Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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CHRISTMAS POETRY
the pagan and the Christian spirit, or delight in earthly things and joy in the invisible, seem to meet and mingle ; to the true monk of the Dark and Early Middle Ages they were in­compatible.
What of the people, the great world outside the monasteries ? Can we imagine that Christmas, on its Christian side, had a deep meaning for them ? For the first ten centuries, to quote Dean Church again, Christianity " can hardly be said to have leavened society at all. ... It acted upon it doubtless with enormous power ; but it was as an extraneous and foreign agent, which destroys and shapes, but does not mingle or renew. . . . Society was a long time unlearning heathenism ; it has not done so yet; but it had hardly begun, at any rate it was only just beginning, to imagine the possibility of such a thing in the eleventh century."6
"The practical religion of the illiterate," says another ecclesi­astical historian, Dr. W. R. W. Stephens, " was in many respects merely a survival of the old paganism thinly disguised. There was a prevalent belief in witchcraft, magic, sortilegy, spells, charms, talismans, which mixed itself up in strange ways with Christian ideas and Christian worship. . . . Fear, the note of superstition, rather than love, which is the characteristic of a rational faith, was conspicuous in much of the popular religion. The world was haunted by demons, hobgoblins, malignant spirits of divers kinds, whose baneful influence must be averted by charms or offerings."7
The writings of ecclesiastics, the decrees of councils and synods, from the fourth century to the eleventh, abound in condemnations of pagan practices at the turn of the year. It is in these customs, and in secular mirth and revelry, not in Christian poetry, that we must seek for the expression of early lay feeling about Christmas. It was a feast of material good things, a time for the fulfilment of traditional heathen usages, rather than a joyous celebration of the Saviour's birth. No doubt it was observed by due attendance at church, but the services in a tongue not understanded of the people cannot have been very full of meaning to them, and we can imagine
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