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History Corner: For the Past Few Years…

History Corner: For the Past Few Years…

As the title might suggest, my stories for the past few years have side-stepped the holiday issues because I had written about each one, several times and I want to write about Orange as much as possible.  However, I am drawn to the history of the holidays without any specific religious group cited but a general look at what was, which may not be now.  I am not familiar with the main religious groups in our town so I will put out the unknown history and see what happens…how’s that?

Ok, here goes.  Many customs evolved out of fear of the unknown and a Celtic custom of warding off evil spirits through the dark, winter month was to “decorate” the home with juniper and cedar branches.  These conifers would last all season, welcoming the good, woodland spirits.  According to a Viking tale when Christianity came to northern Europe, Faith, Hope and Charity were sent from heaven to find and light a tree as great as Love, as sweet as Charity and high as Hope.  Their search ended when they found the fir, lighting it with the radiance of the stars which by legend was the first Christmas tree.

Saint Wilfred is also credited with the holiday tree when he tried to convince the Druids, who feared the sacred oak that they need not fear it as he struck the tree with his ax and in the center arose the fir tree proclaiming everlasting life.  Many superstitions cling to the fir tree such as knowing how long you will live by standing in front of a lighted fir tree and your shadow, cast on the wall will tell you your answer.  Yipes, do you know what the answer was?  If the shadow did not show your head, you were doomed.

Witches always seem to surface in these dark, winter days and it was considered wise to surround your home with as much holly as possible, over doorways, in windows, next to the chimney to keep them from entering.  The Druids enter into the holly story as they honored the fact that the sun never deserted its evergreen leaves.  Growing holly near the house also kept the witches at bay, protected the home from lightning and are you ready for this?  Whoever first brought holly into the house, husband or wife, ruled for the year.

There are religious connections to herbs as well as the fir tree but it seems that the Victorians just liked bringing the summer to a winter home with a wreath made of pink rosebuds, lavender blossoms, thymes, oregano, statice and, of course, the fragrant Rosemary.  The month before the Christmas holiday held pagan rituals, ancient practices merging into that time of the year, the dark days of winter.  The witches surface again and even the devil himself with juniper branches and berries burned to ward them off.

One of the traditions that left its mark at this time was the Roman Saturnalia, observed from December 17th to the 24th.  It was at this time that Saturn, associated with the sun would bring joy.  No one worked except those that provided food and drink or entertainment.  Candles were lit to scare away the darkness and celebrate the sun.  At this time gifts were given in honor of the goddess of vegetation and food was exchanged.  There was much feasting, gambling, dancing and revelry which as you can imagine did not please the Christian officials.  They did not appreciate the shenanigans but had no way to stop it.  Eventually, the two factions merged into a partnership, retaining some of the elements while excluding others or at least watering them down.

The height of the season’s rowdiness and extravagance was achieved in medieval England after 1066.  People would attend church all right but not as you might expect…no indeed.  They wore masks and costumes, costumes that gave “colorful” its name and in the singing, off color songs and, and rolling dice on the alter!  King Henry VIII’s love of a good party set a high standard for carousing with gambling a big part of the festivities.  It is rumored that the royalty loaded the dice to insure against losing with royal excess reaching its height in 1377.

The 4th century saw the beginning of widespread caroling having been used in Roman times as early as the 2nd century but now they came to England by way of France.  As you can see by my story, well my whatevers, a time of reflection, stemming from religion, was under fire all the time.  As the political scene in England revved up so did the objections to the, yes, the gambling, rowdy behavior, drinking and irreverence.

Just like we have candy for the Halloween crowd, English citizens had to have pear wine at hand lest the revelers, who sang irreverent carols, would pelt the house with rocks…yes, I read that in a book.  So, in the middle of the 17th century, the holiday was under fire, yet again.  This time laws were invoked by the power of the Puritans and all religious festivals were to cease and desist but not without some rioting.  Technically, the Puritans did not object to the religious observance but they believed the only way to deal with the doings was to abolish the day and everything associated with it.

Eventually, the Puritan way of thinking melted into oblivion but not only did it take away the bawdiness of the season but the spirituality as well.  The clergy still held a tight rein although the holiday did have a bit of strength until the Industrial Revolution when greed was king and everything outside of money and progress took a back seat with no room for holidays.

It was at this time that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, his interpretation and representation of life “in the fast lane”.  The want of English families is well-depicted in this story and has become a classic on television during the Christmas holiday.  It was not until the Victorian era, 1820 to 1914, approximately the reign of Queen Victoria, that the holiday took on form of family togetherness, the idea of giving to those in need, a concern for others and a genuine feeling of quiet celebration of life.

Queen Victoria assumed the throne at the age of 18 and three years later, married Prince Albert.  Being from Germany, where the Christmas holiday had its heyday, Albert brought many wonderful traditions from his homeland with him.  Again, the family was emphasized and in 1841, he introduced the first Christmas tree which was added to the other traditions of a holiday meal and decorations.  Remember the herbal wreath I mentioned?  Now you can add that to your knowledge of what was to become a quaint and warm holiday.  The singing of carols once again revived in the churches, in the homes and carolers in the street…no pelting of rocks this time.  There are many customs and legends associated with all religious groups for this time of the year and I hope each and every one of you can enjoy your traditions with your family and friends.

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