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…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.