Thursday, December 31, 2009

On The Seventh Day Of The Twelve Days of Christmas

And you thought Christmas was over? You obviously don't know your Medieval history. Fortunately, we have a historian on the net who blogs on nothing else - Got Medieval. It is one of the most interesting of history blogs on the net . . . and do be sure to check out the Medieval personals on the side of his blog for any lonely hearts out there:

. . . The Nativity is celebrated on December 25, a date set in 337 by Pope St. Julius I. So, Merry 1672th Christmas, everybody! For most of the Middle Ages, Christmas was not, as it is today, the culmination of the holiday season, but rather its beginning. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas, after all, and stretch until January 5th, also known as Twelfth Night, the day before Epiphany, the day the Magi arrived.

As an aside, scratch most any Christian holiday and you'll find all sorts of pagan customs caught up in it. That does not detract from the religious meaning of the holiday, but merely goes to show how early Christianity followed a policy of "syncretism" during the process of conversion. They adapted as much as possible of the local pagan customs into the overlay of Christianity. Indeed, our recent "1672nd" celebration of Christmas is itself very much a creature of syncretism, adapting the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia into a celebration of the birth of Christ. And the Celtic Cross, with its overlay of a sun symbol, is yet another result of syncretism.

Probably the most famous memorialization of a papal order to use the process of syncretism comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, who notes that in 601 A.D., Pope Gregory sent a letter to his missionaries instructing them to adapt local customs and places of worship as part of the conversion process whenever possible. If you want to learn more about the history of Christmas, by the way, there are a series of good videos I posted here. But none of that includes the additional information provided by the proprietor of Got Medieval, so to continue with his erudition:

December 26 marks the Feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr of all Christianity. You may remember him as the guy that Saul helps to stone in Acts. And if you're American, you probably spent at least part of your childhood wondering why "Good King Wenceslas" looked out on the feast of Stephen instead of Christmas, since you sing the song at Christmastime. . . .

The Feast of St. John the Evangelist--not to be confused with St. John the Baptist--comes the next day, on December 27. St. John has the distinction of being the only one of the original twelve apostles to live to be an old man, rather than dying as a young martyr. According to one story, John was almost martyred, however, when someone tried to poison his wine, but he was saved because it was his habit to bless his wine before he drank it. John's blessing didn't just passively purify the wine--according to the story, the poison rose up magically from the chalice and formed into the shape of a servant that then slithered off. Thus, St. John often appears in medieval iconography as a man holding a chailce with what looks like steam coming out of it.*** In recognition of this near miss, traditional Catholics celebrate St. John's with lots of wine. I guess magic snakes are as good an excuse as any.

If you look closely at the image from the medieval calendar above, you can see that December 28 is illustrated by two midgets impaled on a spear that's being propped up by someone's decapitated head. That's because December 28th is The Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the children massacred by Herod in his failed attempt to kill off Christ. . . .

St. Thomas Becket, Henry II's "turbulent priest" is commemorated with a feast on December 29. (He's the one pictured above near the end with a dagger sticking out of his head.) As a Chaucerian, I'm pretty tired of Thomas Becket. I mean, what's the big deal? He's just a bishop who got killed by some overzealous royal sycophants. Sure, he's known for curative powers, but what saint isn't? . . .

Rounding out the year, The Feast of Pope St. Sylvester is celebrated on December 31. Sylvester is chiefly notable for being the pope that Emperor Constantine was said to have given all his lands to, thus granting the papacy superiority to all temporal monarchs--at least, that's the story the popes told. They even had a document forged, the so-called Donation of Constantine, to back them up. Lorenzo Valla, the Renaissance scholar, eventually pointed out the many problems with it, including the fact that nobody seems to have mentioned the Donation in print until about four hundred years after it was supposed to have been written. Oh, silly medieval popes, your pitiful forgeries can only fool people for six hundred years or so. Why do you even try?

Lol. Hmmm, just as a person is the sum of their choices in life, so are we, in a collective sense, the sum of our history. It pays to know it. And besides, it's always interesting and often humorous. Do pay Got Medieval a visit for his additional commentary on the Saints above.

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