end” or “assembly.” It appears to have been in origin a “pastoral and agricultural festival, which in time came to be looked upon as affording assistance to the powers of growth in their conflict with the powers of blight,” and to have had many features in common with the Teutonic feast at the same season, for instance animal sacrifice, commemoration of the dead, and omens and charms for the New Year. 7-27

There is some reason also to believe that the New Year p. 173 festival of the Slavs took place in the autumn and that its usages have been transferred to the feast of the Nativity. 7-29 A description based on contemporary documents cannot be given of these barbarian festivals; we have, rather, to reconstruct them from survivals in popular custom. At the close of this book, when such relics have been studied, we may have gained some idea of what went on upon these pre-Christian holy-days. It is the Teutonic customs that have been most fully recorded and discussed by scholars, and these will loom largest in our review; at the same time Celtic and Slav practices will be considered, and we shall find that they often closely resemble those current in Teutonic lands.

The customs of the old New Year feasts have frequently wandered from their original November date, and to this fact we owe whatever elements of northern paganism are to be found in Christmas. Some practices seem to have been put forward to Michaelmas; one side of the festivals, the cult of the dead, is represented especially by All Saints’ and All Souls’ days (November 1 and 2). St. Martin's Day (November 11) probably marks as nearly as possible the old Teutonic date, and is still in Germany an important folk-feast attended by many customs derived from the beginning-of-winter festival. Other practices are found strewn over various holy-days between Martinmas and Epiphany, and concentrated above all on the Church's feast of the Nativity and the Roman New Year's Day, January 1, both of which had naturally great power of attraction. 7-30

The progress of agriculture, as Dr. Tille points out, 7-31 tended to destroy the mid-November celebration. In the Carolingian period an improvement took place in the cultivation of meadows, and the increased quantity of hay made it possible to keep the animals fattening in stall, instead of slaughtering them as soon as the pastures were closed. Thus the killing-time, with its festivities, became later and later. St. Andrew's Day (November 30) and St. Nicholas's (December 6) may mark stages in its progress into the winter. In St. Nicholas's Day, indeed, we find a feast that closely resembles Martinmas, and seems to be the same folk-festival transferred to a later date. Again, as regards England we p. 174 must remember the difference between its climate and that of Central Europe. Mid-November would here not be a date beyond which pasturing was impossible, and thus the slaughter and feast held then by Angles and Saxons in their old German home would tend to be delayed. 7-32

Christmas, as will be gathered from the foregoing, cannot on its pagan side be separated from the folk-feasts of November and December. The meaning of the term will therefore here be so extended as to cover the whole period between All Saints’ Day and Epiphany. That this is not too violent a proceeding will be seen later on.

For the purposes of this book it seems best to treat the winter festivals calendarially, so to speak: to start at the beginning of November, and show them in procession, suggesting, as far as may be, the probable origins of the customs observed. Thus we may avoid the dismemberment caused by taking out certain practices from various festivals and grouping them under their probable origins, a method which would, moreover, be perilous in view of the very conjectural nature of the theories offered.

Before we pass to our procession of festivals, something must be said about the general nature and rationale of the customs associated with them. For convenience these customs may be divided into three groups:—

I. Sacrificial or Sacramental Practices.
II. Customs connected with the Cult of the Dead and the Family Hearth.
III. Omens and Charms for the New Year.

Though these three classes overlap and it is sometimes difficult to place a given practice exclusively in one of them, they will form a useful framework for a brief account of the primitive ritual which survives at the winter festivals.

I. Sacrificial and Sacramental Practices.

To most people, probably, the word “sacrifice” suggests an offering, something presented to a divinity in order to obtain his favour. Such seems to have been the meaning generally given to p. 175 sacrificial rites in Europe when Christianity came into conflict with paganism. It is, however, held by many scholars that the original purpose of sacrifice was sacramental—the partaking by the worshipper of the divine life, conceived of as present in the victim, rather than the offering of a gift to a divinity. 7-33

The whole subject of sacred animals is obscure, and in regard, especially, to totemism—defined by Dr. Frazer 7-34 as “belief in the kinship of certain families with certain species of animals” and practices based upon that belief—the most divergent views are held by scholars. The religious significance which some have seen in totemistic customs is denied by others, while there is much disagreement as to the probability of their having been widespread in Europe. Still, whatever may be the truth about totemism, there is much that points to the sometime existence in Europe of sacrifices that were not offerings, but solemn feasts of communion in the flesh and blood of a worshipful animal. 7-35 That the idea of sacrificial communion preceded the sacrifice-gift is suggested by the fact that in many customs which appear to be sacrificial survivals the body of the victim has some kind of sacramental efficacy; it conveys a blessing to that which is brought into contact with it. The actual eating and drinking of the flesh and blood is the most perfect mode of contact, but the same end seems to have been aimed at in such customs as the sprinkling of worshippers with blood, the carrying of the victim in procession from house to house, the burying of flesh in furrows to make the crops grow, and the wearing of hides, heads, or horns of sacrificed beasts. 7-36 We shall meet, during the Christmas season, with various practices that seem to have originated either in a sacrificial feast or in some such sacramental rites as have just been described. So peculiarly prominent are animal masks, apparently derived from hide-, head-, and horn-wearing, that we may dwell upon them a little at this point.

We have already seen how much trouble the Kalends custom of beast-masking gave the ecclesiastics. Its probable origin is thus suggested by Robertson Smith:—

“It is ... appropriate that the worshipper should dress himself in p. 176 the skin of a victim, and so, as it were, envelop himself in its sanctity. To rude nations dress is not merely a physical comfort, but a fixed part of social religion, a thing by which a man constantly bears on his body the token of his religion, and which is itself a charm and a means of divine protection.... When the dress of sacrificial skin, which at once declared a man's religion and his sacred kindred, ceased to be used in ordinary life, it was still retained in holy and especially in piacular functions; ... examples are afforded by the Dionysiac mysteries and other Greek rites, and by almost every rude religion; while in later cults the old rite survives at least in the religious use of animal masks.” 84 7-37

If we accept the animal-worship and sacrificial communion theory, many a Christmas custom will carry us back in thought to a stage of religion far earlier than the Greek and Roman classics or the Celtic and Teutonic mythology of the conversion period: we shall be taken back to a time before men had come to have anthropomorphic gods, when they were not conscious of their superiority to the beasts of the field, but regarded these beings, mysterious in their actions, extraordinary in their powers, as incarnations of potent spirits. At this stage of thought, it would seem, there were as yet no definite divinities with personal names and characters, but the world was full of spirits immanent in animal or plant or chosen human being, and able to pass from one incarnation to another. Or indeed it may be that animal sacrifice originated at a stage of religion before the idea of definite “spirits” had arisen, when man was conscious rather of a vague force like the Melanesian mana, in himself and in almost everything, and “constantly trembling on the verge of personality.” 7-38Mana ” better than “god” or “spirit” may express that with which the partaker in the communal feast originally sought contact. “When you sacrifice,” to quote some words of Miss Jane Harrison, “you build as it were a bridge between your mana, your will, your desire, which is weak and impotent, and p. 177 that unseen outside mana which you believe to be strong and efficacious. In the fruits of the earth which grow by some unseen power there is much mana; you want that mana. In the loud-roaring bull and the thunder is much mana; you want that mana. It would be well to get some, to eat a piece of that bull raw, but it is dangerous, not a thing to do unawares alone; so you consecrate the first-fruits, you sacrifice the bull and then in safety you—communicate.” 7-39 “Sanctity”—the quality of awfulness and mystery—rather than divinity or personality, may have been what primitive man saw in the beasts and birds which he venerated in “their silent, aloof, goings, in the perfection of their limited doings.” 7-40 When we use the word “spirit” in connection with the pagan sacramental practices of Christmastide, it is well to bear in mind the possibility that at the origin of these customs there may have been no notion of communion with strictly personal beings, but rather some such mana idea as has been suggested above.

It is probable that animal-cults had their origin at a stage of human life preceding agriculture, when man lived not upon cultivated plants or tamed beasts, but upon roots and fruits and the products of the chase. Some scholars, indeed, hold that the domestication of animals for practical use was an outcome of the sacred, inviolable character of certain creatures: they may originally have been spared not for reasons of convenience but because it was deemed a crime to kill them—except upon certain solemn occasions—and may have become friendly towards man through living by his side. 7-41 On the other hand it is possible that totems were originally staple articles of food, that they were sacred because they were eaten with satisfaction, and that the very awe and respect attached to them because of their life-giving powers tended to remove them from common use and limit their consumption to rare ceremonial occasions.

Closely akin to the worship of animals is that of plants, and especially trees, and there is much evidence pointing to sacramental cults in connection with the plant-world. 7-42 Some cakes and special vegetable dishes eaten on festal days may be survivals of sacramental feasts parallel to those upon the flesh and blood of p. 178 an animal victim. Benediction by external contact, again, is suggested by the widespread use in various ways of branches or sprigs or whole trees. The Christmas-tree and evergreen decorations are the most obvious examples; we shall see others in the course of our survey, and in connection with plants as well as with animals we shall meet with processions intended to convey a blessing to every house by carrying about the sacred elements—to borrow a term from Christian theology. Even the familiar practice of going carol-singing may be a Christianized form of some such perambulation.

It is possible that men and women had originally separate cults. The cult of animals, according to a theory set forth by Mr. Chambers, would at first belong to the men, who as hunters worshipped the beasts they slew, apologizing to them, as some primitive people do to-day, for the slaughter they were obliged to commit. Other animals, apparently, were held too sacred to be slain, except upon rare and solemn occasions, and hence, as we have seen, may have arisen domestication and the pastoral life which, with its religious rites, was the affair of the men. To women, on the other hand, belonged agriculture; the cult of Mother Earth and the vegetation-spirits seems to have been originally theirs. Later the two cults would coalesce, but a hint of the time when certain rites were practised only by women may be found in that dressing up of men in female garments which appears not merely in the old Kalends customs but in some modern survivals. 85 7-43

Apart from any special theory of the origin of sacrifice, we may note the association at Christmas of physical feasting with religious rejoicing. In this the modern European is the heir of an agelong tradition. “Everywhere,” says Robertson Smith, p. 179 “we find that a sacrifice ordinarily involves a feast, and that a feast cannot be provided without a sacrifice. For a feast is not complete without flesh, and in early times the rule that all slaughter is sacrifice was not confined to the Semites. The identity of religious occasions and festal seasons may indeed be taken as the determining characteristic of the type of ancient religion generally; when men meet their god they feast and are glad together, and whenever they feast and are glad they desire that the god should be of the party.” 7-45 To the paganism that preceded Christianity we must look for the origin of that Christmas feasting which has not seldom been a matter of scandal for the severer type of churchman.

[Transcriber's Note: The marker for note  7-44 was not present in the page scan]

A letter addressed in 601 by Pope Gregory the Great to Abbot Mellitus, giving him instructions to be handed on to Augustine of Canterbury, throws a vivid light on the process by which heathen sacrificial feasts were turned into Christian festivals. “Because,” the Pope says of the Anglo-Saxons, “they are wont to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in the place of this, so that on the day of the dedication of the churches, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are placed there, they may make for themselves tabernacles of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance; so that while some outward joys are retained for them, they may more readily respond to inward joys. For from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly impossible to cut off everything at once, because he who strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps.” 7-46

We see here very plainly the mind of the ecclesiastical compromiser. Direct sacrifice to heathen gods the Church of course could not dream of tolerating; it had been the very centre of her attack since the days of St. Paul, and refusal to take part in it had cost the martyrs their lives. Yet the festivity and merrymaking to which it gave occasion were to be left to the p. 180 people, for a time at all events. The policy had its advantages, it made the Church festivals popular; but it had also its dangers, it encouraged the intrusion of a pagan fleshly element into their austere and chastened joys. A certain orgiastic licence crept in, an unbridling of the physical appetites, which has ever been a source of sorrow and anger to the most earnest Christians and even led the Puritans of the seventeenth century to condemn all festivals as diabolical.

Before we leave the subject of sacrificial survivals, it must be added that certain Christmas customs may come, little as those who practise them suspect it, from that darkest of religious rites, human sacrifice. Reference has already been made to Dr. Frazer's view of the Saturnalian king and his awful origin. We shall meet with various similar figures during the Christmas season—the “King of the Bean,” for instance, and the “Bishop of Fools.” If the theories about human sacrifice set forth in “The Golden Bough” be accepted, we may regard these personages as having once been mock kings chosen to suffer instead of the real kings, who had at first to perish by a violent death in order to preserve from the decay of age the divine life incarnate in them. Such mock monarchs, according to Dr. Frazer, were exalted for a brief season to the glory and luxury of kingship ere their doom fell upon them; 7-47 in the Christmas “kings” the splendour alone has survived, the dark side is forgotten.

II. The Cult of the Dead and the Family Hearth.

Round the winter festival cluster certain customs apparently connected with distinctively domestic religion, rather than with such public and communal cults as we have considered under the heading of Sacrifice and Sacrament. A festival of the family—that is, perhaps, what Christmas most prominently is to-day: it is the great season for gatherings “round the old fireside”; it is a joyous time for the children of the house, and the memory of the departed is vivid then, if unexpressed. Further, by the Yule log customs and certain other ceremonies still practised in the remoter corners of Europe, we are carried back to a stage of thought at which the dead were conceived as hovering about or p. 181 visiting the abodes of the living. Ancestral spirits, it seems, were once believed to be immanent in the fire that burned on the hearth, and had to be propitiated with libations, while elsewhere the souls of the dead were thought to return to their old homes at the New Year, and meat and drink had to be set out for them. The Church's establishment of All Souls’ Day did much to keep practices of tendance of the departed to early November, but sometimes these have wandered to later dates and especially to Christmas. In folk-practices directed towards the dead two tendencies are to be found: on the one hand affection or at all events consideration for the departed persists, and efforts are made to make them comfortable; on the other, they are regarded with dread, and the sight of them is avoided by the living.

In the passage quoted from Caesarius of Arles there was mention of the laying of tables with abundance of food at the Kalends. The same practice is condemned by St. Jerome in the fifth century, and is by him specially connected with Egypt. 7-48 He, like Caesarius and others, regards it as a kind of charm to ensure abundance during the coming year, but it is very possible that its real purpose was different, that the food was an offering to supernatural beings, the guardians and representatives of the dead. 7-49 Burchardus of Worms in the early eleventh century says definitely that in his time tables were laid with food and drink and three knives for “those three Sisters whom the ancients in their folly called Parcae.” 7-50 The Parcae were apparently identified with the three “weird” Sisters known in England and in other Teutonic regions, and seem to have some connection with the fairies. As we shall see later on, it is still in some places the custom to lay out tables for supernatural beings, whether, as at All Souls’ tide, explicitly for the dead, or for Frau Perchta, or for the Virgin or some other Christian figure. Possibly the name Modranicht (night of mothers), which Bede gives to Christmas Eve, 7-51 may be connected with this practice.

Not remote, probably, in origin from a belief in “ghosts” is the driving away of spirits that sometimes takes place about p. 182 Christmas-time. Many peoples, as Dr. Frazer has shown, have an annual expulsion of goblins, ghosts, devils, witches, and evil influences, commonly at the end of the Old or beginning of the New Year. Sometimes the beings so driven away are definitely the spirits of the departed. An appalling racket and a great flare of torches are common features of these expulsions, and we shall meet with similar customs during the Christmas season. Such purifications, according to Dr. Frazer, are often preceded or followed by periods of licence, for when the burden of evil is about to be, or has just been, removed, it is felt that a little temporary freedom from moral restraints may be allowed with impunity. 7-52 Hence possibly, in part, the licence which has often attended the Christmas season.

III. Omens and Charms for the New Year.

Customs of augury are to be met with at various dates, which may mark the gradual shifting of the New Year festival from early November to January 1, while actual charms to secure prosperity are commonest at Christmas itself or at the modern New Year. Magical rather than religious in character, they are attempts to discover or influence the future by a sort of crude scientific method based on supposed analogies. Beneath the charms lie the primitive ideas that like produces like and that things which have once been in contact continue to act upon one another after they are separated in space. 7-53 The same ideas obviously underlie many of the sacramental practices alluded to a few pages back, and these are often of the nature of charms. Probably, too, among New Year charms should be included such institutions as the bonfires on Hallowe'en in Celtic countries, on Guy Fawkes Day in England, and at Martinmas in Germany, for it would seem that they are intended to secure by imitation a due supply of sunshine. 7-54 The principle that “well begun is well ended”—or, as the Germans have it, “Anfang gut, alles gut ”—is fundamental in New Year practices: hence the custom of giving presents as auguries of wealth during the coming year; hence perhaps partly the heavy eating and drinking—a kind of charm to ensure abundance.

p. 183 Enough has already been said about the attitude of the early Church towards traditional folk-customs. Of the position taken up by the later mediaeval clergy we get an interesting glimpse in the “Largum Sero” of a certain monk Alsso of Brĕvnov, an account of Christmas practices in Bohemia written about the year 1400. It supplies a link between modern customs and the Kalends prohibitions of the Dark Ages. Alsso tells of a number of laudable Christmas Eve practices, gives elaborate Christian interpretations of them, and contrasts them with things done by bad Catholics with ungodly intention. Here are some of his complaints:—

Presents, instead of being given, as they should be, in memory of God's great Gift to man, are sent because he who does not give freely will be unlucky in the coming year. Money, instead of being given to the poor, as is seemly, is laid on the table to augur wealth, and people open their purses that luck may enter. Instead of using fruit as a symbol of Christ the Precious Fruit, men cut it open to predict the future [probably from the pips]. It is a laudable custom to make great white loaves at Christmas as symbols of the True Bread, but evil men set out such loaves that the gods may eat of them.

Alsso's assumption is that the bad Catholics are diabolically perverting venerable Christmas customs, but there can be little doubt that precisely the opposite was really the case—the Christian symbolism was merely a gloss upon pagan practices. In one instance Alsso admits that the Church had adopted and transformed a heathen usage: the old calendisationes or processions with an idol Bel had been changed into processions of clergy and choir-boys with the crucifix. Round the villages on the Eve and during the Octave of Christmas went these messengers of God, robed in white raiment as befitted the servants of the Lord of purity; they would chant joyful anthems of the Nativity, and receive in return some money from the people—they were, in fact, carol-singers. Moreover with their incense they would drive out the Devil from every corner. 7-55

Alsso's attitude is one of compromise, or at least many of the old heathen customs are allowed by him, when reinterpreted in a p. 184 Christian sense. Such seems to have been the general tendency of the later Catholic Church, and also of Anglicanism in so far as it continued the Catholic tradition. It will be seen, however, from what has already been said, that the English Puritans were but following early Christian precedents when they attacked the paganism that manifested itself at Christmas.

A strong Puritan onslaught is to be found in the “Anatomie of Abuses” by the Calvinist, Philip Stubbes, first published in 1583. “Especially,” he says, “in Christmas tyme there is nothing els vsed but cardes, dice, tables, maskyng, mumming, bowling, and suche like fooleries; and the reason is, that they think they haue a commission and prerogatiue that tyme to doe what they list, and to followe what vanitie they will. But (alas!) doe they thinke that they are preuiledged at that time to doe euill? The holier the time is (if one time were holier than an other, as it is not), the holier ought their exercises to bee. Can any tyme dispence with them, or giue them libertie to sinne? No, no; the soule which sinneth shall dye, at what tyme soeuer it offendeth.... Notwithstandyng, who knoweth not that more mischeef is that tyme committed than in all the yere besides?” 7-56

When the Puritans had gained the upper hand they proceeded to the suppression not only of abuses, but of the festival itself. An excellent opportunity for turning the feast into a fast—as the early Church had done, it will be remembered, with the Kalends festival—came in 1644. In that year Christmas Day happened to fall upon the last Wednesday of the month, a day appointed by the Lords and Commons for a Fast and Humiliation. In its zeal against carnal pleasures Parliament published the following “Ordinance for the better observation of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ”:—

“Whereas some doubts have been raised whether the next Fast shall be celebrated, because it falleth on the day which, heretofore, was usually called the Feast of the Nativity of our Saviour; the lords and commons do order and ordain that public notice be given, that the Fast appointed to be kept on the last Wednesday in every month, ought to be observed until it be otherwise ordered by both houses; p. 185 and that this day particularly is to be kept with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights; being contrary to the life which Christ himself led here upon earth, and to the spiritual life of Christ in our souls; for the sanctifying and saving whereof Christ was pleased both to take a human life, and to lay it down again.” 7-57

But the English people's love of Christmas could not be destroyed. “These poor simple creatures are made after superstitious festivals, after unholy holidays,” said a speaker in the House of Commons. “I have known some that have preferred Christmas Day before the Lord's Day,” said Calamy in a sermon to the Lords in Westminster Abbey, “I have known those that would be sure to receive the Sacrament on Christmas Day though they did not receive it all the year after. This was the superstition of this day, and the profaneness was as great. There were some that did not play cards all the year long, yet they must play at Christmas.” Various protests were made against the suppression of the festival. Though Parliament sat every Christmas Day from 1644 to 1656, the shops in London in 1644 were all shut, and in 1646 the people who opened their shops were so roughly used that next year they petitioned Parliament to protect them in future. In 1647 the shops were indeed all closed, but evergreen decorations were put up in the City, and the Lord Mayor and City Marshal had to ride about setting fire to them. There were even riots in country places, notably at Canterbury. With the Restoration Christmas naturally came back to full recognition, though it may be doubted whether it has ever been quite the same thing since the Puritan Revolution. 7-58

Protestantism, in proportion to its thoroughness and the strength of its Puritan elements, has everywhere tended to destroy old pagan traditions and the festivals to which they cling. Calvinism has naturally been more destructive than Lutheranism, which in the Scandinavian countries has left standing many of the externals of Catholicism and also many Christmas customs that are purely pagan, while in Germany it has tolerated and even hallowed the p. 186 ritual of the Christmas-tree. But more powerful than religious influences, in rooting out the old customs, have been modern education and the growth of modern industry, breaking up the old traditional country life, and putting in its place the mobile, restless life of the great town. Many of the customs we shall have to consider belong essentially to the country, and have no relation to the life of the modern city. When communal in their character, a man could not perform them in separation from his rustic neighbours. Practices domestic in their purpose may indeed be transferred to the modern city, but it is the experience of folk-lorists that they seldom descend to the second generation.

It is in regions like Bavaria, Tyrol, Styria, or the Slav parts of the Austrian Empire, or Roumania and Servia, that the richest store of festival customs is to be found nowadays. Here the old agricultural life has been less interfered with, and at the same time the Church, whether Roman or Greek, has succeeded in keeping modern ideas away from the people and in maintaining a popular piety that is largely polytheistic in its worship of the saints, and embodies a great amount of traditional paganism. In our half-suburbanized England but little now remains of these vestiges of primitive religion and magic whose interest and importance were only realized by students in the later nineteenth century, when the wave of “progress” was fast sweeping them away.

Old traditions have a way of turning up unexpectedly in remote corners, and it is hard to say for certain that any custom is altogether extinct; every year, however, does its work of destruction, and it may well be that some of the practices here described in the present tense have passed into the Limbo of discarded things.

p. 187 p. 188 p. 189 

Next: Chapter VII. All Hallow Tide to Martinmas