Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hanging of the Greens

The greens on my front step
Today being the first Sunday of Advent, churches everywhere are festooned in the rich evergreens and glittering ornamentation that have come to symbolize the entire season for so many of us. I remember our church's hanging of the greens festivities, when congregants cheerfully gathered to decorate the fragrant trees that had been brought into the sanctuary, and hang garlands about the halls, then join in a convivial meal that we had all contributed to.

It felt like the true beginning of the Christmas season, and it didn't bother us a bit that our Puritan forebears would have been appalled at such an ostentatious display that incorporated pre-Christian —pagan!— customs.

Modern Christians seem to have gotten over that, though, and our midwinter observances are much more cheerful for their having done so. Although it can be a bit ironic when the occasional disgruntled individual complains about all the other holidays and customs that crowd into December, insisting that there is only one "reason for the season." Indeed there is, but it's a purely scientific one: the tilting of the earth's axis. The festivals of many religions are tied to this one dispassionate fact.

All of this leads me to share a rather interesting discovery that I made recently, when researching historical customs around Christmas for a planned self-published chapbook on the 12 Days of Christmas (which, unfortunately, has been set back again, so it won't be done for this Christmas season).

In Medieval times in England right up until the Puritans tried their best to do away with Christmas altogether in early America, advent was not a time for decorating our homes and churches or shopping or parties. It was observed in a manner more comparable to Lent, with dietary restrictions and general austerity. It was a period of spiritual preparation for Christmas, rather than one of material preparation for the holiday, writes Ronald Hutton in The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994)

In fact, going even further, author and historian David Cressy writes in Bonfires & Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England that advent was one of those periods, along with Lent (and one other season known as Rogations that I know too little about), when weddings were forbidden.

This period of fasting — all rich foods were avoided, including eggs, meat, dairy and, of course, sweets — fell between the end of the various harvest feasts, which began with Lammas ("Loaf Mass") on August 1 and continued through Martinmas (St. Martin's Day) on or around November 11, and the beginning of Christmastide.

Churches and homes were decorated on Christmas Eve, and after church services on Christmas Day, the feasting and festivities of the 12 Days of Christmas began and lasted through Epiphany, January 6 (which is actually 13 days, for which I have yet to find a truly satisfactory explanation).

Maybe if we observed Advent in a similar manner nowadays, we would curb some of that holiday weight gain!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the history behind the twelve days of Christmas. This is why the Catholic church decorates on Christmas eve, and leaves the decorations up until the's always interesting how traditions morph as the years go by. Enjoying your blog...thanks!


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