Category Archive 'History'
17 Mar 2020

Isaac Newton, Be Like Him

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09 Mar 2020

“Kvinnors Minnen” (Womens’ Memories)

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Kvinnors minnen from Dalarnas museum on Vimeo.

In the old days, Swedish women would take the cattle and goats for summer grazing in the hills. It looks like the film footage would have been taken pretty late, in the 1950s or 1960s. Country people worked hard, but they also had a lot to enjoy that’s missing from the modern urban environment.

HT: Karen L. Myers.

06 Mar 2020

Siege of the Alamo

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Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, Fall of the Alamo, 1903, Texas State Archives.

March 6, 1836: Following a thirteen-day siege, more than 2000 Mexican troops launched a pre-dawn attack from all four sides on the fortress defended by 180 men. The Mexicans were repulsed twice, but a third assault gained the north wall and broke through the west wall. After fierce fighting, the defenders were killed to a man. The casualties included Colonel William Barret Travis, James Bowie, and former Congressman from Tennessee David Crockett.

04 Mar 2020

Lost Passageway Found in British House of Parliament

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18 Feb 2020

Our National Park Service, Delivery Source of Leftism

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George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Michael Pillsbury, in the WSJ, explains how America’s national historic sites have wound up being explained in relation to Identity Group grievances and Climate Change by people who majored in Marxism and Social Justice.

George Washington’s birthday is celebrated on Monday, so consider this thought experiment: It is 2026 and Washington and close military advisers like Alexander Hamilton return for a 250th-anniversary ride on the eight decisive battlefields where American independence was won.

At first, they might be pleasantly surprised to see the battlefields still intact. But suppose the visiting heroes lean down from their saddles to listen to the park rangers leading tours in green-and-gray uniforms. Expecting to hear a recounting of battles that formed the republic, they instead hear stories about identity politics and climate change. Hamilton, upon returning to his only home, in New York—a site that attracts thousands of visitors annually—would be taken aback to hear, as I did on a visit, park rangers editorialize that he stashed his wife there so he could carry on with his mistress in his Wall Street home.

This casual, official reinterpretation of history has alarmed many modern historians and Americans, including those like me with relatives who served at Valley Forge. In 2016, a park ranger reportedly telling tourists at Independence Hall in Philadelphia that “the Founders knew that when they left this room, what they had written wouldn’t matter very much” resulted in news articles and calls for her resignation. Rangers, however, aren’t required to stick to any script when interpreting the Revolution. Washington and Hamilton might ride on to privately owned Mount Vernon for a more authentic experience.

Traditionally, great powers trust their military forces with protecting and interpreting the sacred battlefields of their founding fathers. After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military protected the battlefields, conducted “staff rides” to review decisions and scenarios, and encouraged private donors such as the Ladies of Mount Vernon to restore other historical places tied to Washington.

But then came the National Park Service. In the 1920s and early 1930s the NPS was a minor agency struggling for attention and already filled with what today are called environmental activists. These ideologues sought to obtain possession of the nation’s historic sites, which would raise the Park Service’s profile above that of a mere maintenance organization.

In April 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Park Service Director Horace Albright for a Sunday drive along Skyline Drive, a new highway the Park Service was building in the mountains of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Albright had already created a “history division” and set up historical monuments. So he took advantage of this time with the president to defeat objections from the War Department, which wanted to keep the battlefields under its purview. Mere months later, by executive order, the War Department transferred 57 historical sites and, more important, the authority to interpret the history of the sites to the Park Service. Albright saw this victory as the culmination of his career.

RTWT

02 Feb 2020

Candlemas, Demotically “Groundhog Day”

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Tintoretto, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 1550-1555, Gallerie dell Accademi, Venice

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

From a very early, indeed unknown date in the Christian history, the 2nd of February has been held as the festival of the Purification of the Virgin, and it is still a holiday of the Church of England. From the coincidence of the time with that of the Februation or purification of the people in pagan Rome, some consider this as a Christian festival engrafted upon a heathen one, in order to take advantage of the established habits of the people; but the idea is at least open to a good deal of doubt. The popular name Candlemass is derived from the ceremony which the Church of Rome dictates to be observed on this day; namely, a blessing of candles by the clergy, and a distribution of them amongst the people, by whom they are afterwards carried lighted in solemn procession. The more important observances were of course given up in England at the Reformation; but it was still, about the close of the eighteenth century, customary in some places to light up churches with candles on this day.

At Rome, the Pope every year officiates at this festival in the beautiful chapel of the Quirinal. When he has blessed the candles, he distributes them with his own hand amongst those in the church, each of whom, going singly up to him, kneels to receive it. The cardinals go first; then follow the bishops, canons, priors, abbots, priests, &c., down to the sacristans and meanest officers of the church. According to Lady Morgan, who witnessed the ceremony in 1820:

    ‘When the last of these has gotten his candle, the poor conservatori, the representatives of the Roman senate and people, receive theirs. This ceremony over, the candles are lighted, the Pope is mounted in his chair and carried in procession, with hymns chanting, round the ante-chapel; the throne is stripped of its splendid hangings; the Pope and cardinals take off their gold and crimson dresses, put on their usual robes, and the usual mass of the morning is sung.’

Lady Morgan mentions that similar ceremonies take place in all the parish churches of Rome on this day.

It appears that in England, in Catholic times, a meaning was attached to the size of the candles, and the manner in which they burned during the procession; that, moreover, the reserved parts of the candles were deemed to possess a strong supernatural virtue:

    ‘This done, each man his candle lights,
    Where chiefest seemeth he,
    Whose taper greatest may be seen; And fortunate to be,
    Whose candle burneth clear and bright: A wondrous force and might
    Both in these candles lie, which if At any time they light,
    They sure believe that neither storm Nor tempest cloth abide,
    Nor thunder in the skies be heard, Nor any devil’s spide,
    Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
    Nor hurts of frost or hail,’ &c.

The festival, at whatever date it took its rise, has been designed to commemorate the churching or purification of Mary; and the candle-bearing is understood to refer to what Simeon said when he took the infant Jesus in his arms, and declared that he was a light to lighten the Gentiles. Thus literally to adopt and build upon metaphorical expressions, was a characteristic procedure of the middle ages. Apparently, in consequence of the celebration of Mary’s purification by candle-bearing, it became customary for women to carry candles with them, when, after recovery from child-birth, they went to be, as it was called, churched. A remarkable allusion to this custom occurs in English history. William the Conqueror, become, in his elder days, fat and unwieldy, was confined a considerable time by a sickness. ‘Methinks,’ said his enemy the King of France, ‘the King of England lies long in childbed.’ This being reported to William, he said, ‘When I am churched, there shall be a thousand lights in France !’ And he was as good as his word; for, as soon as he recovered, he made an inroad into the French territory, which he wasted wherever he went with fire and sword.

At the Reformation, the ceremonials of Candlemass day were not reduced all at once. Henry VIII proclaimed in 1539:

    ‘On Candlemass day it shall be declared, that the bearing of candles is done in memory of Christ, the spiritual light, whom Simeon did prophesy, as it is read in. the church that day.’

It is curious to find it noticed as a custom down to the time of Charles II, that when lights were brought in at nightfall, people would say—’ God send us the light of heaven!’ The amiable Herbert, who notices the custom, defends it as not superstitious. Some-what before this time, we find. Herrick alluding to the customs of Candlemass eve: it appears that the plants put up in houses at Christmas were now removed.

    Down with the rosemary and bays,
    Down with the mistletoe;
    Instead of holly now upraise
    The greener box for show.
    The holly hitherto did sway,

    Let box now domineer,
    Until the dancing Easter day
    Or Easter’s eve appear.
    The youthful box, which now hath grace
    Your houses to renew,
    Grown old, surrender must his place
    Unto the crisped yew.
    When yew is out, then birch comes in,

    And many flowers beside,
    Both of a fresh and fragrant kin’,
    To honour Whitsuntide.
    Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
    With cooler oaken boughs,
    Come in for comely ornaments,
    To re-adorn the house.
    Thus times do shift; each thing in turn does hold;
    New things succeed, as former things grow old.’

The same poet elsewhere recommends very particular care in the thorough removal of the Christmas garnishings on this eve:

    ‘That so the superstitious find
    No one least branch left there behind;
    For look, how many leaves there be
    Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
    So many goblins you shall see.’

He also alludes to the reservation of part of the candles or torches, as calculated to have the effect of protecting from mischief:

    ‘Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
    Till sunset let it burn,
    Which quenched, then lay it up again, Till Christmas next return.
    Part must be kept, wherewith to tend
    The Christmas log next year;
    And where ‘tis safely kept, the fiend Can do no mischief there.’

Considering the importance attached to Candlemass day for so many ages, it is scarcely surprising that there is a universal superstition throughout Christendom, that good weather on this day indicates a long continuance of winter and a bad crop, and that its being foul is, on the contrary, a good omen. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, quotes a Latin distich expressive of this idea:

    ‘Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
    Major erit glacies post festum quam fait ante;

which maybe considered as well translated in the popular Scottish rhyme:

    If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
    The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
    If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
    The half o’ winter’s gave at Yule.’

In Germany there are two proverbial expressions on this subject: 1. The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemass day than the sun; 2. The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemass day, and when he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole. It is not improbable that these notions, like the festival of Candlemass itself, are derived from pagan times, and have existed since the very infancy of our race. So at least we may conjecture, from a curious passage in Martin’s Description of the Western Islands. On Candlemass day, according to this author, the Hebrideans observe the following curious custom:

The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in women’s apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Bríd’s Bed.; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, “Bríd is come; Bríd is welcome!” This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Bríd’s club there; which, if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.

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Groundhog Day is simply a modern commercialized adaptation of the earlier weather traditions associated with the Christian feast day.

02 Feb 2020

Candlemas Eve by Robert Herrick, Sung by Kate Rusby

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DOWN with rosemary and bayes,
Down with the mistleto,
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineere,
Until the dancing Easter-day,
Or Easter’s eve appeare.

Then youthful box, which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kinne
To honor Whitsontide.

Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With color oken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed as former things grow old.

19 Jan 2020

Roman Engineering

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Interior of the Pantheon in Rome.

In his excellent King Arthur’s Wars: The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England (2016), retired British officer Jim Storr (now teaching at the Norwegian Military Academy in Oslo) puts the astonishing Roman technological achievements into perspective.

Roman engineers… were astonishingly skillful. In the years just before the birth of Christ they built an underground tunnel to bring water to Bologna in Italy. The tunnel was 20 kilometres long. Hundreds of years earlier they had drained the Pontine marshes south east of Rome. In the second century A.D. they brought water to a city in what is now Syria from a source over 130 kilometres away. It had an average gradient of just 3 centimetres’ fall in every kilometre. Many kilometers of it still exist today. In several cities in Europe, Roman aqueducts still provide water from several kilometres away. The world-famous Trevi fountain in Rome is supplied by the Virgo aqueduct, 22 kilometres long and built in 19 BC. The Pantheon in Rome was built in about 126 A.D. It is the world’s first large mass-concrete dome building. It is over 40 metres high and is visited by thousands of tourists, in complete safety, every day: almost 2000 years later.

Roman engineers were not just good builders. They were also world-class surveyors. If you walk south from London Bridge today, you soon reach Kennington Park Road (the A3). As you look along it you are looking in the precise direction of the east gate of Chichester, 59.84 Roman miles from the end of London Bridge. The surveyors who first laid out that road, probably in the first century A.D., knew precisely which direction Chichester lay in. There are two major rows of hills (the North and South Downs) in between.

In about 155 A.D. Roman surveyors re-aligned a section of 82 kilometres of frontier defenses in southern Germany. The southernmost 29 kilometres ran over several heavily wooded ridges, yet none of the forts (a Roman mile apart, with turrets in between) is off the direct line between start and finish by more than 1.9 metres. That is a deviation of less than five minutes of arc (five sixtieth of a degree). The accuracy which Roman surveyors achieved was phenomenal. It was only bettered with the invention of surveying instruments with magnifying optics (such as the theodolite) in the 17th century. Yet, as far as is known, Roman surveyors did not even have an instrument for observing and copying angles directly (such as a protractor). However, by about the year 500 or so, nobody could even build in stone, let alone lay out aqueducts or build in concrete. Concrete only came back into use in the late 18th century.

06 Jan 2020

Epiphany, or Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night
Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste

(From Robert Chambers, A Book of Days, 1869)

Born: Richard II, King of England, 1366; Joan d’Arc, 1402; Peter Metastasio, poet, 1698; Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, Boston, U.S., 1706; David Dale, philanthropist, 1739; George Thomas Doo, engraver, 1800.

Feast Day: St. Melanius, bishop, 490. St. Nilammon, Hermit. St. Peter, abbot of St. Austin’s, Canterbury, 608.

TWELFTH-DAY

This day, called Twelfth-Day, as being in that number after Christmas, and Epiphany from the Greek ‘‘ΕπιΦáνєια”, signifying appearance, is a festival of the Church, in commemoration of the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; more expressly to the three Magi, or Wise Men of the East, who came, led by a star, to worship him immediately after his birth. (Matt. ii. 1-12.) The Epiphany appears to have been first observed as a separate feast in the year 813. Pope Julius I is, however, reputed to have taught the Church to distinguish the Feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany, so early as about the middle of the fourth century.

The primitive Christians celebrated the Feast of the Nativity for twelve days, observing the first and last with great solemnity; and both of these days were denominated Epiphany, the first the greater Epiphany, from our Lord having on that day become Incarnate, or made his appearance in “the flesh;” the latter, the lesser Epiphany, from the three-fold manifestation of His Godhead—the first, by the appearance of the blazing star which conducted Melchior, Jasper, and Balthuzar, the three Magi, or wise men, commonly styled the three Kings of Cologne, out of the East, to worship the Messiah, and to offer him presents of “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh”—Melchior the Gold, in testimony of his royalty as the promised King of the Jews; Jasper the Frankincense, in token of his Divinity; and Balthuzar the Myrrh, in allusion to the sorrows which, in the humiliating condition of a man, our Redeemer vouchsafed to take upon him: the second, of the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of a Dove, at the Baptism: and the third, of the first miracle of our Lord turning water into wine at the marriage in Cana. All of which three manifestations of the Divine nature happened on the same day, though not in the same year.

    ‘To render due honour to the memory of the ancient Magi, who are supposed to have been kings, the monarch of this country himself, either personally or through his chamberlain, offers annually at the altar on this day, Gold, Frank-incense, and Myrrh; and the kings of Spain, where the Feast of Epiphany is likewise called the “Feast of the Kings,” were accustomed to make the like offerings. — Brady.

In the middle ages, the worship by the Magi was celebrated by a little drama, called the Feast of the Star:

    ‘Three priests, clothed as kings, with their servants carrying offerings, met from different directions before the altar. The middle one, who came from the east, pointed with his staff to a star. A dialogue then ensued; and, after kissing each other, they began to sing, “Let us go and inquire;” after which the precentor began a responsory, “Let the Magi come.” A procession then commenced; and as soon as it began to enter the nave, a crown, with a star resembling a cross, was lighted up, and pointed out to the Magi, with, “Behold the Star in the East.” This being concluded, two priests standing at each side of the altar, answered meekly, “We are those whom you seek;” and, drawing a curtain, shewed them a child, whom, falling down, they worshipped. Then the servants made the offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which were divided among the priests. The Magi, meanwhile, continued praying till they dropped asleep; when a boy, clothed in an alb, like an angel, addressed them with, “All things which the prophets said are fulfilled.” The festival concluded with chanting services, &c. At Soissons, a rope was let down from the roof of the church, to which was annexed an iron circle having seven tapers, intended to represent Lucifer, or the morning star; but this was not confined to the Feast of the Star.’ — Fosbroke’s Antiquities, ii. 700.

Read the rest of this entry »

02 Jan 2020

Last Duel in France Took Place in 1967

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Open Culture:

Another man insults your honor, leaving you no choice but to challenge him to a highly formalized fight to the death: in the 21st century, the very idea strikes us as almost incomprehensibly of the past. And dueling is indeed dead, at least in all the lands that historically had the most enthusiasm for it, but it hasn’t been dead for as long as we might assume. The last recorded duel performed not with pistols but swords (specifically épées, the largest type of swords used in fencing) took place in France in 1967 — the year of the Saturn V and the Boeing 737, the Detroit riots and the Six-Day War, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Summer of Love.

The duelists were Marseilles mayor Gaston Defferre and another politician names Rene Ribière. “After a clash in the National Assembly, Defferre yelled ‘Taisez-vous, abruti!’ at Ribiere and refused to apologize,” writes professional stage-and-screen fight coordinator Jared Kirby. “Ribière challenged and Defferre accepted. The duel took place with épées in a private residence in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it was officiated by Jean de Lipkowskiin.”

Heightening the drama, Ribière was to be married the following day, though he could expect to live to see his own wedding, Defferre having vowed not to kill him but “wound him in such a way as to spoil his wedding night very considerably.”

You can see the subsequent action of this relatively modern-day duel in the newsreel footage at the top of the post. Defferre did indeed land a couple of touches on Ribière, both in the arm. Ribière, the younger man by twelve years, seems to have taken the event even more seriously than Defferre: he insisted not only on using sharper épées than the ones Defferre originally offered, but on continuing the duel after Defferre first struck him. Lipkowskiin put an end to the combat after the second time, and both Defferre and Ribière went on to live full lives, the former into the 1980s and the latter into the 1990s. Just how considerable an effect Ribière’s dueling injuries had on his wedding night, however, history has not recorded.

26 Dec 2019

Feast of St. Stephen and Boxing Day

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Rembrandt. The Martyrdom of St. Stephen. 1625. Oil on panel. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Feast Day: St. Stephen, the first martyr.

St. Stephen’s Day

To St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, as he is generally styled, the honour has been accorded by the church of being placed in her calendar immediately after Christmas-day, in recognition of his having been the first to seal with his blood the testimony of fidelity to his Lord and Master. The year in which he was stoned to death, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is supposed to have been 33 A.D. The festival commemorative of him has been retained in the Anglican calendar.

A curious superstition was formerly prevalent regarding St. Stephen’s Day—that horses should then, after being first well galloped, be copiously let blood, to insure them against disease in the course of the following year. In Barnaby Googe’s translation of Naogeorgus, the following lines occur relative to this popular notion:

    Then followeth Saint Stephen’s Day, whereon doth every man
    His horses jaunt and course abrode, as swiftly as he can,
    Until they doe extremely sweate, and then they let them blood,
    For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good,
    And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
    As if that Steven any time tooke charge of horses heare.’

The origin of this practice is difficult to be accounted for, but it appears to be very ancient, and Douce supposes that it was introduced into this country by the Danes. In one of the manuscripts of that interesting chronicler, John Aubrey, who lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century, occurs the following record: On St. Stephen’s Day, the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart-horses.’ Very possibly convenience and expediency combined on the occasion with superstition, for in Tusser Redivivus, a work published in the middle of the last century, we find this statement: ‘About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter-solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen’s Day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest, or at least two.’

In the parish of Drayton Beauchamp, Bucks, there existed long an ancient custom, called Stephening, from the day on which it took place. On St. Stephen’s Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector’s expense. On one of these occasions, according to local tradition, the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen’s Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. ‘Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!’ exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was understood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.

After this signal triumph, the parishioners of Drayton regularly exercised their ‘privilege of Stephening’ till the incumbency of the Rev. Basil Wood, who was presented to the living in 1808. Finding that the custom gave rise to much rioting and drunkenness, he discontinued it, and distributed instead an annual sum of money in proportion to the number of claimants. But as the population of the parish greatly increased, and as he did not consider himself bound to continue the practice, he was induced, about the year 1827, to withhold his annual payments; and so the custom became finally abolished. For some years, however, after its discontinuance, the people used to go to the rectory for the accustomed bounty, but were always refused.

In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand. Many of the present inhabitants of the parish remember the custom, and some of them have heard their parents say, that it had been observed:


    ‘As long as the sun had shone,
    And the waters had run.’

In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected. For a notice of them, the reader is referred to the ensuing article.

CHRISTMAS-BOXES

The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practiced universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes, as will appear from the following curious extract from The Athenian Oracle of John Dunton; a sort of primitive Notes and Queries, as it is styled by a contributor to the periodical of that name.

Q. From whence comes the custom of gathering of Christmas-box money? And how long since?

A. It is as ancient as the word mass, which the Romish priests invented from the Latin word mitto, to send, by putting the people in mind to send gifts, offerings, oblations; to have masses said for everything almost, that no ship goes out to the Indies, but the priests have a box in that ship, under the protection of some saint. And for masses, as they cant, to be said for them to that saint, &c., the poor people must put in something into the priest’s box, which is not to be opened till the ship return. Thus the mass at that time was Christ’s-mass, and the box Christ’s-mass-box, or money gathered against that time, that masses might be made by the priests to the saints, to forgive the people the debaucheries of that time; and from this, servants had liberty to get box-money, because they might be enabled to pay the priest for masses—because, No penny, no paternoster—for though the rich pay ten times more than they can expect, yet a priest will not say a mass or anything to the poor for nothing; so charitable they generally are.’

The charity thus ironically ascribed by Dunton to the Roman Catholic clergy, can scarcely, so far as the above extract is concerned, be warrantably claimed by the whimsical author himself. His statement regarding the origin of the custom under notice may be regarded as an ingenious conjecture, but cannot be deemed a satisfactory explanation of the question. As we have already seen, a much greater antiquity and diversity of origin must be asserted.

This custom of Christmas-boxes, or the bestowing of certain expected gratuities at the Christmas season, was formerly, and even yet to a certain extent continues to be, a great nuisance. The journeymen and apprentices of trades-people were wont to levy regular contributions from their masters’ customers, who, in addition, were mulcted by the trades-people in the form of augmented charges in the bills, to recompense the latter for gratuities expected from them by the customers’ servants. This most objectionable usage is now greatly diminished, but certainly cannot yet be said to be extinct. Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefore from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employees, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day. In the evening, the new Christmas pantomime for the season is generally produced for the first time; and as the pockets of the working-classes, from the causes which we have above stated, have commonly received an extra supply of funds, the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night; whilst the ‘gods,’ or upper gallery, exercise even more than their usual authority. Those interested in theatrical matters await with consider-able eagerness the arrival, on the following morning, of the daily papers, which have on this occasion a large space devoted to a chronicle of the pantomimes and spectacles produced at the various London theatres on the previous evening.

In conclusion, we must not be too hard on the system of Christmas-boxes or handsets, as they are termed in Scotland, where, however, they are scarcely ever claimed till after the commencement of the New Year. That many abuses did and still do cling to them, we readily admit; but there is also intermingled with them a spirit of kindliness and benevolence, which it would be very undesirable to extirpate. It seems almost instinctive for the generous side of human nature to bestow some reward for civility and attention, and an additional incentive to such liberality is not infrequently furnished by the belief that its recipient is but inadequately remunerated otherwise for the duties which he performs. Thousands, too, of the commonalty look eagerly forward to the forth-coming guerdon on Boxing-day, as a means of procuring some little unwonted treat or relaxation, either in the way of sight-seeing, or some other mode of enjoyment. Who would desire to abridge the happiness of so many?

25 Dec 2019

Christmas Day

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From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Born: Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world; Sir Isaac Newton, natural philosopher, 1642, Woolsthorpe, near Grantham; Johann Jacob Reiske, oriental scholar, 1716, Zorbig, Saxony; William Collins, poet, 1720, Chichester; Richard Person, Greek scholar, 1759, East Ruston, Norfolk.

and my wife, Karen.

Feast Day: St. Eugenia, virgin and martyr, about 257. St. Anastasia, martyr, 304. Another St. Anastasia.

Christmas Day

The festival of Christmas is regarded as the greatest celebration throughout the ecclesiastical year, and so important and joyous a solemnity is it deemed, that a special exception is made in its favour, whereby, in the event of the anniversary falling on a Friday, that day of the week, under all other circumstances a fast, is transformed to a festival.

That the birth of Jesus Christ, the deliverer of the human race, and the mysterious link connecting the transcendent and incomprehensible attributes of Deity with human sympathies and affections, should be considered as the most glorious event that ever happened, and the most worthy of being reverently and joyously commemorated, is a pro-position which must commend itself to the heart and reason of every one of His followers, who aspires to walk in His footsteps, and share in the ineffable benefits which His death has secured to mankind. And so though at one period denounced by the Puritans as superstitious, and to the present day disregarded by Calvinistic Protestants, as unwarranted by Scripture, there are few who will seriously dispute the propriety of observing the anniversary of Christ’s birth by a religious service. …

Towards the close of the second century, we find a notice of the observance of Christmas in the reign of the Emperor Commodus; and about a hundred years afterwards, in the time of Dioclesiaun an atrocious act of cruelty is recorded of the last named emperor, who caused a church in Nicomedia, where the Christians were celebrating the Nativity, to be set on fire, and by barring every means of egress from the building, made all the worshippers perish in the flames. Since the, end of the fourth century at least, the 25th of December has been uniformly observed as the anniversary of the Nativity by all the nations of Christendom.

Thus far for ancient usage, but it will be readily comprehended that insurmountable difficulties yet exist with respect to the real date of the momentous event under notice. Sir Isaac Newton, indeed, remarks in his Commentary on the Prophecies of Daniel, that the feast of the Nativity, and most of the other ecclesiastical anniversaries, were originally fixed at cardinal points of the year, without any reference to the dates of the incidents which they commemorated, dates which, by the lapse of time, had become impossible to be ascertained. Thus the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was placed on the 25th of March, or about the time of the vernal equinox; the feast of St. Michael on the 29th of September, or near the autumnal equinox; and the birth of Christ and other festivals at the time of the winter-solstice. Many of the apostles’ days –such as St. Paul, St. Matthias, and others– were determined by the days when the sun entered the respective signs of the ecliptic, and the pagan festivals had also a considerable share in the adjustment of the Christian year.

To this last we shall shortly have occasion to advert more particularly, but at present we shall content ourselves by remarking that the views of the great astronomer just indicated, present at least a specious explanation of the original construction of the ecclesiastical calendar. As regards the observance of Easter indeed, and its accessory celebrations, there is good ground for maintaining that they mark tolerably accurately the anniversaries of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, seeing that we know that the events themselves took place at the period of the Jewish Passover. But no such precision of date can be adduced as regards Christmas, respecting which the generally received view now is, that it does not correspond with the actual date of the nativity of our Saviour. One objection, in particular, has been made, that the incident recorded in Scripture, of shepherds keeping watch by night on the plains of Bethlehem, could not have taken place in the month of December, a period generally of great inclemency in the region of Judea.

Though Christian nations have thus, from an early period in the history of the church, celebrated Christmas about the period of the winter-solstice or the shortest day, it is well known that many, and, indeed, the greater number of the popular festive observances by which it is characterized, are referable to a much more ancient origin. Amid all the pagan nations of antiquity, there seems to have been a universal tendency to worship the sun as the giver of life and light, and the visible manifestation of the Deity. Various as were the names bestowed by different peoples on this object of their worship, he was still the same divinity. Thus, at Rome, he appears to have been worshipped under one of the characters attributed to Saturn, the father of the gods; among the Scandinavian nations he was known under the epithet of Odin or Woden, the father of Thor, who seems after-wards to have shared with his parent the adoration bestowed on the latter, as the divinity of which the ‘sun was the visible manifestation; whilst with the ancient Persians, the appellation for the god of lights was Mithras, apparently the same as the Irish Mithr, and with the Phoenicians or Carthaginians it was Baal or Bel, an epithet familiar to all students of the Bible.

Concurring thus as regards the object of worship, there was a no less remarkable uniformity in the period of the year at which these different nations celebrated a grand festival in his honour. The time chosen appears to have been universally the season of the New Year, or, rather, the winter-solstice, from which the new year was frequently reckoned. This unanimity in the celebration of the festival in question, is to be ascribed to the general feeling of joy which all of us experience when the gradual shortening of the day reaches its utmost limit on the 21st of December, and the sun, recommencing his upward course, announces that mid-winter is past, and spring and summer are approaching. On similar grounds, and with similar demonstrations, the ancient pagan nations observed a festival at mid-summer, or the summer-solstice, when the sun arrives at the culminating point of his ascent on the 21st of June, or longest day.

By the Romans, this anniversary was celebrated under the title of Saturnalia, or the festival of Saturn, and was marked by the prevalence of a universal license and merry-making. The slaves were permitted to enjoy for a time a thorough freedom in speech and behavior, and it is even said that their masters waited on them as servants. Every one feasted and rejoiced, work and business were for a season entirely suspended, the houses were decked with laurels and evergreens, presents were made by parents and friends, and all sorts of games and amusements were indulged. in by the citizens. In the bleak north, the same rejoicings had place, but in a ruder and more barbarous form. Fires were extensively kindled, both in and out of doors, blocks of wood blazed in honour of Odin and Thor, the sacred mistletoe was gathered by the Druids, and sacrifices, both of men and cattle, were made to the savage divinities. Fires are said, also, to have been kindled at this period of the year by the ancient Persians, between whom and the Druids of Western Europe a relationship is supposed to have existed.

In the early ages of Christianity, its ministers frequently experienced the utmost difficulty in inducing the converts to refrain from indulging in the popular amusements which were so largely participated in by their pagan countrymen. Among others, the revelry and license which characterized the Saturnalia called for special animadversion. But at last, convinced partly of the inefficacy of such denunciations, and partly influenced by the idea that the spread of Christianity might thereby be advanced, the church endeavored to amalgamate, as it were, the old and new religious, and sought, by transferring the heathen ceremonies to the solemnities of the Christian festivals, to make them subservient to the cause of religion and piety. A compromise was thus effected between clergy and laity, though it must be admitted that it proved anything but a harmonious one, as we find a constant, though ineffectual, proscription by the ecclesiastical authorities of the favorite amusements of the people, including among others the sports and revelries at Christmas.

Ingrafted thus on the Romani Saturnalia, the Christmas festivities received in Britain further changes and modifications, by having superadded to them, first, the Druidical rites and superstitions, and then, after the arrival of the Saxons, the various ceremonies practiced by the ancient Germans and Scandinavians. The result has been the strange medley of Christian and pagan rites which contribute to make up the festivities of the modern Christmas. Of these, the burning of the Yule log, and the superstitions connected with the mistletoe have already been described under Christmas Eve, and further accounts are given under separate heads, both under the 24th and 25th of December.

The name given by the ancient Goths and. Saxons to the festival of the winter-solstice was Jul or Yule, the latter term forming, to the present day, the designation in the Scottish dialect of Christmas, and preserved also in the phrase of the ‘Yule log.’ Perhaps the etymology of no term has excited greater discussion among antiquaries. Some maintain it to be derived from the Greek, συλσι, or, ισυλσς, the name of a hymn in honor of Ceres; others say it comes from the Latin jubilum, signifying a time of rejoicing, or from its being a festival in honour of Julius Caesar; whilst some also explain its meaning as synonymous with ol or oel, which in the ancient Gothic language denotes a feast, and also the favorite liquor used on such occasion, whence our word ale. But a much more probable derivation of the term in question is from the Gothic giul or hiul, the origin of the modem word wheel, and bearing the same signification. According to this very probable explanation, the Yule festival received its name from its being the turning-point of the year, or the period at which the fiery orb of day made a revolution in his annual circuit, and entered on his northern journey. A confirmation of this view is afforded by the circumstance that in the old clog almanacs, a wheel is the device employed for marking the season of Yule-tide.

Throughout the middle ages, and down to the period of the Reformation, the festival of Christmas, ingrafted on the pagan rites of Yule, continued throughout Christendom to be universally celebrated with every mark of rejoicing. On the adoption of a new system of faith by most of the northern nations of Europe in the sixteenth century, the Lutheran and Anglican churches retained the celebration of Christmas and other festivals, which Calvinists rejected absolutely, denouncing the observance of all such days, except Sunday, as superstitious and unscriptural. In reference to the superstition anciently prevalent in Scotland against spinning on Christmas or Yule day, and the determination of the Calvinistic clergy to put down all such notions, the following amusing passage is quoted by Dr. Jamieson from Jhone Hamilton’s Facile Tractise:

    ‘The ministers of Scotland — in contempt of the vther halie dayes obseruit be England — cause their wyfis and seruants spin in oppin sicht of the people upon Yeul day; and their affectionnate auditeurs constraines their tennants to yok thair pleuchs on Yeul day in contempt of Christ’s Natiuitie, whilk our Lord has not left vnpunisit: for thair oxin ran wod [mad], and brak their nekis, and leamit [lamed] sum pleugh men, as is notoriously knawin in sindrie partes of Scotland.’

In consequence of the Presbyterian form of church-government, as constituted by John Knox and his coadjutors on the model of the ecclesiastical polity of Calvin, having taken such firm root in Scotland, the festival of Christmas, with other commemorative celebrations retained from the Romish calendar by the Anglicans and Lutherans, is comparatively unknown in that country, at least in the Lowlands. The tendency to mirth and jollity at the close of the year, which seems almost inherent in human nature, has, in North Britain, been, for the most part, transferred from Christmas and Christmas Eve to New-year’s Day and the preceding evening, known by the appellation of Hogmenay. …

The geniality and joyousness of the Christmas season in England, has long been a national characteristic. The following poem or carol, by George Wither, who belongs to the first-half of the seventeenth century, describes with hilarious animation the mode of keeping Christmas in the poet’s day:

    ‘So now is come our joyful feast;
    Let every man be jolly;
    Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
    And every post with holly.
    Though some churls at our mirth repine,
    Round your foreheads garlands twine;
    Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
    And let us all be merry.

    Now all our neighbours’ chimneys smoke,
    And Christmas blocks are burning;
    Their ovens they with baked meat choke,
    And all their spits are turning.
    Without the door let sorrow lye;
    And if for cold it hap to die,
    We’ll bury’t in a Christmas-pie,
    And evermore be merry.

    Now every lad is wond’rous trim,
    And no man minds his labour;
    Our lasses have provided them
    A bagpipe and a tabor;
    Young men and maids, and girls and boys,
    Give life to one another’s joys;
    And you anon shall by their noise
    Perceive that they are merry.

    Rank misers now do sparing shun;
    Their hall of music soundeth;
    And dogs thence with whole shoulders run,
    So all things then aboundeth.
    The country-folks, themselves advance,
    With crowdy-muttons out of France;
    And Jack shall pipe and Jyll shall dance,
    And all the town be merry.

    Ned Squash hath fetcht his bands from pawn,
    And all his best apparel
    Brisk Nell hath bought a ruff of lawn
    With dropping of the barrel.
    And those that hardly all the year
    Had bread to eat, or rags to wear,
    Will have both clothes and dainty fare,
    And all the day be merry.

    Now poor men to the justices
    With capons make their errants;
    And if they hap to fail of these,
    They plague them with their warrants:
    But now they feed them with good cheer,
    And what they want, they take in beer,
    For Christmas comes but once a year,
    And then they shall be merry.

    Good farmers in the country nurse
    The poor, that else were undone;
    Some landlords spend their money worse,
    On lust and pride at London.
    There the roysters they do play,
    Drab and dice their lands away,
    Which may be ours another day,
    And therefore let’s be merry.

    The client now his suit forbears;
    The prisoner’s heart is eased;
    The debtor drinks away his cares,
    And for the time is pleased.
    Though others’ purses be more fat,
    Why should we pine or grieve at that?
    Hang sorrow! care will kill a cat,
    And therefore let’s be merry.

    Hark! now the wags abroad do call,
    Each other forth to rambling;
    non you’ll see them in the hall,
    For nuts and apples scrambling.
    Hark! how the roofs with laughter sound,
    Anon they’ll think the house goes round,
    For they the cellar’s depth have found,
    And there they will be merry.

    The wenches with their wassel-bowls
    About the streets are singing;
    The boys are come to catch the owls,
    The wild mare in it bringing,
    our kitchen-boy hath broke his box,
    And to the dealing of the ox,
    Our honest neighbors come by flocks,
    And here they will be merry.

    Now kings and queens poor sheepcotes have,
    And mate with every body;
    The honest now may play the knave,
    And wise men play the noddy.
    Some youths will now a mumming go,
    Some others play at Rowland-ho,
    And twenty other game boys mo,
    Because they will be merry.

    Then, wherefore in these merry daies,
    Should we, I pray, be duller?
    No, let us sing some roundelayes,
    To make our mirth the fuller.
    And, while thus inspired we sing,
    Let all the streets with echoes ring;
    Woods and hills and every thing,
    Bear witness we are merry.’

At present, Christmas-day, if somewhat shorn of its ancient glories, and unmarked by that boisterous jollity and exuberance of animal spirits which distinguished it in the time of our ancestors, is, nevertheless, still the holiday in which of all others throughout the year, all classes of English society most generally participate. Partaking of a religious character, the forenoon of the day is usually passed in church, and in the evening the re-united members of the family assemble round the joyous Christmas-board. Separated as many of these are during the rest of the year, they all make an effort to meet together round the Christmas-hearth. The hallowed feelings of domestic love and attachment, the pleasing remembrance of the past, and the joyous anticipation of the future, all cluster round these family-gatherings, and in the sacred associations with which they are intertwined, and the active deeds of kindness and benevolence which they tend to call forth, a realization may almost be found of the angelic message to the shepherds of Bethlehem—’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.’

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