Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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THE CHRISTIAN FEAST
Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt are treated ; but these scenes, though full of colour, are on the whole less remarkable than the shepherd and Nativity pieces, and space forbids us to dwell upon them. They contain many curious anachronisms, as when Herod invokes Mahounde, and talks about his princes, prelates, barons, baronets and burgesses.*
The religious play in England did not long survive the Reformation. Under the influence of Protestantism, with its vigilant dread of profanity and superstition, the cycles were shorn of many of their scenes, the performances became irregular, and by the end of the sixteenth century they had mostly ceased to be. Not sacred story, but the play of human character, was henceforth the material of the drama. The rich, variegated religion of the people, communal in its expression, tinged every­where with human colour, gave place to a sterner, colder, more individual faith, fearful of contamination by the use of the outward and visible.
There is little or no trace in the vernacular Christmas plays of direct translation from one language into another, though there was some borrowing of motives. Thus the Christmas drama of each nation has its own special flavour.
If we turn to France, we find a remarkable fifteenth-century cycle that belongs purely to the winter festival, and shows the strictly Christmas drama at its fullest development. This great mystery of the " Incarnacion et nativite" de nostre saulveur et redempteur Jesuchrist" was performed out-of-doors at Rouen in 1474, an exceptional event for a northern city in winter-time. The twenty-four establies or " mansions " set up for the various scenes reached across the market-place from the " Axe and Crown " Inn to the "Angel."
* Besides the Nativity plays in the four great cycles there exists a " Shearmen and Tailors' Play " which undoubtedly belongs to Coventry, unlike the " Ludus Coventriae," whose connection with that town is, to say the least, highly doubtful. It opens with a prologue by the prophet Isaiah, and in a small space presents the events connected with the Incarnation from the Annunciation to the Murder of the Innocents. The Nativity and shepherd scenes have less character and interest than those in the great cycles, and need not be dealt with here.18
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