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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #30 on: December 25, 2008, 10:54:34 pm »

The note of personal religion, as distinguished from theological doctrine, is stronger in German Christmas poetry than in that of any other nation—the birth of Christ in the individual soul, not merely the redemption of man in general, is a central idea.

We come back at last to England. The great carol period is, as has already been said, the fifteenth, and the first half of the sixteenth, century; after the Reformation the English domestic Christmas largely loses its religious colouring, and the best carols of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are songs of p. 77 feasting and pagan ceremonies rather than of the Holy Child and His Mother. There is no lack of fine Christmas verse in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, but for the most part it belongs to the oratory and the chamber rather than the hall. The Nativity has become a subject for private contemplation, for individual devotion, instead of, as in the later Middle Ages, a matter for common jubilation, a wonder-story that really happened, in which, all alike and all together, the serious and the frivolous could rejoice, something that, with all its marvel, could be taken as a matter of course, like the return of the seasons or the rising of the sun on the just and on the unjust.

English Christmas poetry after the mid-sixteenth century is, then, individual rather than communal in its spirit; it is also a thing less of the people, more of the refined and cultivated few. The Puritanism which so deeply affected English religion was abstract rather than dramatic in its conception of Christianity, it was concerned less with the events of the Saviour's life than with Redemption as a transaction between God and man; St. Paul and the Old Testament rather than the gospels were its inspiration. Moreover, the material was viewed not as penetrated by and revealing the spiritual, but as sheer impediment blocking out the vision of spiritual things. Hence the extremer Puritans were completely out of touch with the sensuous poetry of Christmas, a festival which, as we shall see, they actually suppressed when they came into power.

The singing of sacred carols by country people continued, indeed, but the creative artistic impulse was lost. True carols after the Reformation tend to be doggerel, and no doubt many of the traditional pieces printed in such collections as Bramley and Stainer's 33 3-37 are debased survivals from the Middle Ages, or perhaps new words written for old tunes. Such carols as “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” have unspeakably delightful airs, and the words charm us moderns by their quaintness and rusticity, but they are far from the exquisite loveliness of the mediaeval p. 78 things. Gleams of great beauty are, however, sometimes found amid matter that in the process of transmission has almost ceased to be poetry. Here, for instance, are five stanzas from the traditional “Cherry-tree Carol”:—

“As Joseph was a-walking,

He heard an angel sing:

‘This night shall be born

Our heavenly King.

‘He neither shall be born

In housen nor in hall,

Nor in the place of Paradise,

But in an ox's stall.

‘He neither shall be clothed

In purple nor in pall,

But all in fair linen

As wear babies all.

‘He neither shall be rocked

In silver nor in gold,

But in a wooden cradle

That rocks on the mould.

‘He neither shall be christened

In white wine nor red,

But with fair spring water

With which we were christened.’”

The old carols sung by country folk have often not much to do with the Nativity; they are sometimes rhymed lives of Christ or legends of the Holy Childhood. Of the latter class the strangest is “The Bitter Withy,” discovered in Herefordshire by Mr. Frank Sidgwick. It tells how the little Jesus asked three lads to play with Him at ball. But they refused:—

“’O we are lords’ and ladies’ sons,

Born in bower or in hall;

And you are but a poor maid's child,

Born in an oxen's stall.’p. 79

‘If I am but a poor maid's child,

Born in an oxen's stall,

I will let you know at the very latter end

That I am above you all.’

So he built him a bridge with the beams of the sun,

And over the sea went he,

And after followed the three jolly jerdins,

And drowned they were all three.

Then Mary mild called home her child,

And laid him across her knee,

And with a handful of green withy twigs

She gave him slashes three.

‘O the withy, O the withy, O bitter withy

That causes me to smart!

O the withy shall be the very first tree

That perishes at the heart.’”

From these popular ballads, mediaeval memories in the rustic mind, we must return to the devotional verse of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Two of the greatest poets of the Nativity, the Roman priests Southwell and Crashaw, are deeply affected by the wave of mysticism which passed over Europe in their time. Familiar as is Southwell's “The Burning Babe,” few will be sorry to find it here:—

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #31 on: December 25, 2008, 10:55:10 pm »

“As I in hoary winter's night

Stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat,

Which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye

To view what fire was near,

A pretty Babe all burning bright

Did in the air appear;

Who, scorchèd with excessive heat,

Such floods of tears did shed,

As though His floods should quench His flames

Which with His tears were fed.p. 80

‘Alas!’ quoth He, ‘but newly born,

In fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts

Or feel my fire, but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is,

The fuel, wounding thorns;

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke,

The ashes, shame and scorns;

The fuel Justice layeth on,

And Mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought

Are men's defilèd souls,

For which, as now on fire I am,

To work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath,

To wash them in my blood.’

With this he vanished out of sight,

And swiftly shrunk away:

And straight I callèd unto mind

That it was Christmas Day.” 3-38

As for Crashaw,

“That the great angel-blinding light should shrink

His blaze to shine in a poor shepherd's eye,

That the unmeasured God so low should sink

As Pris'ner in a few poor rags to lie,

That from His mother's breast He milk should drink

Who feeds with nectar heaven's fair family,

That a vile manger His low bed should prove

Who in a throne of stars thunders above:

That He, whom the sun serves, should faintly peep

Through clouds of infant flesh; that He the old

Eternal Word should be a Child and weep,

That He who made the fire should fear the cold:

That heaven's high majesty His court should keep

In a clay cottage, by each blast controll'd:

That glory's self should serve our griefs and fears,

And free Eternity submit to years—” 3-39

such are the wondrous paradoxes celebrated in his glowing imagery. The contrast of the winter snow with the burning p. 81 heat of Incarnate Love, of the blinding light of Divinity with the night's darkness, indeed the whole paradox of the Incarnation—Infinity in extremest limitation—is nowhere realized with such intensity as by him. Yet, magnificent as are his best lines, his verse sometimes becomes too like the seventeenth-century Jesuit churches, with walls overladen with decoration, with great languorous pictures and air heavy with incense; and then we long for the dewy freshness of the early carols.

The representative Anglican poets of the seventeenth century, Herbert and Vaughan, scarcely rise to their greatest heights in their treatment of Christmas, but with them as with the Romanists it is the mystical note that is dominant. Herbert sings:—

“O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted, light,

Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;

Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,

To man, of all beasts, be not Thou a stranger.

Furnish and deck my soul, that thou may'st have

A better lodging than a rack or grave.” 3-40

And Vaughan:—

“I would I had in my best part

Fit rooms for Thee! or that my heart

Were so clean as

Thy manger was!

But I am all filth, and obscene:

Yet, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make clean.

Sweet Jesu! will then. Let no more

This leper haunt and soil thy door!

Cure him, ease him,

O release him!

And let once more, by mystic birth,

The Lord of life be born in earth.” 3-41

In Herrick—how different a country parson from Herbert!—we find a sort of pagan piety towards the Divine Infant which, p. 82 though purely English in its expression, makes us think of some French Noëliste or some present-day Italian worshipper of the Bambino:—

“Instead of neat enclosures

Of interwoven osiers,

Instead of fragrant posies

Of daffodils and roses,

Thy cradle, kingly Stranger,

As gospel tells,

Was nothing else

But here a homely manger.

But we with silks not crewels,

With sundry precious jewels,

And lily work will dress Thee;

And, as we dispossess Thee

Of clouts, we'll make a chamber,

Sweet Babe, for Thee,

Of ivory,

And plaster'd round with amber.” 3-42

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #32 on: December 25, 2008, 10:56:39 pm »

Poems such as Herrick's to the Babe of Bethlehem reveal in their writers a certain childlikeness, an insouciance without irreverence, the spirit indeed of a child which turns to its God quite simply and naturally, which makes Him after its own child-image, and sees Him as a friend who can be pleased with trifles—almost, in fact, as a glorious playmate. Such a nature has no intense feeling of sin, but can ask for forgiveness and then forget; religion for it is rather an outward ritual to be duly and gracefully performed than an inward transforming power. Herrick is a strange exception among the Anglican singers of Christmas.

Milton's great Nativity hymn, with its wondrous blending of pastoral simplicity and classical conceits, is too familiar for quotation here; it may be suggested, however, that this work of the poet's youth is far more Anglican than Puritan in its spirit.

Sweet and solemn Spenserian echoes are these verses from Giles Fletcher's “Christ's Victory in Heaven”:—p. 83

“Who can forget—never to be forgot—

The time, that all the world in slumber lies,

When, like the stars, the singing angels shot

To earth, and heaven awakèd all his eyes

To see another sun at midnight rise

On earth? Was never sight of pareil fame,

For God before man like Himself did frame,

But God Himself now like a mortal man became.

A Child He was, and had not learnt to speak,

That with His word the world before did make;

His mother's arms Him bore, He was so weak,

That with one hand the vaults of heaven could shake,

See how small room my infant Lord doth take,

Whom all the world is not enough to hold!

Who of His years, or of His age hath told?

Never such age so young, never a child so old.” 3-43

The old lullaby tradition is continued by Wither, though the infant in the cradle is an ordinary human child, who is rocked to sleep with the story of his Lord:—

“A little Infant once was He,

And strength in weakness then was laid

Upon His virgin-mother's knee,

That power to thee might be conveyed.

Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;

Be still, my babe; sweet baby, sleep.

*       *       *       *       *

Within a manger lodged thy Lord,

Where oxen lay and asses fed;

Warm rooms we do to thee afford,

An easy cradle or a bed.

Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep;

Be still, my babe; sweet baby, sleep.” 3-44

When we come to the eighteenth century we find, where we might least expect it, among the moral verses of Dr. Watts, a charming cradle-song conceived in just the same way:—p. 84

“Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber,

Holy angels guard thy bed!

Heavenly blessings without number

Gently falling on thy head.

*       *       *       *       *

Soft and easy is thy cradle;

Coarse and hard thy Saviour lay.

When His birthplace was a stable,

And His softest bed was hay.

*       *       *       *       *

Lo He slumbers in His manger

Where the hornèd oxen fed;

—Peace, my darling, here's no danger;

Here's no ox a-near thy bed.” 3-45

It is to the eighteenth century that the three most popular of English Christmas hymns belong. Nahum Tate's “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”—one of the very few hymns (apart from metrical psalms) in common use in the Anglican Church before the nineteenth century—is a bald and apparently artless paraphrase of St. Luke which, by some accident, has attained dignity, and is aided greatly by the simple and noble tune now attached to it. Charles Wesley's “Hark, the herald angels sing,” or—as it should be—“Hark, how all the welkin rings,” is much admired by some, but to the present writer seems a mere piece of theological rhetoric. Byrom's “Christians, awake, salute the happy morn,” has the stiffness and formality or its period, but it is not without a certain quaintness and dignity. One could hardly expect fine Christmas poetry of an age whose religion was on the one hand staid, rational, unimaginative, and on the other “Evangelical” in the narrow sense, finding its centre in the Atonement rather than the Incarnation.

The revived mediaevalism, religious and aesthetic, of the nineteenth century, produced a number of Christmas carols. Some, like Swinburne's “Three damsels in the queen's chamber,” with p. 85 its exquisite verbal music and delightful colour, and William Morris's less successful “Masters, in this hall,” and “Outlanders, whence come ye last?” are the work of unbelievers and bear witness only to the aesthetic charm of the Christmas story; but there are others, mostly from Roman or Anglo-Catholic sources, of real religious inspiration. 34 The most spontaneous are Christina Rossetti's, whose haunting rhythms and delicate feeling are shown at their best in her songs of the Christ Child. More studied and self-conscious are the austere Christmas verses of Lionel Johnson and the graceful carols of Professor Selwyn Image. In one poem Mr. Image strikes a deeper and stronger note than elsewhere; its solemn music takes us back to an earlier century:—

“Consider, O my soul, what morn is this!

Whereon the eternal Lord of all things made,

For us, poor mortals, and our endless bliss,

Came down from heaven; and, in a manger laid,

The first, rich, offerings of our ransom paid:

Consider, O my soul, what morn is this!” 3-46

Not a few contemporary poets have given us Christmas carols or poems. Among the freshest and most natural are those of Katharine Tynan, while Mr. Gilbert Chesterton has written some Christmas lyrics full of colour and vitality, and with a true mystical quality. Singing of Christmas, Mr. Chesterton is at his best; he has instinctive sympathy with the spirit of the festival, its human kindliness, its democracy, its sacramentalism, its exaltation of the child:—

“The thatch of the roof was as golden

Though dusty the straw was and old;

The wind had a peal as of trumpets,

Though blowing and barren and cold.p. 86

The mother's hair was a glory,

Though loosened and torn;

For under the eaves in the gloaming

A child was born.” 3-47

Thus opens a fine poem on the Nativity as symbolizing miracle of birth, of childhood with its infinite possibilities, eternal renewal of faith and hope.

p. 87 p. 88 p. 89


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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #33 on: December 25, 2008, 10:58:15 pm »


Advent and Christmas Offices of the Roman Church—The Three Masses of Christmas, their Origin and their Celebration in Rome—The Midnight Mass in Many Lands—Protestant Survivals of the Night Services—Christmas in the Greek Church—The Eastern Epiphany and the Blessing of the Waters—The Presepio or Crib, its Supposed Institution by St. Francis—Early Traces of the Crib—The Crib in Germany, Tyrol, &c.—Cradle-rocking in Mediaeval Germany—Christmas Minstrels in Italy and Sicily—The Presepio in Italy—Ceremonies with the Culla and the Bambino in Rome—Christmas in Italian London—The Spanish Christmas—Possible Survivals of the Crib in England.

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #34 on: December 25, 2008, 10:58:46 pm »


From Add. MS. 32454 in the British Museum

(French, 15th century).

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #35 on: December 25, 2008, 10:59:20 pm »

From a study of Christmas as reflected in lyric poetry, we now pass to other forms of devotion in which the Church has welcomed the Redeemer at His birth. These are of two kinds—liturgical and popular; and they correspond in a large degree to the successive ways of apprehending the meaning of Christmas which we traced in the foregoing chapters. Strictly liturgical devotions are little understanded of the people: only the clergy can fully join in them; for the mass of the lay folk they are mysterious rites in an unknown tongue, to be followed with reverence, as far as may be, but remote and little penetrated with humanity. Side by side with these, however, are popular devotions, full of vivid colour, highly anthropomorphic, bringing the mysteries of religion within the reach of the simplest minds, and warm with human feeling. The austere Latin hymns of the earlier centuries belong to liturgy; the vernacular Christmas poetry of later ages is largely associated with popular devotion.

p. 90 Liturgiology is a vast and complicated, and except to the few, an unattractive, subject. To attempt here a survey of the liturgies in their relation to Christmas is obviously impossible; we must be content to dwell mainly upon the present-day Roman offices, which, in spite of various revisions, give some idea of the mediaeval services of Latin Christianity, and to cast a few glances at other western rites, and at those of the Greek Church.

Whatever may be his attitude towards Catholicism, or, indeed, Christianity, no one sensitive to the music of words, or the suggestions of poetic imagery, can read the Roman Breviary and Missal without profound admiration for the amazing skill with which the noblest passages of Hebrew poetry are chosen and fitted to the expression of Christian devotion, and the gold of psalmists, prophets, and apostles is welded into coronals for the Lord and His saints. The office-books of the Roman Church are, in one aspect, the greatest of anthologies.

Few parts of the Roman Breviary have more beauty than the Advent 35 offices, where the Church has brought together the majestic imagery of the Hebrew prophets, the fervent exhortation of the apostles, to prepare the minds of the faithful for the coming of the Christ, for the celebration of the Nativity.

Advent begins with a stirring call. If we turn to the opening service of the Christian Year, the First Vespers of the First Sunday in Advent, we shall find as the first words in the “Proper of the Season” the trumpet-notes of St. Paul: “Brethren, it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” This, the Little Chapter for the office, is followed by the ancient hymn, “Creator alme siderum,” 4-1 chanting in awful tones the two comings of p. 91 Christ, for redemption and for judgment; and then are sung the words that strike the keynote of the Advent services, and are heard again and again.

“Rorate, coeli, desuper, et nubes pluant Justum

(Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Righteous One).

Aperiatur terra et germinet Salvatorem

(Let the earth open, and let her bring forth the Saviour).”

Rorate, coeli, desuper—Advent is a time of longing expectancy. It is a season of waiting patiently for the Lord, whose coming in great humility is to be commemorated at Christmas, to whose coming again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead the Christian looks forward with mingled hope and awe. There are four weeks in Advent, and an ancient symbolical explanation interprets these as typifying four comings of the Son of God: the first in the flesh, the second in the hearts of the faithful through the Holy Spirit, the third at the death of every man, and the fourth at the Judgment Day. The fourth week is never completed (Christmas Eve is regarded as not part of Advent), because the glory bestowed on the saints at the Last Coming will never end.

The great Eucharistic hymn, “Gloria in excelsis,” is omitted in Advent, in order, say the symbolists, that on Christmas night, when it was first sung by the angels, it may be chanted with the greater eagerness and devotion. The “Te Deum” at Matins too is left unsaid, because Christ is regarded as not yet come. But “Alleluia” is not omitted, because Advent is only half a time of penitence: there is awe at the thought of the Coming for Judgment, but joy also in the hope of the Incarnation to be celebrated at Christmas, and the glory in store for the faithful. 4-3

Looking forward is above all things the note of Advent; the Church seeks to share the mood of the Old Testament saints, and she draws more now than at any other season, perhaps, on the treasures of Hebrew prophecy for her lessons, antiphons, versicles, and responds. Looking for the glory that shall be revealed, she awaits, at this darkest time of the year, the rising p. 92 of the Sun of Righteousness. Rorate, coeli, desuper—the mood comes at times to all idealists, and even those moderns who hope not for a supernatural Redeemer, but for the triumph of social justice on this earth, must be stirred by the poetry of the Advent offices.

It is at Vespers on the seven days before Christmas Eve that the Church's longing finds its noblest expression—in the antiphons known as the “Great O's,” sung before and after the “Magnificat,” one on each day. “O Sapientia,” runs the first, “O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.” “O Adonai,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Day-spring, Brightness of Light Everlasting,” “O King of the Nations,” thus the Church calls to her Lord, “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God.” 4-4

At last Christmas Eve is here, and at Vespers we feel the nearness of the great Coming. “Lift up your heads: behold your redemption draweth nigh,” is the antiphon for the last psalm. “To-morrow shall be done away the iniquity of the earth,” is the versicle after the Office Hymn. And before and after the “Magnificat” the Church sings: “When the sun shall have risen, ye shall see the King of kings coming forth from the Father, as a bridegroom out of his chamber.”

Yet only with the night office of Matins does the glory of the festival begin. There is a special fitness at Christmas in the Church's keeping watch by night, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the office is full of the poetry of the season, full of exultant joy. To the “Venite, exultemus Domino” a Christmas note is added by the oft-repeated Invitatory, “Unto us the Christ is born: O come, let us adore Him.” Psalms follow—among them the three retained by the Anglican Church in her Christmas Matins—and lessons from the Old and New Testaments and the homilies of the Fathers, interspersed with Responsories bringing home to the faithful the wonders of the Holy Night. Some are almost dramatic; this, for instance:—p. 93

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #36 on: December 25, 2008, 10:59:34 pm »

“Whom saw ye, O shepherds? speak; tell us who hath appeared on the earth.

We saw the new-born Child, and angels singing praise unto the Lord.

Speak, what saw ye? and tell us of the birth of Christ.

We saw the new-born Child, and angels singing praise unto the Lord.”

It is the wonder of the Incarnation, the marvel of the spotless Birth, the song of the Angels, the coming down from heaven of true peace, the daybreak of redemption and everlasting joy, the glory of the Only-begotten, now beheld by men—the supernatural side, in fact, of the festival, that the Church sets forth in her radiant words; there is little thought of the purely human side, the pathos of Bethlehem.

It was customary at certain places, in mediaeval times, to lay on the altar three veils, and remove one at each nocturn of Christmas Matins. The first was black, and symbolised the time of darkness before the Mosaic Law; the second white, typifying, it would seem, the faith of those who lived under that Law of partial revelation; the third red, showing the love of Christ's bride, the Church, in the time of grace flowing from the Incarnation. 4-5

A stately ceremony took place in England in the Middle Ages at the end of Christmas Matins—the chanting of St. Matthew's genealogy of Christ. The deacon, in his dalmatic, with acolytes carrying tapers, with thurifer and cross-bearer, all in albs and unicles, went in procession to the pulpit or the rood-loft, to sing this portion of the Gospel. If the bishop were present, he it was who chanted it, and a rich candlestick was held to light him. 36 Then followed the chanting of the “Te Deum.” 4-6 The ceremony does not appear in the ordinary Roman books, but it is still performed by the Benedictines, as one may read in the striking account of the monastic Christmas given by Huysmans in “L'Oblat.” 4-7

p. 94 Where, as in religious communities, the offices of the Church are performed in their full order, there follows on Matins that custom peculiar to Christmas, the celebration of Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning every priest is permitted to say three Masses, which should in strictness be celebrated at midnight, at dawn, and in full daylight. Each has its own Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, each its own Introit, Gradual, and other anthems. In many countries the Midnight Mass is the distinctive Christmas service, a great and unique event in the year, something which by its strangeness gives to the feast of the Nativity a place by itself. Few Catholic rites are more impressive than this Midnight Mass, especially in country places; through the darkness and cold of the winter's night, often for long distances, the faithful journey to worship the Infant Saviour in the splendour of the lighted church. It is a re-enactment of the visit of the shepherds to the cave at Bethlehem, aglow with supernatural light.

Various symbolical explanations of the three Masses were given by mediaeval writers. The midnight celebration was supposed to represent mankind's condition before the Law of Moses, when thick darkness covered the earth; the second, at dawn, the time of the Law and the Prophets with its growing light; the third, in full daylight, the Christian era of light and grace. Another interpretation, adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas, is more mystical; the three Masses stand for the threefold birth of Christ, the first typifying the dark mystery of the eternal generation of the Son, the second the birth of Christ the morning-star within the hearts of men, the third the bodily birth of the Son of Mary. 4-8

At the Christmas Masses the “Gloria in excelsis” resounds again. This song of the angels was at first chanted only at Christmas; it was introduced into Rome during the fifth century at Midnight Mass in imitation of the custom of the Church of Jerusalem. 4-9

It is, indeed, from imitation of the services at Jerusalem and Bethlehem that the three Roman Masses of Christmas seem to have sprung. From a late fourth-century document known as p. 95 the “Peregrinatio Silviae,” the narrative of a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east by a great lady from southern Gaul, it appears that at the feast of the Epiphany—when the Birth of Christ was commemorated in the Palestinian Church—two successive “stations” were held, one at Bethlehem, the other at Jerusalem. At Bethlehem the station was held at night on the eve of the feast, then a procession was made to the church of the Anastasis or Resurrection—where was the Holy Sepulchre—arriving “about the hour when one man begins to recognise another, i.e., near daylight, but before the day has fully broken.” There a psalm was sung, prayers were said, and the catechumens and faithful were blessed by the bishop. Later, Mass was celebrated at the Great Church at Golgotha, and the procession returned to the Anastasis, where another Mass was said. 4-10

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #37 on: December 25, 2008, 10:59:49 pm »

At Bethlehem at the present time impressive services are held on the Latin Christmas Day. The Patriarch comes from Jerusalem, with a troop of cavalry and Kavasses in gorgeous array. The office lasts from 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve until long after midnight. “At the reading of the Gospel the clergy and as many of the congregation as can follow leave the church, and proceed by a flight of steps and a tortuous rock-hewn passage to the Grotto of the Nativity, an irregular subterranean chamber, long and narrow. They carry with them a waxen image of an infant—the bambino—wrap it in swaddling bands and lay it on the site which is said to be that of the manger.” 4-11

The Midnight Mass appears to have been introduced into Rome in the first half of the fifth century. It was celebrated by the Pope in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, while the second Mass was sung by him at Sant’ Anastasia—perhaps because of the resemblance of the name to the Anastasis at Jerusalem—and the third at St. Peter's. 4-12 On Christmas Eve the Pope held a solemn “station” at Santa Maria Maggiore, and two Vespers were sung, the first very simple, the second, at which the Pope pontificated, with elaborate ceremonial. Before the second Vespers, in the twelfth century, a good meal had to p. 96 be prepared for the papal household by the Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. After Matins and Midnight Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, the Pope went in procession to Sant’ Anastasia for Lauds and the Mass of the Dawn. The third Mass, at St. Peter's, was an event of great solemnity, and at it took place in the year 800 that profoundly significant event, the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III.—a turning-point in European history. 4-13

Later it became the custom for the Pope, instead of proceeding to St. Peter's, to return to Santa Maria Maggiore for the third Mass. On his arrival he was given a cane with a lighted candle affixed to it; with this he had to set fire to some tow placed on the capitals of the columns. 4-14 The ecclesiastical explanation of this strange ceremony was that it symbolised the end of the world by fire, but one may conjecture that some pagan custom lay at its root. Since 1870 the Pope, as “the prisoner of the Vatican,” has of course ceased to celebrate at Santa Maria Maggiore or Sant’ Anastasia. The Missal, however, still shows a trace of the papal visit to Sant’ Anastasia in a commemoration of this saint which comes as a curious parenthesis in the Mass of the Dawn.

On Christmas Day in the Vatican the Pope blesses a hat and a sword, and these are sent as gifts to some prince. The practice is said to have arisen from the mediaeval custom for the Holy Roman Emperor or some other sovereign to read one of the lessons at Christmas Matins, in the papal chapel, with his sword drawn. 4-15

Celebrated in countries as distant from one another, both geographically and in character, as Ireland and Sicily, Poland and South America, the Midnight Mass naturally varies greatly in its tone and setting. Sometimes it is little more than a fashionable function, sometimes the devotion of those who attend is shown by a tramp over miles of snow through the darkness and the bitter wind.

In some charming memories of the Christmas of her childhood, Madame Th. Bentzon thus describes the walk to the Midnight Mass in a French country place about sixty years ago:—p. 97

“I can see myself as a little girl, bundled up to the tip of my nose in furs and knitted shawls, tiny wooden shoes on my feet, a lantern in my hand, setting out with my parents for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve.... We started off, a number of us, together in a stream of light.... Our lanterns cast great shadows on the white road, crisp with frost. As our little group advanced it saw others on their way, people from the farm and from the mill, who joined us, and once on the Place de l’Église we found ourselves with all the parishioners in a body. No one spoke—the icy north wind cut short our breath; but the voice of the chimes filled the silence.... We entered, accompanied by a gust of wind that swept into the porch at the same time we did; and the splendours of the altar, studded with lights, green with pine and laurel branches, dazzled us from the threshold.” 4-16

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« Reply #38 on: December 25, 2008, 11:00:08 pm »

In devout Tyrol, the scenes on Christmas Eve before the Midnight Mass are often extremely impressive, particularly in narrow valleys where the houses lie scattered on the mountain slopes. Long before midnight the torches lighting the faithful on their way to Mass begin to twinkle; downward they move, now hidden in pine-woods and ravines, now reappearing on the open hill-side. More and more lights show themselves and throw ruddy flashes on the snow, until at last, the floor of the valley reached, they vanish, and only the church windows glow through the darkness, while the solemn strains of the organ and chanting break the silence of the night. 4-17

Not everywhere has the great Mass been celebrated amid scenes so still and devotional. In Madrid, says a writer of the early nineteenth century, “the evening of the vigil is scarcely dark when numbers of men, women, and boys are seen traversing the streets with torches, and many of them supplied with tambourines, which they strike loudly as they move along in a kind of Bacchanal procession. There is a tradition here that the shepherds who visited Bethlehem on the day of the Nativity had instruments of this sort upon which they expressed the sentiment of joy that animated them when they received the intelligence that a Saviour was born.” At the Midnight Mass crowds of people who, perhaps, had been traversing the streets the whole night, came into the church p. 98 with their tambourines and guitars, and accompanied the organ. The Mass over, they began to dance in the very body of the church. 4-18 A later writer speaks of the Midnight Mass in Madrid as a fashionable function to which many gay young people went in order to meet one another. 4-19 Such is the character of the service in the Spanish-American cities. In Lima the streets on Christmas Eve are crowded with gaily dressed and noisy folks, many of them masked, and everybody goes to the Mass. 4-20 In Paris the elaborate music attracts enormous and often not very serious crowds. In Sicily there is sometimes extraordinary irreverence at the midnight services: people take provisions with them to eat in church, and from time to time go out to an inn for a drink, and between the offices they imitate the singing of birds. 4-21 We may see in such things the licence of pagan festivals creeping within the very walls of the sanctuary.

In the Rhineland Midnight Mass has been abolished, because the conviviality of Christmas Eve led to unseemly behaviour at the solemn service, but Mass is still celebrated very early—at four or five—and great crowds of worshippers attend. It is a stirring thing, this first Mass of Christmas, in some ancient town, when from the piercing cold, the intense stillness of the early morning, one enters a great church thronged with people, bright with candles, warm with human fellowship, and hears the vast congregation break out into a slow solemn chorale, full of devout joy that

“In Bethlehem geboren

Ist uns ein Kindelein.”

It is interesting to trace survivals of the nocturnal Christmas offices in Protestant countries. In German “Evangelical” churches, midnight or early morning services were common in the eighteenth century; but they were forbidden in some places because of the riot and drunkenness which accompanied them. The people seem to have regarded them as a part of their Christmas revellings rather than as sacred functions; one writer compares the congregation to a crowd of wild drunken sailors in a p. 99 tavern, another gives disgusting particulars of disorders in a church where the only sober man was the preacher. 4-22

In Sweden the Christmas service is performed very early in the morning, the chancel is lighted up with many candles, and the celebrant is vested in a white chasuble with golden orphreys. 4-23

A Midnight Mass is now celebrated in many Anglican churches, but this is purely a modern revival. The most distinct British survival is to be found in Wales in the early service known as Plygain (dawn), sometimes a celebration of the Communion. At Tenby at four o'clock on Christmas morning it was customary for the young men of the town to escort the rector with lighted torches from his house to the church. Extinguishing their torches in the porch, they went in to the early service, and when it was ended the torches were relighted and the procession returned to the rectory. At St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen, an early service was held, to the light of coloured candles brought by the congregation. At St. Asaph, Caerwys, at 4 or 5 a.m., Plygain, consisting of carols sung round the church in procession, was held. 4-24 The Plygain continued in Welsh churches until about the eighteen-fifties, and, curiously enough, when the Established Church abandoned it, it was celebrated in Nonconformist chapels. 4-25

In the Isle of Man on Christmas Eve, or Oiel Verry (Mary's Eve), “a number of persons used to assemble in each parish church and proceed to shout carols or ‘Carvals.’ There was no unison or concert about the chanting, but a single person would stand up with a lighted candle in his or her hand, and chant in a dismal monotone verse after verse of some old Manx ‘Carval,’ until the candle was burnt out. Then another person would start up and go through a similar performance. No fresh candles might be lighted after the clock had chimed midnight.” 4-26

One may conjecture that the common English practice of ringing bells until midnight on Christmas Eve has also some connection with the old-time Midnight Mass.

For the Greek Church Christmas is a comparatively unimportant festival by the side of the Epiphany, the celebration of p. 100 Christ's Baptism; the Christmas offices are, however, full of fine poetry. There is far less restraint, far less adherence to the words of Scripture, far greater richness of original composition, in the Greek than in the Roman service-books, and while there is less poignancy there is more amplitude and splendour. Christmas Day, with the Greeks, is a commemoration of the coming of the Magi as well as of the Nativity and the adoration of the shepherds, and the Wise Men are very prominent in the services. The following hymn of St. Anatolius (fifth century), from the First Vespers of the feast, is fairly typical of the character of the Christmas offices:—

“When Jesus Our Lord was born of Her,

The Holy Virgin, all the universe

Became enlightened.

For as the shepherds watched their flocks,

And as the Magi came to pray,

And as the Angels sang their hymn

Herod was troubled; for God in flesh appeared,

The Saviour of our souls.

Thy kingdom, Christ our God, the kingdom is

Of all the worlds, and Thy dominion

O'er every generation bears the sway,

Incarnate of the Holy Ghost,

Man of the Ever-Virgin Mary,

By Thy presence, Christ our God,

Thou hast shined a Light on us.

Light of Light, the Brightness of the Father,

Thou hast beamed on every creature.

All that hath breath doth praise Thee,

Image of the Father's glory.

Thou who art, and wast before,

God who shinedst from the Maid,

Have mercy upon us.

What gift shall we bring to Thee,

O Christ, since Thou as Man on earth

For us hast shewn Thyself?p. 101

Since every creature made by Thee

Brings to Thee its thanksgiving.

The Angels bring their song,

The Heavens bring their star,

The Magi bring their gifts,

The Shepherds bring their awe,

Earth gives a cave, the wilderness a manger,

And we the Virgin-Mother bring.

God before all worlds, have mercy upon us!” 4-27

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« Reply #39 on: December 25, 2008, 11:03:38 pm »

A beautiful rite called the “Peace of God” is performed in Slavonic churches at the end of the “Liturgy” or Mass on Christmas morning—the people kiss one another on both cheeks, saying, “Christ is born!” To this the answer is made, “Of a truth He is born!” and the kisses are returned. This is repeated till everyone has kissed and been kissed by all present. 4-28

We must pass rapidly over the feasts of saints within the Octave of the western Christmas, St. Stephen (December 26), St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the Holy Innocents (December 28), and St. Sylvester (December 31). None of these, except the feast of the Holy Innocents, have any special connection with the Nativity or the Infancy, and the popular customs connected with them will come up for consideration in our Second Part.

The commemoration of the Circumcision (“when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child”) falls naturally on January 1, the Octave of Christmas. It is not of Roman origin, and was not observed in Rome until it had long been established in the Byzantine and Gallican Churches. 4-29 In Gaul, as is shown by a decree of the Council of Tours in 567, a solemn fast was held on the Circumcision and the two days following it, in order to turn away the faithful from the pagan festivities of the Kalends. 4-30

The feast of the Epiphany on January 6, as we have seen, is in the eastern Church a commemoration of the Baptism of Christ. In the West it has become primarily the festival of the adoration p. 102 of the Magi, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Still in the Roman offices many traces of the baptismal commemoration remain, and the memory of yet another manifestation of Christ's glory appears in the antiphon at “Magnificat” at the Second Vespers of the feast:—

“We keep holy a day adorned by three wonders: to-day a star led the Magi to the manger; to-day at the marriage water was made wine; to-day for our salvation Christ was pleased to be baptized of John in Jordan. Alleluia.”

On the Octave of the Epiphany at Matins the Baptism is the central idea, and the Gospel at Mass bears on the same subject. In Rome itself even the Blessing of the Waters, the distinctive ceremony of the eastern Epiphany rite, is performed in certain churches according to a Latin ritual. 4-31 At Sant’ Andrea della Valle, Rome, during the Octave of the Epiphany a Solemn Mass is celebrated every morning in Latin, and afterwards, on each of the days from January 7-13, there follows a Mass according to one of the eastern rites: Greco-Slav, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Greco-Ruthenian, Greco-Melchite, and Greek. 4-32 It is a week of great opportunities for the liturgiologist and the lover of strange ceremonial.

The Blessing of the Waters is an important event in all countries where the Greek Church prevails. In Greece the “Great Blessing,” as it is called, is performed in various ways according to the locality; sometimes the sea is blessed, sometimes a river or reservoir, sometimes merely water in a church. In seaport towns, where the people depend on the water for their living, the celebration has much pomp and elaborateness. At the Piraeus enormous and enthusiastic crowds gather, and there is a solemn procession of the bishop and clergy to the harbour, where the bishop throws a little wooden cross, held by a long blue ribbon, into the water, withdraws it dripping wet, and sprinkles the bystanders. This is done three times. At Nauplia and other places a curious custom prevails: the archbishop throws a wooden cross into the waters of the harbour, and the fishermen p. 103 of the place dive in after it and struggle for its possession; he who wins it has the right of visiting all the houses of the town and levying a collection, which often brings in a large sum. In Samos all the women send to the church a vessel full of water to be blessed by the priest; with this water the fields and the trees are sprinkled. 4-33

The sense attached to the ceremony by the Church is shown in this prayer:—

“Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan by sending from Heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and by breaking the heads of the dragons lurking there. Therefore, O King, Lover of men, be Thou Thyself present also now by the visitation of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water. Give also to it the grace of ransom, the blessing of Jordan: make it a fountain of incorruption; a gift of sanctification; a washing away of sins; a warding off of diseases; destruction to demons; repulsion to the hostile powers; filled with angelic strength; that all who take and receive of it may have it for purification of souls and bodies, for healing of sicknesses, for sanctification of houses, and meet for every need.” 4-34

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« Reply #40 on: December 25, 2008, 11:04:11 pm »

Though for the Church the immersion of the cross represents the Baptism of Christ, and the blessings springing from that event are supposed to be carried to the people by the sprinkling with the water, it is held by some students that the whole practice is a Christianization of a primitive rain-charm—a piece of sympathetic magic intended to produce rain by imitating the drenching which it gives. An Epiphany song from Imbros connects the blessing of rain with the Baptism of Christ, and another tells how at the river Jordan “a dove came down, white and feathery, and with its wings opened; it sent rain down on the Lord, and again it rained and rained on our Lady, and again it rained and rained on its wings.” 4-35

The Blessing of the Waters is performed in the Greek church of St. Sophia, Bayswater, London, on the morning of the Epiphany, which, through the difference between the old and new “styles,” falls on our 19th of January. All is done within the church; the water to be blessed is placed on a table under p. 104 the dome, and is sanctified by the immersion of a small cross; afterwards it is sprinkled on everyone present, and some is taken home by the faithful in little vessels. 4-36

In Moscow and St. Petersburg the Blessing is a function of great magnificence, but it is perhaps even more interesting as performed in Russian country places. Whatever may be the orthodox significance of the rite, to the country people it is the chasing away of “forest demons, sprites, and fairies, once the gods the peasants worshipped, but now dethroned from their high estate,” who in the long dark winter nights bewitch and vex the sons of men. A vivid and imaginative account of the ceremony and its meaning to the peasants is given by Mr. F. H. E. Palmer in his “Russian Life in Town and Country.” The district in which he witnessed it was one of forests and of lakes frozen in winter. On one of these lakes had been erected “a huge cross, constructed of blocks of ice, that glittered like diamonds in the brilliant winter sunlight.... At length, far away could be heard the sound of human voices, singing a strange, wild melody. Presently there was a movement in the snow among the trees, and waving banners appeared as a procession approached, headed by the pope in his vestments, and surrounded by the village dignitaries, venerable, grey-bearded patriarchs.” A wide space in the procession was left for “a strange and motley band of gnomes and sprites, fairies and wood-nymphs,” who, as the peasants believed, had been caught by the holy singing and the sacred sign on the waving banner. The chanting still went on as the crowd formed a circle around the glittering cross, and all looked on with awe while half a dozen peasants with their axes cut a large hole in the ice. “And now the priest's voice is heard, deep and sonorous, as he pronounces the words of doom. Alas for the poor sprites! Into that yawning chasm they must leap, and sink deep, deep below the surface of that ice-cold water.” 4-37

Following these eastern Epiphany rites we have wandered far from the cycle of ideas generally associated with Christmas. We p. 105 must now pass to those popular devotions to the Christ Child which, though they form no part of the Church's liturgy, she has permitted and encouraged. It is in the West that we shall find them; the Latin Church, as we have seen, makes far more of Christmas than the Greek.

Rome is often condemned for using in her liturgy the dead language of Latin, but it must not be forgotten that in every country she offers to the faithful a rich store of devotional literature in their own tongue, and that, supplementary to the liturgical offices, there is much public prayer and praise in the vernacular. Nor, in that which appeals to the eye, does she limit herself to the mysterious symbolism of the sacraments and the ritual which surrounds them; she gives to the people concrete, pictorial images to quicken their faith. How ritual grew in mediaeval times into full-fledged drama we shall see in the next chapter; here let us consider that cult of the Christ Child in which the scene of Bethlehem is represented not by living actors but in plastic art, often most simple and homely.

The use of the “crib” (French crèche, Italian presepio, German krippe) at Christmas is now universally diffused in the Roman Church. Most readers of this book must have seen one of these structures representing the stable at Bethlehem, with the Child in the manger, His mother and St. Joseph, the ox and the ass, and perhaps the shepherds, the three kings, or worshipping angels. They are the delight of children, who through the season of Christmas and Epiphany wander into the open churches at all times of day to gaze wide-eyed on the life-like scene and offer a prayer to their Little Brother. No one with anything of the child-spirit can fail to be touched by the charm of the Christmas crib. Faults of artistic taste there may often be, but these are wont to be softened down by the flicker of tapers, the glow of ruby lights, amidst the shades of some dim aisle or chapel, and the scene of tender humanity, gently, mysteriously radiant, as though with “bright shoots of everlastingness,” is full of religious and poetic suggestions.

The institution of the presepio is often ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi, who in the year 1224 celebrated Christmas at Greccio p. 106 with a Bethlehem scene with a real ox and ass. About fifteen days before the Nativity, according to Thomas of Celano, the blessed Francis sent for a certain nobleman, John by name, and said to him: “If thou wilt that we celebrate the present festival of the Lord at Greccio, make haste to go before and diligently prepare what I tell thee. For I would fain make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.” The good man prepared all that the Saint had commanded, and at last the day of gladness drew nigh. The brethren were called from many convents; the men and women of the town prepared tapers and torches to illuminate the night. Finding all things ready, Francis beheld and rejoiced: the manger had been prepared, the hay was brought, and the ox and ass were led in. “Thus Simplicity was honoured, Poverty exalted, Humility commended, and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem. The night was lit up as the day, and was delightsome to men and beasts.... The woodland rang with voices, the rocks made answer to the jubilant throng.” Francis stood before the manger, “overcome with tenderness and filled with wondrous joy”; Mass was celebrated, and he, in deacon's vestments, chanted the Holy Gospel in an “earnest, sweet, and loud-sounding voice.” Then he preached to the people of “the birth of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem.” “Uttering the word ‘Bethlehem’ in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound,” and in naming the Child Jesus “he would, as it were, lick his lips, relishing with happy palate and swallowing the sweetness of that word.” At length, the solemn vigil ended, each one returned with joy to his own place. 4-38

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« Reply #41 on: December 25, 2008, 11:04:59 pm »

It has been suggested by Countess Martinengo 4-39 that this beautiful ceremony was “the crystallization of haunting memories carried away by St. Francis from the real Bethlehem”; for he visited the east in 1219-20, and the Greccio celebration took place in 1224. St. Francis and his followers may well have helped greatly to popularize the use of the presepio, but it can be p. 107 traced back far earlier than their time. In the liturgical drama known as the “Officium Pastorum,” which probably took shape in the eleventh century, we find a praesepe behind the altar as the centre of the action 4-40 ; but long before this something of the kind seems to have been in existence in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome—at one time called “Beata Maria ad praesepe.” Here Pope Gregory III. (731-41) placed “a golden image of the Mother of God embracing God our Saviour, in various gems.” 4-41 According to Usener's views this church was founded by Pope Liberius (352-66), and was intended to provide a special home for the new festival of Christmas introduced by him, while an important part of the early Christmas ritual there was the celebration of Mass over a “manger” in which the consecrated Host was laid, as once the body of the Holy Child in the crib at Bethlehem. 4-42 Further, an eastern homily of the late fourth century suggests that the preacher had before his eyes a representation of the Nativity. Such material representations, Usener conjectures, may have arisen from the devotions of the faithful at the supposed actual birthplace at Bethlehem, which would naturally be adorned with the sacred figures of the Holy Night. 4-43

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the crib can be traced at Milan, Parma, and Modena, and an Italian example carved in 1478 still exists. 4-44 The Bavarian National Museum at Munich has a fine collection of cribs of various periods and from various lands—Germany, Tyrol, Italy, and Sicily—showing what elaborate care has been bestowed upon the preparation of these models. Among them is a great **** made at Botzen in the first half of the nineteenth century, and large enough to fill a fair-sized room. It represents the central square of a town, with imposing buildings, including a great cathedral not unlike our St. Paul's. Figures of various sizes were provided to suit the perspective, and the crib itself was probably set up in the porch of the church, while processions of puppets were arranged on the wide open square. Another, made in Munich, shows the adoration of the shepherds in a sort of ruined castle, while others, from Naples, lay the scene among remains of classical temples. One Tyrolese crib has a wide landscape background with a p. 108 village and mountains typical of the country. The figures are often numerous, and, as their makers generally dressed them in the costume of their contemporaries, are sometimes exceedingly quaint. An angel with a wasp-waist, in a powdered wig, a hat trimmed with big feathers, and a red velvet dress with heavy gold embroidery, seems comic to us moderns, yet this is how the Ursuline nuns of Innsbruck conceived the heavenly messenger. Many of the cribs and figures, however, are of fine artistic quality, especially those from Naples and Sicily, and to the student of costume the various types of dress are of great interest. 4-45

The use of the Christmas crib is by no means confined to churches; it is common in the home in many Catholic regions, and in at least one Protestant district, the Saxon Erzgebirge. 4-46 In Germany the krippe is often combined with the Christmas-tree; at Treves, for instance, the present writer saw a magnificent tree covered with glittering lights and ornaments, and underneath it the cave of the Nativity with little figures of the holy persons. Thus have pagan and Christian symbols met together.

There grew up in Germany, about the fourteenth century, the extremely popular Christmas custom of “cradle-rocking,” a response to the people's need of a life-like and homely presentation of Christianity. By the Kindelwiegen the lay-folk were brought into most intimate touch with the Christ Child; the crib became a cradle (wiege) that could be rocked, and the worshippers were thus able to express in physical action their devotion to the new-born Babe. The cradle-rocking seems to have been done at first by priests, who impersonated the Virgin and St. Joseph, and sang over the Child a duet:—

“Joseph, lieber neve mîn,

Hilf mir wiegen daz kindelîn.

Gerne, liebe muome mîn,

Hilf ich dir wiegen dîn kindelîn.” 37

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« Reply #42 on: December 25, 2008, 11:06:22 pm »


Photo] [Meisenbach, Riffarth & Co., Munich.
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« Reply #43 on: December 25, 2008, 11:06:39 pm »

p. 109 The choir and people took their part in the singing; and dancing, to the old Germans a natural accompaniment of festive song, became common around the cradle, which in time the people were allowed to rock with their own hands. 4-47 “In dulci jubilo” has the character of a dance, and the same is true of another delightful old carol, “Lasst uns das Kindlein wiegen,” still used, in a form modified by later editors, in the churches of the Rhineland. The present writer has heard it sung, very slowly, in unison, by vast congregations, and very beautiful is its mingling of solemnity, festive joy, and tender sentiment:—

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« Reply #44 on: December 25, 2008, 11:08:18 pm »

“Lasst uns das Kindlein wiegen,

Das Herz zum Krippelein biegen!

Lasst uns den Geist erfreuen,

Das Kindlein benedeien:

O Jesulein süss! O Jesulein süss!

*       *       *       *       *

Lasst uns sein Händel und Füsse,

Sein feuriges Herzlein grüssen!

Und ihn demütiglich eren

Als unsern Gott und Herren!

O Jesulein süss! O Jesulein süss!” 38 4-48

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