Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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PRE-CHRISTIAN WINTER FESTIVALS
" we find that a sacrifice ordinarily involves a feast, and that a feast cannot be provided without a sacrifice. For a feast is not complete without flesh, and in early times the rule that all slaughter is sacrifice was not confined to the Semites. The identity of religious occasions and festal seasons may indeed be taken as the determining characteristic of the type of ancient re­ligion generally ; when men meet their god they feast and are glad together, and whenever they feast and are glad they desire that the god should be of the party." 45 To the paganism that preceded Christianity we must look for the origin of that Christmas feasting which has not seldom been a matter of scandal for the severer type of churchman.
A letter addressed in 601 by Pope Gregory the Great to Abbot Mellitus, giving him instructions to be handed on to Augustine of Canterbury, throws a vivid light on the process by which heathen sacrificial feasts were turned into Christian festivals. " Because," the Pope says of the Anglo-Saxons, " they are wont to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in the place of this, so that on the day of the dedication of the churches, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are placed there, they may make for them­selves tabernacles of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may cele­brate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance ; so that while some outward joys are retained for them, they may more readily respond to inward joys. For from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly impossible to cut off everything at once, because he who strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps." 46
We see here very plainly the mind of the ecclesiastical com­promiser. Direct sacrifice to heathen gods the Church of course could not dream of tolerating ; it had been the very centre of her attack since the days of St. Paul, and refusal to take part in it had cost the martyrs their lives. Yet the festivity and merrymaking to which it gave occasion were to be left to the
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