17 December 2011

The Twelve Myths of Christmas

1. Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree.  Almost. The tree that Queen Victoria and he set up for their five children in 1848 was depicted in the Illustrated London News and the custom, still seen then as a Germanic importation, was taken up by the prosperous classes. But another royal consort, George III's wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had made the Christmas tree a feature of life at Court from 1761.

2. Mistletoe was banned from Churches.  As Steve Roud points out in his learned The English Year, there is no evidence of mistletoe being banished by law from Churches, nor even that it was used in 'pagan' customs in England.  Pliny (in the first century AD) describes Druids harvesting mistletoe with a golden sickle, but that was in Gaul centuries before the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain.
3. Decorations should come down on January 6.  Until the 19th Century, people would keep the decorations of holly, ivy, box, yew, laurel and mistletoe up until February 2nd, Candlemas Day, the end of the Christmas season, 40 days after the birth of Jesus.  Robert Herrick, in his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve writes, 
     Down with the rosemary and bays,
     Down with the mistletoe;
     Instead of holly, now up-raise
     The greener box, for show.
In the reign of Victoria decorations came down on Twelfth Night, January 6th, and generally were burnt.
4. 6th January is the Orthodox Christmas. The Orthodox celebrate Christmas on 7th January by our calendar because their calendar does not incorporate the Gregorian reforms of the the 16th Century.  For some years their calendar was only 12 days adrift, and their 25th December fell on our 6th January.  This is when, in the West, the Epiphany falls, the feast of the discovery of the child Jesus by the three wise men or magi.  This feast is important to the Orthodox, usually being called the Theophany.  But they will be celebrating it on 19th January.
5. We Three Kings of Orient Are.  They are not called kings in the Bible but 'Wise men from the east' (Matthew 2:1). They are taken to be kings because in the prophet Isaiah (60:3), it says, 'And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising'.  
They are taken to be three because of their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The incense signifies the divinity of Christ, since it was burnt in divine worship among the Jews and in the pagan world, too.  Gold stands for royalty and myrrh for the future sufferings of Christ, who was offered wine mixed with myrrh to drink on the Cross, and whose body was anointed with myrrh and aloes before his burial.  Their names came later: Casper, Melchoir and Balthazar (the last usually represented as black) are the names su-pplied in the six-century mosaic in the church of Sant-Apollinare Nuovo.

6. It is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day.  An Act of 8th June 1647 declared that 'forasmuch as the Feasts of the Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and other Festivals commonly called Holy Days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed, be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, that the said Holy Days be no longer observed' (what a long sentence, you can breath again now!).  Mince pies were not singled out.  In 1657, the diarist John Evelyn was arrested at a forbidden Holy Communion service on Christmas Day and interrogated as to why he 'durst offend, & particularly be at Common prayers, which they told me was but the Masse in English'.  The anti-Christmas laws of interregnum lapsed at the restoration.

7.  Santa Claus is American.  St Nicholas was Bishop of Myrna, in what is now Turkey.  But his transmogrification into Santa Claus was indeed accomplished in America, largely through the popularity of a poem: The Visit of St Nicholas, usually known from the first line as The Night before Christmas, published anonymously in 1822 by Clement C Moore, an Episcopal clergyman from New York, until then better known as a Hebrew scholar.  He incorporated customs connected by the Dutch with the feast of St Nicholas, 6th December. (for the words to 'The Visit of St Nicholas', see: http://holyjoe.org/poetry/moore.htm)

8.  Santa Claus is the same as Father Christmas.  There were personifications of Christmas hundreds of years ago, Sir Christmas or Father Christmas.  In a 16th century manuscript there is a carol beginnning "Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell."  "Who is there that singest so, Nowell, nowell, nowell?"  "I am here, Sir Christesmasse."  "Welcome my lord, Sir Christesmasse."

9.  Nowell means 'good news'.  Nowell is a word fraught with misunderstanding.  It comes through Old French from the Latin natalem (accusative), 'birthday', referring to the birth of Christ.  It does not come from nouvelle, the French for 'new'.  
It was used centuries ago is English as an exclamation of joy, not just in carols (where it survives), but also in circumstances unconnected with Christmas (as in the welcoming home of Henry V from Agincourt).  Only in the 19th century did it come to be used (in the form noel) as a synonym for 'carol'.
10. Adeste Fidelis is an ancient carol.  Some medieval carols are in Latin but the words of Adeste Fidelis are found in a manuscript dating from only 1750, written by John Wad, a scholar of plainchant.  It is assumed that he invented them. The words were translated into English by Frederick Oakeley in 1841.  
'Carol' was at first the name for a dance, and the songs that went with the dance came to be called carols too.  They were not at all limited to Christmas subjects, touching on love, mortality, devotion to the Holy Trinity, war, lullabies and the Virgin Mary.  There are plenty of manuscripts from the 15th century.  The phrase 'Christmas carol' appears in an early printed book, sold by Wynkyn de Worde, the colleague of Caxton, in the early 16th century.

11. Good King Wenceslas looked out. The Feast of Stephen is Boxing Day, and Wenceslas did exist.  He was known as Vaclav to the 'Bohemians he ruled and he was murdered by his brother in 929AD. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, so there is no quarrel with the adjective 'good'. 
Much of the rest comes from the prolific pen of John Mason Neale, who published the lyrics in 1853 to go with a medieval tune he had come across that had originally fitted a song about the spring. Tempus adest floridum, which was printed in a collection called Piae Cantiones in 1582.  Though the historical basis is lacking, it is unkind, as some hymnologists have, to call Neale's verses 'doggerel'.
12 Christmas cards originally had religious themes: In 1843 John Calcott Horsley, a painter, designed a Christmas card for sale for Sir Henry Cole, the great designed and founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The cards were lithographed by Joseph Cundall, were hand-coloured and sold at the high price of a shilling each.  The first card sold 1,000.  The picture was of family cheer, not a religious scene.

(For all the above, with thanks to Christopher Howse (see his pic below) from the Daily Telegraph)

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