Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas: Its Origin and Associations by W. F. Dawson (Book Review #121 of 2014)

Christmas: Its Origin and Associations Together with Its Historical Events and Festive Celebrations During Nineteen Centuries by W.F. Dawson.

This book was published in 1905 and is available for free at Gutenberg.org and other sources. I downloaded it hoping to learn the origins of various Christmas traditions and the book was a huge disappointment in that area.

This is basically a book about English history through the lens of Christmas. The author has endeavored to gather every historical occurance on Christmas, how each English monarch celebrated it, and various wars and controversies around that date each year. He throws in poems, songs, and scripts of plays performed on the Christmas holiday in England-- too much superfluous information and far too broad. The book concludes with a look at how Christmas is celebrated in various countries, circa the late 1800s, according to newspaper accounts and correspondence with British people all over the world.

Dawson begins with the biblical origins of Christmas, and then how its date was debated by the early church in the first centuries. He gives a brief explanation of how Dionysius miscounted the number of years when designing the Christian calendar adopted by the Western Church (so, Christ was likely born in 4 B.C.). There is evidence that even prior to Constantine, Christians were commemorating the birth of Christ perhaps even in the month of December, which coincided with the winter solstice and common pagan celebrations of this time. (It seems every ancient culture celebrated the winter solstice in some form). Emperor Diocletian reportedly massacred Christians during a Christmas celebration in 303 AD. The Romans had Bacchanalia and Saturnalia, which were similar to the Scandinavian celebrations adopted by the natives of Britain. "Bacchanalian illustrations have been found among the decorations in the early Christian Churches" (p. 20).  Focusing on England, ancient Saxons and other northern nations kept a Yule festival, honoring the Norse God Thor. The Yule celebration was not explained by Dawson, but I learned from another book that the burning of a yule log packed with incense (and mingled with the remains of the prior year's yule log) was expected to bring good luck to the household and favor to the start of a new year. Later, Christians continuing the practice said that the log represented the cross, and its sweet incense the new life that Christ gives believers.

According to Dawson "Towards the end of the (winter solstice) feast, when the sun was on its return, and the world was considered to be renovated, a king or ruler was chosen, with power granted to him during his ephemeral reign" (p. 21).  This may explain why so many English coronations occurred on Christmas, along with many royal weddings. St. Alban, martyred during Diocletian's reign was purportedly the first Christian martyr in Britain (p. 25).

Post-Constantine, Christmas celebrations included elaborate feasts, gift-giving, stage plays, and card games, a tradition that would continue in England to the time of the author's writing. Early church records show there was some concern from the clergy about the excessive nature and dancing of these festivals. As early as Alfred the Great (9th century), twelve days from Nativity to Epiphany were set aside in England expressly for the celebration of Christmas. Monarchs in England continued the tradition, spending great sums on festivities, masquerade dramas, weddings, and more. If you disdain how Christmas decorations show up in stores after Halloween in the U.S., know that some monarchs also increased the length of festivities for months at a time. As often shops were forbidden to be open during the festival, this was not great for the local economy. During the various civil wars, hostilities interrupted Christmas celebrations.

On December 25 in 1214 (800 years ago as I write this), the Magna Charta was agreed upon by King John and the English barons who resented his abuse of power. The Charta is hailed as an achievement of human rights and a step toward democracy. The summoning of the first representative national Parliament took place on Christmas in 1264 (p. 78).

Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba on Christmas Day, 1492 (p. 117). Henry VII forbid card playing except at Christmas (p. 119). IN 1617, James I imposed religious festivals like Christmas on the Scottish Church, which was denounced (p. 240). This is a description of Christmas written in the 17th century (p. 249-250)

"Nicholas Breton, [70] writing in merry mood, says: 'It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you:—and against the New Year provide for the presents:—The Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy...hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship.'"

However, as Puritans gained ascendency in the 1600s, Christmas celebrations began to be denounced. When the Puritans gained control of Parliament, they outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1647. By law, Christmas was to be treated as an ordinary weekday with shops opened and pastors forbidden to preach on Christmas Day. Commoners, particularly Londoners, kept the celebration in defiance. By 1649, riots broke out in response to decrees outlawing Christmas as England descended into civil war between Royalists and those who were opposed to monarchy. Charles II came to power under a restored monarchy in 1660 and reinstated the Christmas holiday, to the joy of the citizens (p. 269-270):

"These holidays we'l briskly drink, all mirth we will devise, No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave minc'd pies Roast Beef and brave Plum porridge, our Loyal hearts to chear, Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas Beer."

Eventually, Christmas traditions also included ghost stories (338), wassailing crowds of peasants shooting apple trees (343-345), morning church services, and various English dramas.

Dawson's world tour of modern Christmas celebrations includes a look at America, quoting Howard Paul in 1855 (p. 382):
"Society generally seems to apportion the day thus: Church in the morning, dinner in the afternoon, and amusements in the evening. The Christmas dinners concentrate the scattered members of families, who meet together to break bread in social harmony, and exchange those home sentiments that cement the happiness of kindred...and a Christmas sleigh-ride is one of those American delights that defy gravity."

"A curious feature of an American Christmas is the eg-nogg and free lunch, distributed at all the hotels and cafes" (p. 386). There is an excerpt about how President William Henry Harrison expected to celebrate Christmas in 1891, and how Christmas was celebrated by African-Americans in the South.

I found the description of traditional Christmas in pre-Revolution Russia to be interesting. On Christmas Eve, peasants traditionally sang "Kolyadki," referencing an ancient solar goddess (p. 428). There is a description of how the Russian Orthodox Church traditionally celebrated Christmas (428-429).

If you want to know the origins of various traditions and symbols of Christmas, you will not find it in this book. As such, I give it 2.5 stars out of 5. If you want a look at English history and the various events that occurred on Christmas Day in England throughout the centuries, this is the book.

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