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Newsletter - December 2012


The Twelve Days of Christmas

After leading the members in the beautiful carol, The Holly and the Ivy, Peter Medhurst introduced us to some more of the carols and traditions of Christmas, some well-known and some less so. Carols were often created as a song sung in the round, with each singer improvising a line to rhyme with the previous one. The pagan winter festivals, which celebrated the passing of the old year into the new and honoured the unconquered sun beginning to climb again after the winter solstice, were adopted by the Christian church in its earliest days.

The god Mithra of the 3rd and 4th centuries was the chief rival to Christianity – he was the ancient sun god born on the 25th December; another influence on our celebrations was the old Norse feast of Yule which also celebrates the birth of the sun. Our decorations with evergreens recreate the greenness of summer in the darkness of winter. Christianity, we were told, took over these festivals deliberately, and the birth of the sun became the birth of the Son.

As for the Twelve Days, they begin on 26th December and run until the 6th January (Twelfth Night) but originally church celebrations extended until 2nd February. The first day, Boxing Day, was the traditional day for giving alms to the poor, and boxes were located in churches for collecting this ‘dole’. Boxing Day is also the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death. Owing to confusion with another completely different St Stephen (a 9th century Swedish missionary, who was the patron saint of horses), the huntsmen and their horses still meet on Boxing Day.

The carol singers would be entertained with a special wassail cup, which was filled up and passed from hand to hand, symbolising the trust and bond between them. It was sprinkled with toast and spices, and today we raise our glasses in a toast.

Stubbs painting of the Milbanke and Lamb families
Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Cornelis van Haarle

The Coventry carol sounds like a lullaby but has a darker significance when we remember it is sung on 28th December, the day commemorating the massacre of the Holy Innocents.

St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, is the patron saint of children and is celebrated as our Santa Claus. He also is the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and the three gold balls hanging outside pawnbrokers’ shops represent the three bags of gold that he is said to have given to three maidens to prevent their destitution! The custom of associating him with Christmas spread to the United States and, promoted heavily by Coca Cola, moved back to Europe.

St Thomas, or Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral during his quarrels with Henry II in 1170, and is celebrated on the anniversary of his martyrdom, the 29th December.

Stubbs painting of the Milbanke and Lamb families
The Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegn
Stubbs painting of the Milbanke and Lamb families
Twelfth Night, the cake and drawing lots to
choose the king and queen

New Year’s Day has its own carols and the tradition in Scotland of First Footing, when a tall dark stranger (dark, to distinguish him from the pale-haired enemy from the south) had to enter the house at midnight with an evergreen branch, representing the old year, and coal representing fire, the spring and new life.

The 6th of January, Twelfth Night and the feast of Epiphany, celebrates the day when Jesus was presented with gifts by the Magi. Traditionally, Twelfth Night was the most important day of the entire twelve and the most popular for its merry making, and its cakes. The Victorians banned Twelfth Night celebrations because they became too rowdy, and we now eat our cake on Christmas Day. It was originally full of plums and a King and Queen of Twelfth Night were chosen at random – and everyone had to do their bidding on the day.

These were just some of the interesting things we learned as we were entertained with beautiful slides and the carols, sung and accompanied on the piano by Peter. It was a very enjoyable end to the evening after the delicious refreshments and mulled-wine. The event attracted a larger number of members than last year, and the food was excellent; the committee have received many messages saying how much members enjoyed it!