Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan

Religion/
#Religion #Holidays
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Excerpt CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION The Origin and Purpose of Festivals?»?—Ideas suggested by Christmas?»?—Pagan and Christian Elements?»?—The Names of the Festival?»?—Foundation of the Feast of the Nativity?»?—Its Relation to the Epiphany?»?—December 25 and the Natalis Invicti?»?—The Kalends of January?»?—Yule and Teutonic Festivals?»?—The Church and Pagan Survivals?»?—Two Conflicting Types of Festival?»?—Their Interaction?»?—Plan of the Book. It has been an instinct in nearly all peoples, savage or civilized, to set aside certain days for special ceremonial observances, attended by outward rejoicing. This tendency to concentrate on special times answers to man's need to lift himself above the commonplace and the everyday, to escape from the leaden weight of monotony that oppresses him. “We tend to tire of the most eternal splendours, and a mark on our calendar, or a crash of bells at midnight maybe, reminds us that we have only recently been created.”?»??»? That they wake people up is the great justification of festivals, and both man's religious sense and his joy in life have generally tended to rise “into peaks and towers and turrets, into superhuman exceptions which really prove the rule.”?»? It is difficult to be religious, impossible to be merry, at every moment of life, and festivals are as sunlit peaks, testifying, above dark valleys, to the eternal radiance. This is one view of the purpose and value of festivals, and their function of cheering people and giving them larger perspectives has no doubt been an important reason for their maintenance in the past. If we could trace the custom of festival-keeping back to its origins in primitive society we should find the same principle of specialization involved, though it is probable that the practice came into being not for the sake of its moral or emotional effect, but from man's desire to lay up, so to speak, a stock of sanctity, magical not ethical, for ordinary days. The first holy-day-makers were probably more concerned with such material goods as food than with spiritual ideals, when they marked with sacred days the rhythm of the seasons.?»? As man's consciousness developed, the subjective aspect of the matter would come increasingly into prominence, until in the festivals of the Christian Church the main object is to quicken the devotion of the believer by contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. Yet attached, as we shall see, to many Christian festivals, are old notions of magical sanctity, probably quite as potent in the minds of the common people as the more spiritual ideas suggested by the Church's feasts. In modern England we have almost lost the festival habit, but if there is one feast that survives among us as a universal tradition it is Christmas. We have indeed our Bank Holidays, but they are mere days of rest and amusement, and for the mass of the people Easter and Whitsuntide have small religious significance?»?—Christmas alone has the character of sanctity which marks the true festival. The celebration of Christmas has often little or nothing to do with orthodox dogma, yet somehow the sense of obligation to keep the feast is very strong, and there are few English people, however unconventional, who escape altogether the spell of tradition in this matter. Christmas?»?—how many images the word calls up: we think of carol-singers and holly-decked churches where people hymn in time-honoured strains the Birth of the Divine Child; of frost and snow, and, in contrast, of warm hearths and homes bright with light and colour, very fortresses against the cold; of feasting and revelry, of greetings and gifts exchanged; and lastly of vaguely superstitious customs, relics of long ago, performed perhaps out of respect for use and wont, or merely in jest, or with a deliberate attempt to throw ourselves back into the past, to re-enter for a moment the mental childhood of the race. These are a few of the pictures that rise pell-mell in the minds of English folk at the mention of Christmas; how many other scenes would come before us if we could realize what the festival means to men of other nations....
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