Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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CHRISTMAS
Christian had here no continuing city, but sought one to come. How could the Church make a feast of the secular New Year ; what mattered to her the world of time ? her eye was fixed upon the eternal realities—the great drama of Redemption. Not upon the course of the temporal sun through the zodiac, but upon the mystical progress of the eternal Sun of Righteousness must she base her calendar. Christmas and New Year's Day—the two festivals stood originally for the most opposed of principles.
Naturally the Church fought bitterly against the observance of the Kalends ; she condemned repeatedly the unseemly doings of Christians in joining in heathenish customs at that season ; she tried to make the first of January a solemn fast; and from the ascetic point of view she was profoundly right, for the old festivals were bound up with a lusty attitude towards the world, a seeking for earthly joy and well-being.
The struggle between the ascetic principle of self-mortification, world-renunciation, absorption in a transcendent ideal, and the natural human striving towards earthly joy and well-being, is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the history of Christianity ; it is certainly shown in an absorbingly interesting way in the development of the Christian feast of the Nativity. The conflict is keen at first ; the Church authorities fight tooth and nail against these relics of heathenism, these devilish rites ; but man­kind's instinctive paganism is insuppressible, the practices continue as ritual, though losing much of their meaning, and the Church, weary of denouncing, comes to wink at them, while the pagan joy in earthly life begins to colour her own festival.
The Church's Christmas, as the Middle Ages pass on, becomes increasingly " merry "—warm and homely, suited to the instincts of ordinary humanity, filled with a joy that is of this earth, and not only a mystical rapture at a transcendental Redemption. The Incarnate God becomes a real child to be fondled and rocked, a child who is the loveliest of infants, whose birthday is the supreme type of all human birthdays, and may be kept with feasting and dance and song. Such is the Christmas of popular tradition, the Nativity as it is reflected in the carols, the cradle-rocking, the mystery plays of the later Middle Ages. This
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