Part VI: More Liturgy and Customs
The history of the dedication of the Oratorium Præsepis in the Liberian basilica, of the relics there kept and their imitations, does not belong to this discussion.
The data are well set out by Bonaccorsi (Il Natale, Rome 1903 ch.iv)], but the practice of giving dramatic, or at least spectacular, expression to the incidents of the Nativity early gave rise to more or less liturgical mysteries.
The ordinaria of Rouen and of Reims, for instance, place the officium pastorum immediately after the Te Deum and before Mass (cf. Ducange, Gloss. med. et inf. Lat. sv. Pastores); the latter Church celebrated a second "prophetical" mystery after Tierce, in which Virgil and the Sibyl
join with Old Testament prophets in honouring Christ. (For Virgil and Nativity play and prophecy see authorities in Comparetti, Virgil in Middles Ages, p.310 sqq.) "To out-herod Herod", i.e. to over-act, dates from Herod's violence in these plays.
The crib (creche) or nativity scene
Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 originated the crib of today by laicizing a hitherto ecclesiastical custom, henceforward extra-liturgical and popular.
The presence of ox and ass is due to a misinterpretation of Isaias i:3 and Habacuc 3:2 (Itala version), though they appear in the unique
fourth-century "Nativity" discovered in the Saint Sebastian catacombs in 1877.
The ass on which Balaam rode in the Reims mystery won for the feast the title Festum Asinorum (Ducange, op. cit. sv. Festum).
Hymns and carols
The degeneration of these plays in part occasioned the diffusion of noels,
pastorali, and carols, to which was accorded, at times, a quasi-liturgical
Prudentius, in the fourth century, is the first (and in that century alone) to hymn the Nativity, for the Vox clara (hymn for Lauds in Advent) and Christe Redemptor (Vespers and Matins of Christmas) cannot be assigned to Ambrose.
A solis ortu is certainly, however, by Sedulius (fifth century).
The earliest German Weihnachtslieder date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the earliest noels from the eleventh, the earliest carols from the thirteenth.
The famous Stabat Mater speciosa is attributed to Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306); Adeste fideles is, at the earliest, of the seventeenth century.
These essentially popular airs, and even words, must, however, have existed long before they were put down in writing.
Cards and presents
Pagan customs centering round the January calends gravitated to Christmas.
Tiele (Yule and Christmas, London 1899) has collected many interesting examples.
The strenæ (étrennes) of the Roman 1 January
(bitterly condemned by Tertullian, de Idol. xiv and x, and by Maximus of Turin, Hom. ciii de Kal. gentil. in PL. LVII 492 etc.) survive as Christmas presents, cards, boxes.
The yule log
The calend fires were a scandal even to Rome, and Saint Boniface obtained from Pope Zachary their abolition.
But probably the Yule-log in its many forms was originally lit only in view of the cold season.
Only in 1577 did it become a public ceremony in England; its popularity, however, grew immense, especially in Provence; in Tuscany, Christmas is simply called ceppo (block, log Bonaccorsi, op. cit. p.145 n.2).
Besides, it became connected with other usages; in England, a tenant had the right to feed at his lord's expense as long as a wheel, i.e. a round, of wood, given by him, would burn, the landlord gave to a tenant a load of wood on the birth of a child; Kindsfuss was a present given to children on the birth of a brother or sister, and even to the farm animals on that of Christ, the universal little brother (Tiele, op. cit. p.95 sqq.).
Gervase of Tilbury (thirteen century) says that in England grain is exposed on Christmas night to gain fertility from the dew which falls in response to Rorate cæli; the tradition that trees and flowers blossomed on
this night is first quoted from an Arab geographer of the tenth century, and
extended to England.
In a thirteenth-century French epic, candles are seen on the flowering tree.
In England it was Joseph of Arimathea's rod which flowered at Glastonbury and elsewhere; when 3 September became 14 September, in 1752, 2000 people watched to see if the Quainton thorn (cratagus præcox) would blow on Christmas New Style; and as it did not, they refused to keep the New Style festival.
>From this belief of the calends practice of greenery decorations (forbidden by Archbishop Martin of Braga, c.575, PL. LXXIII mistletoe was bequeathed by the Druids) developed the Christmas tree, first definitely mentioned in 1605 at Strasburg, and introduced into France and England in 1840 only, by Princess Helena of Mecklenburg and the Prince Consort respectively.
The mysterious visitor
Only with great caution should the mysterious benefactor of Christmas night Knecht Ruprecht, Pelzmärtel on a wooden horse, Saint Martin on a white charger, Saint Nicholas and his "reformed" equivalent, Father Christmas be ascribed to the stepping of a saint into the shoes of Woden, who, with his wife Berchta, descended on the nights between 25 December and 6 January, on a white horse to bless earth and men.
Fires and blazing wheels starred the hills, houses were adorned, trials suspended and feasts celebrated (cf. Bonaccorse, op. cit. p.151).
Knecht Ruprecht, at any rate (first found in a mystery of 1668 and condemned in 1680 as a devil) was only a servant of the Holy Child.
But no doubt aboriginal Christian nuclei attracted pagan accretions.
For the calend mumming; the extraordinary and obscene Modranicht; the cake in honour of Mary's "afterbirth", condemned (692) at the Trullan Council, canon 79; the Tabulæ Fortunæ (food and drink offered to obtain increase, and condemned in 743), see Tiele, op. cit. ch. viii ix Tiele's data are perhaps of greater value than his deductions
and Ducange (op. cit. s.vv. Cervula and Kalendæ).
In England, Christmas was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644; the day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen.
The conservatives resisted; at Canterbury blood was shed; but after the Restoration Dissenters continued to call Yuletide "Fooltide."
Besides the works mentioned in the article see also, Die Geschichte des deutschen Weihnachts (Leipzig, 1893); MANN-HARDT, Weihnachtsblüthen in Sitte u. Sage (Berlin, 1864); RIETSCHEL, Weihnachten in Kirche, Kunst u.
Volksleben (Bielefeld and Leipzig, 1902); SCHMID, Darstellung der Geburt
Christin der bildenden Kunst (1890); MÜLLER, Le costumanzi del Natale (Rome, 1880); CORRIERI, Il Natale nelle letterature del Nord in Cosmos Cath.
(December, 1900); ERBES, Das Syrische Martyrologium, etc., in Zeitschr. F.
Kirchengesch. (1905), IV (1906), I; BARDENHEWER, Mariä Verkündigung
(Freiburg, 1905); DE KERSAINT-GILLY, Fêtes de Noël en Provence (Montpellier, 1900); DE COUSSEMAKER, Drames Liturgiques du Moyen Age (Paris, 1861); DOUHET, Dict, des mystères in MIGNE, Nouv, encycl. théol., XLIII; PÉREMÈS, Dict. De Noëls, ibid. LXIII; SMITH AND CHEETHAM, dict. Christ. Antiq., sv. Christmas.
Transcribed by Susanti A. Suastika
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The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III
Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.
See also CNP Music for Christmas