Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Then and Now

Christmas, not surprisingly, has gone through many incarnations in two thousand years, its customs, traditions, and the emphasis put on it changing not only with time, but with place. For the first thousand and some years, there is no record of the word Christmas at all. Our first record of the term is from 1038 when a Saxon book uses the words “Cristes Maesse.” Much later, after the Reformation, Christmas was largely frowned upon. But in Niall’s time, the Middle Ages, Christmas was still openly celebrated.
Today, of course, it is an almost secular celebration of lights, feasting, gift-giving and family gatherings. But for the people of Glenmirril, Christmas would have been focused on the religious aspect, the birth of Christ, more solemn than what we know. People of the time saw Christmas as a time of prayer and reflection, in hopes of Christ coming again.
They feasted, as we do, but not on turkey. It seems no one was willing to sail west in hopes of finding an undiscovered country with such a creature. Being of the upper crust, Niall, Allene, and the Laird may have feasted on goose, swan, and venison. The poorer people of medieval Europe dined on Christmas goose. Mince pies, filled with spices, fruits, and meats at that time, were popular, as were Christmas puddings, or ‘frumenty’ as it was also called. Frumenty consisted of a thick porridge mixed with egg yolk, currants, spices, and fruits. There were also plenty of stews, soups, fish, and boar.
Before or while feasting, the lords and ladies may have been entertained by ‘mumming,’ which was the practice of putting on plays or dancing. The story of Christ, with Herod as the villain, was popular.
Less common to our own time, hearths would typically burn with a yule log, a practice of both Vikings and Druids. And the term wassail comes from the old words waes hael, be well. We certainly do drink to one another’s health, but in medieval times, a hot brew of honey, ale, and spices was poured into a large bowl, which the host lifted to greet his company, with the words Waes hael!

The people of the medieval world knew caroling. The word carol, in fact, meant to sing and dance in a circle, which, not surprisingly, the priests found a bit disruptive to Mass. As a result, ‘carols’ of the disruptive singing and dancing in a circle during Mass kind were banned, and carolers took to the streets. Hence the tradition of caroling door to door. I, for one, am glad that the songs themselves are now allowed in church, but do not plan to dance in a circle, square, or any other manner, during Mass this year. (Or next, just in case anyone is wondering.)

In 1223, 67 years before Niall’s birth, St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity Scene in Italy, to explain the Christmas story to the villagers.
Niall and Allene may have seen a decorated tree, but it would have stayed outside. Medieval priests would decorate trees on Christmas Eve with apples, as the day was known as “Adam and Eve Day.”
For those of us who have managed not to get whisked back in time via a mysterious Scottish castle, we associate Christmas with gifts. We might be disappointed, because for the medieval Christian, Christmas was a more solemn occasion, and gifts were not traded until Epiphany, or Twelfth Night– the night the Magi reached Christ in the stable. On the other hand, of course, a medieval Christmas celebration lasted for 12 days. Talk about partying like it’s 1399!

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