Looking to the Light - our winter festivals
The world of the 21st century is so very different from that of the 19th and previous centuries. The migration of peoples to and from places all over the world has given us a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-faith community. Into that community of the 21st century, we blend the history of the village of Denham providing us with a great wealth of background, experience and culture.
What better time then to celebrate our community’s diversity than by taking a look at the history, origins and recollections of the different winter festivals that are so much part of the backgrounds of our residents. In doing so it is fascinating, and to some perhaps surprising, that many of the features of our modern Christmas were in fact introduced into England by migrants from other countries long ago.
So, regardless of the inconveniences in this year of the great pandemic our winter celebrations will continue with family and friends sharing hospitality, generosity and, this year in particular, a good deal of hope for a much better 2021, and later this month we’ll add some stories told by locals about their winter celebrations past.
We know Christmas of course as the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ. The word itself signifies “the mass for the Christ” though it was not actually used until around 1000 years after Jesus’ death. The first known use of the word Christmas in England was in 1038 – about the same time as St. Mary’s church was first consecrated in Denham.
Nor do we know when Jesus was actually born, not the date nor even the year. For the date the Gospels have a couple of hints at what we now know as late December, but on the other hand late December is a strange time for shepherds to be watching over their flocks by night and an exceptionally difficult time to carry out a census requiring people to travel to their home city, in Mary and Joseph’s case a journey of 80 miles or so whilst she was heavily pregnant. A different tradition is that Jesus’ birth was actually in spring.
As to the year, Quirinius was not appointed Governor of Syria (then part of the Roman Empire) as the Gospel writer Luke would have it, until six years after the year from which we date the beginning of the Christian era and King Herod had actually died four years prior to that date. So we have to take it that Luke, writing almost a century later, was not accurate about dates. The best guess at the year of Jesus’ birth is actually two years before the year we now assume. If so, we should now really be anticipating Christmas 2022.
By the early fourth century A.D. Christianity was firmly established within the Roman Empire taking in almost the whole of western Europe. In 325, the church elders meeting in Nicaea in Turkey set about a consolidation of the church unifying its doctrines and seeking consistency in its celebrations. One of the very wise measures taken was to adopt the dates in the calendar of old pagan celebrations and turn them into significant dates in the Christian calendar. The Romans had held 25th December to be the date of the winter solstice, the annual rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere. What better date then to take as the date of birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah.
So Christmas Day for us will occur this year on Friday, 25 December 2020 in accordance with our “Gregorian” calendar. As shown by their mistake in fixing the winter solstice, the Romans were not that good at matching the calendar to the movement of the earth around the sun, but they did insist that their “Julian” calendar was the one to be accepted throughout their empire. It took over 1000 years to get it right, but by the 16th century the seasons were noticeably getting rather weird, so a few days were just dropped from the calendars. It wasn’t done in England until 1752 when by adopting the Gregorian Calendar we lost 11 days, and it didn’t happen in Turkey until they dropped 13 days in 1926/27. The Eastern Christian Churches still celebrate Christmas on 25th December in the Julian calendar which is for us 7th January.
Christmas was not actually all that significant in the calendar of the early Christian Church, and when it became significant, it was much more of an occasion for feasting and bacchanalia than the rather more sedate time of peace and goodwill we have inherited from the 19th century Victorian era.
We now celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways within the church as well as at home and in schools by setting up a Nativity Scene, a presentation of the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem according to Luke’s gospel. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, central Italy. At the time most people were unable to read and St Francis is said to have created the play to demonstrate to the general public in Italy what the birth of Jesus and the arrival of his first visitors would have been like. He is said to have used the townsfolk for the key characters and real farmyard animals.
In Christian Churches Christmas plays are performed describing the night of the birth of baby Jesus according to the Gospels of Matthew 1:18-25, 2:1-12; and Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-20. Most primary schools invite parents along to watch productions of plays and carol concerts, the most common being the nativity play. Usually the youngest children dress as Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, wise men as well as the animals likely to have been found in a stable.
The story of the birth of Christ, celebrated around the world at Christmas, is considered one of the most beautiful literary descriptions in the New Testament.
Beautiful, joyous, and melodic too are the Christmas Carols sung throughout the month of December by Christians everywhere, including several songs which were written over 200 years ago: Silent Night, Holy Night, Away in a Manager, We Three Kings Of Orient Are, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, O Holy Night, Joy to the World, and Angels We Have Heard On High, among dozens of other well-known and loved melodies.
Traditionally, Roman Catholic churches celebrate the first Christmas mass at midnight. Protestant churches have increasingly held Christmas candlelight services late on the evening of December 24. A special service of “lessons and carols” intertwines Christmas carols with Scripture readings, and often includes the Christmas pageant performed by children from the congregation.
Candles and lights are also significant elements of the beliefs shared by our families, friends and neighbours in and around the Denham communities.
Chanukkah – Judaism
All around our village, lights begin to appear to decorate our homes from the beginning of December and we keep them shining until well into January. It is unsurprising. As the skies darken at around 4p.m.in the European part of the Northern hemisphere, we use light to lift our spirits and invite the return of the sun after the winter solstice. The importance we attach to light is shared by many cultures and faiths.
In Judaism light celebrates one of the most important events in Jewish faith and culture. Chanukkah (Hebrew for dedication) is an eight-day festival of lights beginning usually in mid-December. Chanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees in 165 BCE over the Selucid rulers of Palestine, who had desecrated the Temple and imposed their Hellenistic religion on the Jews. The Maccabees re-dedicated the Temple altar to Jewish worship and wished to rekindle the candelabrum (Menorah) but could only find one small jar of ritually pure olive oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact. This oil continued to burn miraculously for eight days, enabling them to prepare new pure oil.
In commemoration of this miracle, Jewish households light an ascending series of lights in an eight-branched menorah, one on the first night, two on the second, etc. followed by the singing of the hymn Maoz Tzur. To publicize the miracle, the menorah is placed in the doorway or windows of the home. The message of the story about the miraculous oil is that God enables something pure, however small it may seem, to give light well beyond its natural potential. Thus, the small army of the Maccabees fighting for true religion defeated the power of the Greek empire, preserving God’s teaching continues to exist.
It is customary to eat food fried in oil on Chanukkah and for children to be given gifts and some chocolate coins, in order to challenge each other with a four-sided spinning top known in Yiddish as a dreidl.
Diwali – Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, and Buddhists
Diwali is the five-day Festival of Lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains across the world including of course people of those faiths in our Denham community.
Diwali, which for some also coincides with harvest and new year celebrations, is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness.
Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists, although for each faith it marks different historical events and stories. Nonetheless the common theme is that of a festival representing the same symbolic victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil. When a lamp is lit, it symbolises coming into knowledge from darkness. A traditional Diwali greeting is to say: 'wishing you a Diwali that brings happiness, prosperity and joy to you and all your family.'
During Diwali, people wear their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with clay lamps (diyas) and lanterns (rangoli) and take part in ceremonial acts of worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth. Fireworks are lit and there are family feasts in which sweets (mithai) and gifts are shared.
Buddhism and Bodhi Day
A popular celebration for Buddhists in December or January is "Bodhi Day", a celebration to honour Lord Buddha's enlightenment and the achievement of Nirvana, the ultimate goal in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. For this event followers decorate a ficus tree or Bodhi tree with multicoloured decorations, and lights. Some may even use a pine tree like those used in Christmas celebrations. The fact that Western Buddhists are using what Christians know as Christmas trees for their Bodhi celebrations at much the same time of year is entirely acceptable to the adherents to a faith which gladly acknowledges other religions.
Indeed many Buddhists also celebrate Christmas recognising Jesus as a man and a great teacher. Buddhists acknowledge all religions in which love and compassion and kindness to others is to be found.
Muslims – Islam
Islam is, like Christianity and Judaism, an Abrahamic religion accepting only one God. Islam shares with the other Abrahamic religions many parallels and similarities in belief and understanding of goodness in human beings.
Winter celebrations as such do not figure significantly in the Muslim calendar, but light is of enormous importance in Islam. The term “Nūr” (the primal light), may be used to represent the religion of Islam itself. Though the winter solstice is not marked by Islamic festival, the return of the sun’s light to banish the darkness of winter is surely welcome to us all.
Other solstice festivities
Scandinavians celebrate St Lucia’s Day on 13th December. As a symbol of light, Lucia and her feast day blend naturally with solstice traditions. In Dong Zhi the Chinese celebrate the winter solstice to welcome the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. On the longest night of the year, Iranians all over the world celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in the ancient festival of Shab-e Yalda. In Japan, at Toji, the winter solstice is less a festival than a traditional practice centred around starting the new year with health and good luck. Farmers welcome the return of a sun that will nurture their crops after the long, cold winter. People light huge bonfires on Mount Fuji each December 22.
For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year, and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.
We are very fortunate to have in our Denham community, family, friends, and neighbours who celebrate their own customs and beliefs. At the same time, many recognise, accept, incorporate and share some customs that have developed over generations and still stand the test of time
Secular winter festivities
Of course European winter festivities predate the Christian era. As the Roman sun worshippers gave us a date to celebrate Jesus birth, so too did the followers of other pagan religions mark the beginning of the return of the sun. We still use the word “Yuletide” to describe Christmas without perhaps realising that “Yule” in its original meaning described a Germanic/Nordic festival through the darkest period around the winter solstice marked by feasting and ritual sacrifice to ensure the return of light and warmth and the success of the coming year’s harvest. Though we no longer peer into the darkness to risk seeing the god Odin leading the Wild Hunt across the winter sky, we do still retain some features of those festivities of long ago and have added to them as they have been shared by travellers to England and to our village.
Also since the early 20th century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike, although devoid of theological or Christian elements, including some recent controversial elements. Preferred by some, the traditional greeting of Merry Christmas now includes “Happy Holidays,” “Season’s Greetings”, and other replacement greetings, especially where there may or may not be state religions.
There are many of our contemporary Christmas customs which lack an origin in theological or liturgical affirmations, and several are of relatively recent date. But our traditions still include decorating a tree, exchanging gifts, lighting candles, cooking and baking special foods, and several other personal family traditions that may have evolved over the years.
There is some uncertainty about the precise date and origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree. The idea of bringing examples of fertile summer growth indoors during the dark days of winter almost certainly goes back to pre-Christian times. Trees that had lost their leaves were decorated with strips of material to encourage tree spirits to return and thereby encourage new growth.
The modern idea of the decorated tree is thought to have a much later origin. Some attribute it to Martin Luther in the early 16th century. There is certainly evidence that fir trees decorated with apples were known in Strasbourg in 1605. The first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611.
The tree was introduced into England in Victorian times by Prince Albert who brought a tree over from Germany to decorate Windsor Castle. The photograph of the royal family with this tree was the inspiration for the tradition to become widespread.
These days, trees are decorated with lights, tinsel and ornaments plus the occasional chocolate bauble. It is customary for most families to decorate the tree together, some preferring to wait until Christmas Eve to do so but most a week or so before.
Adding lights and special decorations, often accompanied by music and the singing of popular songs, all contribute to the festive touch. However, not surprisingly, candles flickering on tree branches were a fire hazard. That changed in the 1920s, when General Electric's pre-assembled lights became more accessible and cheaper. USA President Grover Cleveland also helped make electrically powered lights popular after he used them to light a Christmas tree in the White House in 1895.
Advent Wreath and Calendar
The Advent wreath—made of fir branches, with four candles denoting the four Sundays of the Advent season—is of even more recent origin, celebrated especially in North America but now observed here in the UK as well.
An analogous custom is the Advent calendar, which provides 24 openings, one to be opened each day beginning December 1. According to tradition, the calendar was created in the 19th century by a Munich housewife who tired of having to answer endlessly when Christmas would come. The first commercial calendars were printed in Germany in 1851. The intense preparation for Christmas that is part of the commercialisation of the holiday has blurred the traditional liturgical distinction between Advent and the Christmas season.
The practice of giving gifts to family members, which goes back to the 15th century, became well established towards the end of the 18th. Theologically, the feast day reminded Christians of God’s gift of Jesus to humankind even as the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to Bethlehem suggested that Christmas was somehow related to giving gifts.
The practice of course rather contributes to the view that Christmas is a secular holiday focused on family and friends and has long been thought of as having that effect. This was one reason, together with the suspicion of pagan origins, why Puritans in Old and New England opposed the celebration of Christmas. In both England and America they succeeded in banning its observance. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by an English appointed governor, Edmund Andros; however, it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston, Massachusetts region.
In 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritans, thought that singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but sinful. In 1644, an Act of Parliament effectively banned the festival and in June 1647, the UK Parliament passed an ordinance confirming the abolition of the feast of Christmas, a decision which the strict Puritan pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes, first advocated in his “Anatomie of Abuses” in 1583. Expressing the Puritan view that Christmas was a dangerous excuse for excessive drinking, eating, gambling and generally bad behaviour, Stubbes wrote: 'More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.'
The ban of 1647 was, however, very unpopular and many people continued to celebrate privately. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, old customs were revived, and Christmas as both a religious and social festival was celebrated again.
St. Nicholas was in fact a third/fourth century Christian Bishop reputed in legend to have the power of miracles and renowned for his gifts to the poor. Very far from the rotund jovial figure presented today, his portraits in Christian art depict a kindly faced but rather emaciated figure.
In some European countries where the religious saint is more correctly recalled, St. Nicholas appears on his feast day (December 6) bringing modest gifts of candy and other gifts to children.
However in Victorian Britain the image of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus became much more like that we know today, and in North America the pre-Christmas role of the Christian Saint Nicholas was transformed, under the influence of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (or “T’was the Night Before Christmas ’”), into the increasingly central role of Santa Claus as the source of Christmas gifts for the family. While both name and some of the attire—a version of the traditional dress of a bishop—of Santa Claus reveal his Christian roots and whilst his role of querying children about their past behaviour replicates that of St. Nicholas, he is generally seen now as a secular figure.
The practice of sending Christmas cards, began in England in the 19th century. When Sir Henry Cole commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to design the first Christmas card in 1843, the concept was disapproved by those who believed its imagery wasn't in keeping with the season's religious focus. Nevertheless, a thousand were printed then sold at his shop for one shilling each (a high price for the time) and the tradition was born.
Until 1840, postage was too expensive for most people, but thanks to the introduction of the penny post on January 10, the posting of cards became more common. The practice then rapidly increased with 11.5 million cards being produced in 1880 alone.
From the mid-1800s in the UK, people nicknamed Royal Mail postmen "robin redbreasts" because they wore red waistcoats. During this time, robins began to appear on Christmas cards as symbols of the men who delivered the mail.
Electronic communications having now extensively replaced posted mail, families and friends are sending fewer cards. Online deliveries are instant, festive messages and illustrations can be included, and there are no recycling worries.
In addition to the traditional celebrations included above, a few traditions are unique to the UK and the Commonwealth countries:
The traditional Christmas Dinner consists of roast turkey or goose, small sausages wrapped in bacon, stuffing such as sage and onion, roast potatoes, sprouts, root vegetables, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy. Even those who profess to hate sprouts will eat a few at this special meal.
The meal ends with the Christmas pudding brought to the table, dowsed in brandy and set alight.
In spite of the early stock on display in shops, the first sign of Christmas for many families is the making of the Christmas pudding at the end of November, traditionally on the day known as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ or the Sunday before Advent. The name comes from the first line of the prayer of the day from 1549, “Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord the wills of thy faithful people”. Other traditions surrounding the making of this dessert are that each member of the family should stir the mixture, making a wish as they do so and that they stir from left to right to signify the journey made by the Wise Men. The pudding was originally made with thirteen ingredients representing Christ and his twelve disciples and a silver coin, such as an old sixpence was dropped in for the lucky person to find on Christmas Day, denoting he or she should have wealth in the coming year – that’s not a good idea in these more safety conscious times.
Christmas crackers are an important part of the decorated table for the meal. Thomas Smith invented them in 1846. He firstly sold sweets wrapped in twisted tissue paper, which was an idea he came across in Paris. He later added a motto or a love poem, changed the sweet for a small toy as a result of his idea being stolen by other manufacturers and a strip of card that made a bang when pulled. His sons added paper hats to the crackers after his death. By 1930, crackers had become commonplace at the festive table and the mottos replaced by jokes.
The cracker is a paper tube, covered in foil, twisted at both ends with hidden treasures inside. Sometime during the Christmas meal, each person crosses their arms, using their right hand to hold their cracker, and pulling their neighbour’s cracker with their left. POP! The cracker will make a bit of a bang with the contents spilling out - usually is a joke to be read at the dinner table, a small trinket and a paper crown to be worn by adults and children alike.
Royal Christmas Message
The tradition of sending out a Royal Christmas Message to the public began in 1932 with George V who reigned from 6 May 1910 until his death in 1936. The current day Queen Elizabeth II gives a televised speech on Christmas Day at 3pm in England.
Christmas tea usually rolls around 6pm and it is round two of a sit down with family and involves tea, mince pies, Christmas cake or even sausage rolls.
In the Church calendar 26th December is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, but as Boxing Day in the UK, it is now established as the public holiday following Christmas Day. If it occurs on a Saturday or Sunday, then the following Monday is enjoyed as a holiday.
The name comes from the Christmas Box, a container into which gifts were placed and distributed to the poor on Boxing Day.
The Christmas Box was originally a small box put on ships by a priest as a good luck object. Sailors put money into it throughout the voyage in the hope it would keep them safe. At the end of the trip the priest would collect the box, save it until Christmas and distribute the contents to the poor.
Later, in churches, worshippers attending Christmas Day services were encouraged to put money into boxes known as ‘Alms boxes’ and this money was given to the poor the following day. During the 18th century, rich landowners would sometimes ‘box’ up any unwanted food or gifts and hand them out to their employees.
More recently it has been the custom to give money gifts to those who regularly deliver to homes such as refuse collectors and those who bring the post, milk and newspapers. It has also become a big shopping day in the UK. Americans in our Denham community might recognise similarities to Black Friday which follows Thanksgiving Day in the United States and elsewhere, though of course we too in the UK have adopted the low-price shopping day of Black Friday in recent years.
Regardless of how or even if you celebrate a special holiday in December, we wish all our families, friends and neighbours the goodwill expressed in the music of the season, the warmth of cheery fires and the enjoyment of special foods. And as we in the Denham community welcome in the New Year, these well-known lines by an unknown author, are always a great way to begin each day in the spirit of the winter celebrations of kindness and generosity:
If you see someone falling behind, walk beside them
If you see someone being ignored, find a way to include them,
If you see someone has been knocked down, lift them up,
Always remind people of their worth,
One small act could mean the world to them.