Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Oh, this is very midsummer madness

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Twelfth Night, 2.
There shall be no more cakes and ale for me, this is not because I am virtuous, but because I think my knees feel fatter. I simply don't have the feasting stamina of my forebears, or the long drawers to cover my fat knees, or the obligation to fast when I'm not feasting...a good fast would whittle down my fat knees, though...pass me the Ryvita!
Anyway, today is Epiphany and Twelfth Day (Twelfth Night was last night, so if you wanted to get drunk and cross dress you've missed your opportunity). Epiphany/Twelfth Night/Twelfth Day was once quite a big deal in this country, as Epiphany is a liturgical feast-day, and in Western churches it celebrates the Manifestation of the Magi. In continental Europe many children receive their Christmas present on Epiphany and in my parents' town (they live in Spain) there's a huge Epiphany procession. In pre-reformation Britain clergy would dress as the Magi and decorate the church with a star hanging from the rafters, there would be a nativity scene too, the clergy processing towards it. I like to imagine the effects this liturgical spectacle had on our medieval counterparts, it must have been wonderful to behold.
Anyway, if the feast of Epiphany was dramatic but solemn, then the secular Twelfth Night was perhaps equally dramatic but not a tiny bit solemn. There would be cake, which would contain a dried pea, a dried bean, and a clove; those who found them in their slice of cake would be designated King, Queen and Knave for the evening. There would be pranks; apparently it was tradition to pin the clothes of unsuspecting people together, or even nail their clothes to the walls and furniture; and, as Sir Toby Belch would tell us in Twelfth Night, there would be drinking. It was also a strange tradition during the Twelve Days of Christmas to be a little subversive, rich may dress as poor, men would dress as women and so forth, there would be plays featuring the "Lord of Misrule" a prankster who would subvert the natural order. Many folklorists believe this is the origin of the typically British pantomime.
Of course, before the calendar change of 1752 January 6th was Christmas Day. Many country people refused to incorporate the Gregorian calender into their everyday lives (who can blame them, they lived by the seasons) so the Christmas period and its festivals became a very long feast with what a person did from one day to the other a little confused and hazy. Apparently though, many rural families were still celebrating Christmas Day on this day right up until the turn of the last century. Here's what Ella M. Leather, a folk-lore collector had to say in 1912.
'My grandfather always kept up Christmas on Old Christmas Day,' said WP of Peterchurch, 'none of your new Christmas for him; it must be the real Christmas too, for the Holly Thorn blossoms, and the cattle go down on their knees at twelve o'clock for remembrance.' I have talked to many people who firmly believe this; though they have not seen it, their parents or grandparents have.
I remember both of my grans telling me that the cattle went down on their knees on Christmas Day.
So it seems to me that the whole of the Christmas period was one long feast, in fact the twelve days were declared such by the early church...no-one was to work, all were to feast and celebrate. I have a copy of the seasonal labours of medieval English peasants as set down by their feudal masters, which seems to support this.
January: Feasting
February: Sitting by the fire
March: Pruning
April: Garden scene
May: Hunting, fishing
June: The hay harvest
July: Reaping the corn
August: Threshing
September: Treading the grape
October: Ploughing and sowing
November: Gathering acorns for pigs
December: Killing pig and baking bread
The year had a wonderful, circular rhythm, and the feast of Christmas was a culmination of a year of hard work. My strong instinct is that we modern folk could learn by this rhythm. What do you think?
NB. It's probably only fair to cite my sources for this post.
Harthman, John "Books of Hours" Thames and Hudson, 1978
Roud, Steve "The English Year" Penguin, 2006
Robson, Carolyn and Rowe, Doc " Midwinter" EFDSS, 1994


Sarah said...

I enjoyed reading that. We put away Christmas a bit early this year as I am going away to day to New York and wanted to come home to a tidy house. It felt strange to send away Christmas without a feast and a bang. I like the peasant's calendar. It made me think about our family cycle...gave me an idea for a post :)

Anonymous said...

I'll bet the pigs dreaded December, a month dedicated to killing pig eh? :)

I'm reading a book called The Calendar right now and it is fascinating. Chuh, the way Constantine messed about with our Christian calendar to please his Christian wife and his beloved sun god...this messing about continued throughout the ages.

One of the beautiful things I have discovered is that the Jewish festivals instituted in the book of Leviticus follow a prophetic pattern and also very rhythmic pattern(like the old English customs/seasons you have mentioned here). I think that God instituted the seasons for a reason, and (something 'The Calendar' has highlighted - to me that is, the book is a secular one) is we have lost our connection with the world God created. Somewhere, somehow we need to slow down and reconnect with it all.

I'm not a pagan so I wouldn't partake in old pagan rituals (except of course those that have been absorbed into the Christian customs - and this doesn't bother me I can rejoice in God's everlasting promise represented by the evergreen decorations where the celtics might have other spiritual meaning to the bringing in of greenery), but one thing that I feel Christianity has sadly lost is the tendency to compartmentalise life rather than look at the whole glorious picture. I want to sit down and ask, 'why did you make snow Lord?', 'why the winter season?', there must be a reason and that reason connects us to Him more I think and to one another.

I know I'm being vague but your question resonated with some things I've been chewing over.

Try as they may to savour the taste of eternity, their thoughts still twist and turn upon the ebb and flow of things in past and future time. But if only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and, for that short moment, they would glimpse the splendour of eternity, which is forever still. Augustine of Hippo. I love this quote of Augustine's, we are so obsessed with getting 'dates' and 'times' right rather than rejoicing in the now, the season we are in and what it means in God's eternal plan.

Sorry for the long comment, and thanks for this post! :)

I'm really interested in your other readers thoughts on this subject because mine are rather garbled and very personal.

Hugs chuck, so glad you're back!

Anonymous said...

Lol, an outbreak of Sarahs! We're taking over the world you know. :)

Gumbo Lily said...

I enjoyed this bit of history you've shared. I wonder though, why must people choose to be so naughty during Christian holidays like Epiphany? I guess all holidays must have their "naughty children."

Less ale and cake at my house too. Here's to our knees!


Nan said...

I'll have to read your words another time. I'm just listening to the Cure right now. :<) my word verification letters spell:
dandebo :<)

Islandsparrow said...

Very interesting bit of history. When you live in the country, it is easier to imagine what following the seasonal calendar might have been like. I live in a community of fishers and farmers and, in many ways, their life follows a similar pattern.

Anonymous said...

What I wrote here:
...thing that I feel Christianity has sadly lost is the tendency to compartmentalise life ...
should read:

'...thing that I feel Christianity has sadly lost something in the tendency compartmentalise life...'

Scriptor Senex said...

September - treading the grape suggests a warmer climate at some time in Medieval history. I wonder if we can get back to that - I fancy my own grape vine.

In the mid 1800s there was still an aversion to the 'new' calendar in many rural areas and a lot of the Saints' Days were celebrated according to the old calendar. similarly, fairs that were once on, for example, St Thomas's Day would end up being held on old St Thomas' and therefore not apparrently relating to anything obvious.

Perhaps it is symptomatic of the pace of life nowadays and the universality of the education system that we accept change so much more readily. Within a generation youngsters have forgotten pounds, shillings and pence, feet and inches and so on. When things were passed on by mouth within families the old would have tended to last much longer.

Jenny said...

Us poor sods in the southern hemisphere just get completely confused. Christmas comes at a time when summer is just starting to bite. We try to just hang out and spend January and February feasting and sitting but it doesn't quite work right.
Luckily this family has a winter full of birthdays so we can feast and sit by the fire then.

...and my word verification is Kintess, rather like a countess but only seen as royalty by her kinfolk.

Angela said...

What a lovely post - it is so good to have you back in Blogland! I agree that the rhythms of the seasons are important. I want us to pass down the traditions to our children, and I love being able to teach the history lessons at school about life in times gone by, and how THEY celebrated Christmas/Easter etc. Like Sarah [comment #1]I am inspired to think about our family's cycle too.[That's the calendar one, not the Honda Pan European in the garage!]
blessings x

Dulce Domum said...

Wow! It's nice to come back from the school run and see such great comments!

Hi Sarah (USA)
Monix, from Random Distractions had a proper Epiphany party for her kids when they were little, she has posted about it. It's inspired me. What we tend to do is take down the decoartions and bless the house, but no more. Next year we may give the day a bit more umph.

Hi Sarah (UK)
Yes, their poor little trotters must have been quaking. I like to think that Decemeber must have been the time for pork and stuffing batches (cobs, rolls) if you killed the pig and made bread in that month. I'm partial to a pork and stuffing batch.

I quite fancy that book you mentioned, it sounds very interesting. I've always been quite drawn to the Jewish festivals, and the links between the major Jewish festivals and the Christian ones (and sacraments, of course). I think you're dead right, festivals, seasons, yearly rhythms are there for a reason (many reasons). They remind us that there is a time for work, joy, contemplation, they keep these things in balance. Modern life tends to be terribly unbalanced. In "The Pace of a Hen" Moffet Benton uses the shape of the cross to illustrate a balanced Christian life, spiritual (top), earthly (bottom), work (left), rest (right) all in perfect balance. These issues are close to my heart, and I could go on. Thanks for the Augustine quote!

Hi Jody
I'm glad I'm not the only one out there with fat knee syndrome! I have no idea why these festivals often involved pranksters. But it's a really interesting question. Perhaps humour was more visual as they weren't a literate society? Perhaps they had too much to drink and fancied misbehaving? Naughty children indeed!

Hi Nan
Haven't The Cure stood the test of time! What a great band. A girl once told my DH that he looked like Robert Smith...this was years ago I hasten to add. I asked him if he was wearing lipstick and had the full goth hair, his answer was evasive.

Hi Island Sparrow
I know this is slightly off topic, but I was told recently that if you spend half an hour per day in a natural setting, your overall health (including mental health) improves. Which of course begs the question, are country folk healthier?

Hi Scriptor Senex and Welcome!
It's nice to have a chap on board! I think we have to ask ourselves what the consequences of a super fast pace of life have on us, and on our children and on our communities. I think that a reconnection to some of our older festivals/folk culture may be a way of curing certain modern ills. But this is a bit of an old hobbey horse of mine, so I shan't go on.

Hi Jenny
Ah yes, you lot can have strawberries for Christmas no doubt! Actually it must be quite exciting to find your own rhythm and create your own seasonal festivals...or perhaps it's a pain in the neck at Christmas, sitting down to turkey and bread sauce in the blazing heat...

Hi Angela
I'd like to hear more about your inspiring cycle (both kinds)! I think we all respond to festivals, it's something very deep within us. I think particularly children and olk folks feel reassured and happy when the life is staedy and has ryhthm.

Anonymous said...

Hi DD, The Calendar is a wonderful read, particularly the first half of the book. It doesn't mention the Jewish festivals much, save for a paragraph, but there is a site that I have enjoyed browsing which discusses the Jewish festivals and their meaning, if you're interested it's here:


The Calendar book made me yearn for those simpler times, we weren't rushed because we were 5 minutes late for church, etc, we just made it there when the sun was rising on the 1st day of the week in the winter season...it would be nice to return to that vagueness a little! I like being vague.

I'd love to read The Pace of a Hen, but on my last look on amazon it was £11.60 plus £2.75 shipping and I've already Amazoned myself out of Christmas money :) It's on my wishlist.