Ferdi McDermott explains how the season that celebrates Christ’s incarnation is meant to be playful, long and happy …

Boys and Master’s with the Boar’s Head at the beginning of a Seasonal Feast.

A wise friend just wrote:”I know I’m in the minority here but every year around this time of year I dread the onslaught of posts about Christmas trees “being up too early” or Christmas carols being “played too early.” Then too about Christmas trees being “down too early” or carols “stopped too early.”It seems to me that in reacting to one extreme people have created another.”
Yes, Scrooge lives on, despite all the ghosts who came to visit him …
The liturgy is saner on the question : we sing the same Marian antiphon, focused on the Christmas message, through Advent right up until Candlemas. And Advent moves steadily foward to anticipation of the Nativity, like a mad hand-to-hand dance, with no-one sure when it starts or stops.

From the 17th December, the O antiphons ask the Saviour to come, but the 8th December also lays the ground for the mystery of the Incarnation .. and of course St Nicholas, in medieval tradition, marks the start of the season of jollity … boy bishops (who reigned from 6th to 28th December), holly and ivy, and the rest. In much of medieval Europe, the season of goodwill began on 6th December; as it does in Chavagnes …. with the Vespers of the Boy Bishop.

The Boy Bishop at Chavagnes: a medieval tradition.

In Spain the 6th January is the real Christmas, but in post-Reformation England that was considered the end of Christmas. Indeed Christmas decorations still up after 6th January were thought to bring bad luck …

Continental Europeans celebrate the big Christmas meal before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Traditionally it was a day of abstinence but not of fasting, so they ate fish but plenty of it, and delicacies like almonds and oranges …  In England the big meal is on the 25th. There is an Octave of Christmas, but in England, at least, there were “Twelve Days of Christmas”, with Twelfth Night on 5th December, and then Epiphany itself, which was lavishly celebrated on the day of the 6th and not just on the Vigil.

In old Catholic England, and Catholic Europe, even Epiphany was not the end of Christmas. because until 1955 there was also an Octave of the Epiphany, which took us up to 13th January …  just a few days to catch up on jobs, sober up, tidy up and prepare for the final Christmas celebration, the Feast of the Purificaton (and Presentation) on 2nd February. This also had an Octave, prolonging the festivities for another week. By that time, it was about time to celebrate Lent, where one would tighten one’s belt and fast in preparation for Easter. For religious reasons, certainly, but also because there was not much left in the larder after over two months of feasting.

The simple truth is that in an agricultural society in northern Europe, there is very little useful outdoor work to be done between mid December and early February. Over this period the cows and goats would go down to one milking a day, and then to none; most pigs were slaughtered in early December or earlier, and the other animals would be inside, in preparation for their giving birth in spring. 

The winter activities of medieval people.

There was no outdoor work as the fields were now empty of crops, except for the kitchen garden. It was a natural time in which to consume all the fruits of the October harvest before the lean time of Lent. The apples, even when carefully stored, would not last  past Candlemas. Most of them, for that very reason, would have been made into cider.  Before the advent of sugar plantations, the way to store autumn fruits was in alcoholic form, not as jams and preserves. So the time between early December and Lent was a time when medieval man drank a lot alcohol, not just to be merry but also for nutrition. All the traditional English Christlas delicacies (plum pudding and mince pies, hams, goose, capons, jelied fruits, cheeses, beers, wines and spirits …) are all rich, preserved food, or birds that were too expensive to keep feeding over the winter. Typically, the seasonal fayre was rich in animal fat, salt, honey (or, later, sugar) and alcohol. These are the tastes that people now associate with Christmas.  It is natural that people should stay indoors by the fire, and if there is food and drink, then it is natural that they should consume it while it is still fresh enough to enjoy. It is all of a piece …  The liturgical year and the year of nature, like all good things,  both belong to God and come from Him.
And in the Incarnation, we celebrate the fact that God Himself entered into His own creation, with all its times and seasons, in order to redeem us.

A Chavagnes boy pauses in prayer
before an image of the Nativity.

From the first Sunday of Advent, and every day of Advent, we sing our joy at the miracle of the Incarnation at the close of day:

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
should doom to death a universe,
hast found the medicine, full of grace,
to save and heal a ruined race. 

Thou camest, the Bridegroom of the bride,
as drew the world to evening tide,
proceeding from a virgin shrine,
the spotless Victim all divine.

At whose dread Name, majestic now,
all knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
and things celestial Thee shall own,
and things terrestrial Lord alone.

It is indeed a ‘res miranda‘, a great and mighty wonder!

Ferdi McDermott is Headmaster of Chavagnes International College. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh and Buckingham he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Chartered College of Teaching and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is currently completing a doctorate in education with the University of Buckingham.

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