Tag Archives: Christmas customs
There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it. —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou
Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany… [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 23
Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!
Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.
Dad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.
Living poetically: an orderly life
Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.
This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.
For purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.
It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.
These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.
On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween
…has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain… — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. —Wikipedia
As was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.
As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.
Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to
…[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia
Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why.
According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”
Why rituals matter
Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.
I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car. The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.
Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.
Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.
I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.
When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”
Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.
When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.
Truthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?
Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)
Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.
Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.
If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.
You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?
Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.
The presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.
John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.
Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.
The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.
Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.
Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.
Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?
Publish your “little book” in an easy little way
…and other metaphors of Christmastide
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 22
Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide
At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.
It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.
Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.
Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.
Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.
There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.
Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.
Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.
Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.
MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES
Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.
We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.
She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.
“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”
Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.
“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”
“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”
And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.
At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”
* * *
THE HOLLY AND THE IVY
The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all
Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:
Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.
In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.
Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)
“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.
“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”
* * *
Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.
In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.
* * *
TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME
A tomte (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt, a farmstead.
Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.
The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.
Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.
Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.