Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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Eve and the Epiphany—the "Twelve Days."* A cycle of feasts falls within this time, and the customs peculiar to each day will be treated in calendarial order. First, however, it will be well to glance at the character of the Twelve Days as a whole, and at the superstitions which hang about the season. So many are these superstitions, so "bewitched" is the time, that the older mytln .le­gists not unnaturally saw in it a Teutonic festal season, dat from pre-Christian days. In point of fact it appears to be amply a creation of the Church, a natural linking together of Christmas and Epiphany. It is first mentioned as a festal tide by the eastern Father, Ephraem Syrus, at the end of the fourth century, and was declared to be such by the western Council of Tours in 567.37
While Christmas Eve is the night par excellence of the super­natural, the whole season of the Twelve Days is charged with it. It is hard to see whence Shakespeare could have got the idea which he puts into the mouth of Marcellus in " Hamlet" :—
"Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long ; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad ; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow'd and so gracious is the time." 38
Against this is the fact that in folk-lore Christmas is a quite peculiarly uncanny time. Not unnatural is it that at this mid­winter season of darkness, howling winds, and raging storms, men should have thought to see and hear the mysterious shapes and voices of dread beings whom the living shun.
Throughout the Teutonic world one finds the belief in a " raging
* Sometimes Christmas is reckoned as one of the Twelve Days, sometimes not. In the former case, of course, the Epiphany is the thirteenth day. In England we call the Epiphany Twelfth Day, in Germany it is generally called Thirteenth ; in Belgium and Holland it is Thirteenth ; in Sweden it varies, but is usually Thirteenth. Some­times then the Twelve Days are spoken of, sometimes the Thirteen. "The Twelve Nights," in accordance with the old Teutonic mode of reckoning by nights, is a natural and correct term.39
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