A Saxon Christmas
“If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable
The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries. In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer. The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.
Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes. The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate. Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II. Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.
Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security. Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor. The Protestants and Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year. Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service. The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.
We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge. The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights. Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual. Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.
The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism. As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change. In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot. The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire. Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.
On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!” Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding). Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander. At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family. The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid. The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest. This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.
We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce. Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority. The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity. A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms. So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.
The holiday season is inevitably about family. Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune. As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:
May those who love us, keep loving us
For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles
So we will know them by their limp.