Archive for December 26th, 2010

Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.
–  John Mason Neale

In the Church calendar today is the feast of St. Stephen, and therefore the day upon which Good King Wenceslas looked out.  The day (though not the saint) has long been associated with assistance to the poor, which is probably why the carol portrays the king assisting a poor man on that day; it was the day on which English churches opened their alms boxes to the poor, the day on which servants were allowed to “box up” the remains of Christmas feasts and take the day off to visit relatives, and the day on which tradesmen came by to collect their “Christmas boxes” from families who wished to give them such gifts.  For one or more of these reasons the day is called Boxing Day in the UK and most of the Commonwealth, and even in some portions of the US along the Canadian border.

As JustStarshine explained in her essay about Yule the festival went on for twelve days (much as the Roman Saturnalia had gone on for six), and this tradition was transferred to Christmas when the celebrations merged toward the end of the first millennium.  Today is therefore also the second day of Christmas, Wren Day in Ireland and Wales and Mummer’s Day in Cornwall.  The Celtic celebrations are very old, predating Christianity by many centuries, and strongly resemble the better-known Celtic celebration of Samhain (Halloween) in many ways.  Traditionally the day was celebrated by wearing costumes and masks and going from house to house singing seasonal songs and being treated to food in return; the practice of course entered the British Christmas festivities in combination with “wassailing” (itself originally a pagan celebration intended to honor and bless apple trees), and gave rise to Christmas caroling.  In modern times, some locales still honor the original traditions with formal or informal costume parades on this day, and even Philadelphia, Pennsylvania holds a Mummer’s Parade, though this occurs on the 8th day of Christmas (modern New Years Day) rather than the 2nd.  And of course, the English tradition of the Christmas pantomime goes back to the Mummers as well, and features the same kind of role reversal (in this case gender reversal and audience participation) as occurred in Saturnalia.

For anyone who knows anything about the history of Christmas, it’s strange and sometimes amusing to hear activist Christians whining about the holiday being “theirs”, because as we have seen it existed for at least 3000 years before Jesus was born and most of its traditions have nothing to do with him or with Christianity.  Clergymen have recognized this from the very beginning, and at first attacked the festival for its pagan origins.  Eventually, however, they were forced to admit that, like prostitution, Christmas was not going to go away, so by the Middle Ages the Church embraced the celebration and worked to insert as much Christian symbolism into it as possible. Nativity scenes first appeared in 10th-century Rome, and were popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi beginning in 1223 (St. Francis also popularized religious Christmas carols sung in the vernacular).  Christian explanations were developed for pagan traditions like the Christmas tree, and apologists even denied that the date of Christmas had anything to do with the festival of Sol Invictus.  By the Renaissance Christmas was fully established as an important Church festival…and then the Reformation came, bringing preachers who thundered against Christmas as “popery” or even the dreaded “heathenism”.  The Church responded by trying to make the festival more religious, and many German Protestants continued the celebration quietly but replaced Saint Nicholas or other traditional gift-giving figures with the Christkindl (Christ child), a term corrupted in English to “Kris Kringle”.  But in the English-speaking world the Protestants continued to hammer away at Christmas, which was actually banned in England under the Commonwealth government from 1647-1660, and in Boston from 1659-1681.

But even in parts of the colonies where Christmas was not actually banned, Puritan influence made it unpopular; indeed, it was due to German, Dutch, French and Spanish influence that Christmas finally “caught on” in the United States in the first quarter of the 19th century.  Meanwhile, in England, industrialization and the resulting explosive growth of cities had broken up extended families, and many people had begun to think of Christmas as old-fashioned.  Some writers began working to re-popularize the holiday but none succeeded as well as Charles Dickens, whose immensely popular 1843 novella A Christmas Carol did more to revive Christmas in England than any other single influence; even the modern preeminence of the phrase “Merry Christmas” over all other holiday greetings is largely due to its prominent use in the book.  Dickens emphasized the secular, family-centered celebration and the display of generosity toward the poor over the church-centered religious elements of the holiday, and that soon became the pattern of Christmas in England.

In the United States, Christmas has always been a largely secular holiday despite Christian claims to the contrary; even many atheists, lapsed Christians and non-Christians celebrate it.  But in recent years concerted efforts by conservative Christians to claim the holiday for themselves and nobody else have resulted in an equal and opposite reaction from groups like the ACLU who have attacked public displays of even secular symbols and traditions of the holiday on the grounds that it constitutes an establishment of a state religion.  Now, the ACLU has done a lot of great work in maintaining civil liberties in this country, but I think fighting non-religious Christmas displays is a ridiculous waste of money and resources which could have been spent fighting prostitution laws instead.  Anybody who is offended by Santa Claus, Christmas trees and holiday cheer is far too easily offended; despite its name Christmas is for everyone, not just Christians.  Of course, even if nobody ever filed another Grinch lawsuit again the present don’t-dare-risk-offending-anybody social climate would do the same work anyhow; businesses self-censor rather than risk offending the pathologically offendable and thereby hurting sales.

And speaking of sales, Boxing Day in the UK and Commonwealth countries has in recent years evolved into a shopping holiday; stores drop their prices dramatically and throngs rush out for bargains.  As on “Black Friday” in the US, many retailers open early and long lines form to get in, and frenzied mobs of greedy consumers fight each other and trash displays in order to snatch up the bargains before they run out.  And like “Black Friday”, Boxing Day has in recent years become the one day which generates the greatest income for British merchants.  And so this day, like Christmas itself, has degenerated in recent years from a day dedicated to helping the less fortunate to a day dedicated to helping oneself at the expense of others.

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