The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Christmas

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CHRISTMAS (Christ and mass), a festival of the Christian church, observed on Dec. 25 as the anniversary of the birth of the Saviour. Its institution is attributed by the decretal letters to Pope Telesphorus, who died A. D. 138, and throughout the subsequent history of the church it has been one of the most noted of Christian solemnities. At first it was the most movable of the Christian festive days, often confounded with the Epiphany, and celebrated by the eastern churches in the months of April and May. In the 4th century the urgency of St. Cyril of Jerusalem obtained from Pope Julius I. an order for an investigation to be made concerning the day of Christ's nativity. The result of inquiry by the theologians of the East and the West was an agreement upon the 25th of December. The chief grounds for the decision were the tables of the censors in the archives of Rome; and although, in the opinion of some of the fathers, there was not authentic proof of the identification of the day, yet the decision was uniformly accepted, and from that time the nativity has been celebrated throughout the church on the same day. It has also been a common tradition that Christ was born about the middle of the night. The custom in Roman Catholic countries of ushering in Christmas day by the celebration of three masses, one at midnight, the second at early dawn, and the third in the morning, dates from the 6th century. The day was considered in the double light of a holy commemoration and a cheerful festival, and was accordingly distinguished by devotion, by vacation from business, and by merriment. During the middle ages it was celebrated by the gay fantastic spectacle of dramatic mysteries and moralities, performed by personages in grotesque masks and singular costumes. The scenery usually represented an infant in a cradle, surrounded by the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, by bulls' heads, cherubs, eastern magi, and manifold ornaments. The custom of singing canticles at Christmas, called carols, which recalled the songs of the shepherds at the birth of Christ, dates from the time when the common people ceased to understand Latin. The bishops and lower clergy often joined with the populace in carolling, and the songs were enlivened by dances and by the music of tambours, guitars, violins, and organs. Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters mingled together in the dance; if in the night, each bearing in his hand a lighted wax taper. Many collections have been made of these naïve mediæval carols which filled the hours between the nocturnal masses, and which sometimes took the place of psalms in the churches. Of perhaps the oldest of these collections, only a single leaf remains, containing two carols, preserved in the Bodleian library, in a volume of “Christmasse Carolles,” printed by Wynkin de Worde in 1521. Davies Gilbert published a volume of “Ancient Christmas Carols,” with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in England, and William Sandys made a more complete collection (London, 1833). The carols of the Welsh are especially celebrated, and their Llyfr Carolan (“Book of Carols”) contains 66, and their Blodeugardd Cymru (“Anthology of Wales”) contains 48. The German carols were collected by Weinhold (Gratz, 1853), and one of the best of the many editions of French carols (noëls) was published at Poitiers in 1824. During the last days preceding Christmas it is still the custom for Calabrian minstrels to descend from the mountains to Naples and Rome, saluting the shrines of the Virgin Mother with their wild music, under the poetical notion of cheering her until the birth time of her infant at the approaching Christmas. In a picture of the nativity by Raphael he has introduced a shepherd at the door playing on a sort of bagpipe. Preparatory to Christmas the bells are rung at dead midnight throughout England and the continent; and after the solemn celebration of the mass, for which the churches in France and Italy are magnificently adorned, it is usual for the revellers to partake of a collation (réveillon), that they may be better able to sustain the fatigues of the night. Among the revels of the Christmas season were the so-called feasts of fools and of asses, grotesque saturnalia, which were sometimes termed “December liberties,” in which everything serious was burlesqued, inferiors personifying their superiors, great men becoming frolicsome, and all illustrating the proneness of man to occasionally reverse the order of society and ridicule its decencies. In the Protestant districts of Germany and the north of Europe, Christmas is often called the “children's festival,” and Christmas eve is devoted to giving presents, especially between parents and children, and brothers and sisters, by means of the so-called Christmas tree. A large yew bough is erected in one of the parlors, lighted with tapers, and hung with manifold gifts, sweetmeats, apples, nuts, playthings, and ornaments. Each of these is marked with the name of the person for whom it is intended, but not with the name of the donor, and when the whole family party is assembled, the presents are distributed around the room according to their labels, amid joyful acclamations and congratulations. A more sober scene succeeds, for the mother takes this occasion to say privately to the daughters, and the father to the sons, what has been observed most praiseworthy and what most faulty in their conduct. Formerly, and still in some of the smaller villages of North Germany, the presents made by all the parents were sent to some one person, who, in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, becoming the bugbear of children known as Knecht Rupert, goes from house to house, is received by the parents with great pomp and reverence, calls for the children, and bestows the intended gifts upon them according to the character which he hears from the parents after severe inquiries. A beautiful poem of Hebel, Christ-Baum, celebrates the German ceremonies on Christmas eve.—It is an old Swedish tradition, preserved in the history of Olaus, archbishop of Upsal, that at the festival of Christmas the men living in the cold northern parts are suddenly and strangely metamorphosed into wolves; and that a huge multitude of them meet together at an appointed place during the night, and rage so fiercely against mankind and other creatures not fierce by nature, that the inhabitants of that country suffer more from their attacks than ever they do from natural wolves.—Christmas has always been at once a religious, domestic, and merry-making festival in England, equally for every rank and every age. The revels used to begin on Christmas eve, and continued often till Candlemas (Feb. 2), every day being a holiday till twelfth-night (Jan. 6). In the houses of the nobles a “lord of misrule” or “abbot of unreason” was appointed, whose office was “to make the rarest pastimes, to delight the beholder,” and whose dominion lasted from “All-hallow eve” (Oct. 31) till Candlemas day. The larder was filled with capons, hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, beef, mutton, pork, pies, puddings, nuts, plums, sugar, and honey. The Italians have the following proverb: “He has more business than English ovens at Christmas.” The tenants were entertained at the hall; and the lord of the manor and his family encouraged every art conducive to mirth.

On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
Then opened wide the baron's hall,
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And ceremony doffed his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
All hailed, with uncontrolled delight
And general voice, the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.
England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broach'd the mightiest ale;
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man's heart through half the year.

A glowing fire, made of great logs, the principal of which was termed the yule log or Christmas block, which might be burned till Candlemas eve, kept out the severity of the weather; and the abundance was shared amid music, conjuring, riddles, hot cockles, fool-plough, snap-dragon, jokes, laughter, repartees, forfeits, and dances. The generous wassail bowls and bowls of punch never failed to bring tumultuous joys. The favorite and first dish on Christmas day was a soused boar's head, which was borne to the principal table with great state and solemnity, “upon a silver platter, with minstralsye.” The common custom of decking the houses and churches at Christmas with evergreens is derived from ancient druid practiced. It was an old belief that sylvan spirits might flock to the evergreens, and remain unnipped by frost till a milder season. The holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, laurel, and mistletoe furnished the favorite trimmings, which were not removed till Candlemas. In old church calendars Christmas eve is marked, Templa exornantur (the temples are adorned). Holly and ivy still remain in England the most esteemed Christmas evergreens, though at the two universities the windows of the college chapels are decked with laurel. It was an old English superstition that on Christmas eve the oxen were always found on their knees, as in an attitude of devotion, and that after the change from old to new style they continued to do this only on the eve of old Christmas day. This was derived from a prevalent mediæval notion that an ox and an ass which were present at the nativity fell upon their knees in a suppliant posture, as appears from numerous prints and from the Latin poem of Sannazaro in the 16th century. It was an ancient tradition, alluded to by Shakespeare, that midnight spirits forsake the earth and go to their own confines at the crowing of the cock. The Christmas celebrations in England have lost their primitive boisterous character, the gambols and carols are nearly gone by, and family reunions and evergreen trimmings are nearly all that remain of the various rough merriments which used to mark the festival. The last memorable appointment of a lord of misrule was in 1627, when he had come to be denominated “a grand captaine of mischiefe.” The poems of Herrick contain many descriptions of old English Christmas celebrations.—In the United States, since the Puritans were at first stern opponents of Christmas pastimes, the day was for a long time less generally celebrated in New England than in the middle and southern states. It has been made a legal holiday in several of the states, and is usually observed by a religious service and by making presents, and not unfrequently by trimming houses and churches with evergreens, and by imitating the German custom of Christmas trees. Santa Claus (St. Nicholas), originally introduced by the Dutch settlers of New York, is the American representative of the German Knecht Rupert.