The Twelve Days of Christmas

Our December meeting always has a festive theme and this year we welcomed back Peter Medhurst to explore the wealth of Christmas Music, traditions and curious legends connected with the Twelve Days of Christmas.

He began by explaining that many of our Christmas carols are games. Originally the carol would have been a dance involving singing and playing. The first person made up a line and then, after dancing to a refrain, a second person added a line. This rotation continued with the winner of the game being the last person able to compose a line. The Twelve Days begin on the day after Christmas and finish with the visit of the Magi on 6thJanuary. The Victorians started the current trend for things to crescendo from late November!

Long before Christianity, pagan tribes, very conscious of the turn of the year, had festivals at this time. Saturnalia, the Roman festival, marked the rebirth of the sun and was marked by feasting and giving gifts. By coincidence, this was in December and so connects to the birth of Christ. Kalends marked the start of the Roman New Year when houses were decorated, lights were everywhere and presents were given. There were’ carousels and well-laden tables’ and an impulse to spend seizes everyone’. The Norse word, ‘Yule’ means feasting and this ancient Viking festival celebrated the sun’s birth.

Traditionally the Yule log in the stable was burning to keep the baby Jesus warm. Christmas then incorporated many of these pagan winter traditions. The old Roman festival celebrating the unconquered sun becomes the unconquered Son. ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ carol succinctly links the nativity of Christ to His Passion. The holly symbolizes Mary and evergreen faith while the thorns are the pain of giving birth as well as the crown of thorns. It was tradition to give presents on the first day of Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, to those who served us. On this Boxing Day alms were taken to the poor. Little presents were distributed in little boxes. Churches had alms boxes for distributing to the poor. Formerly Christmas presents were called Christmas boxes.  As well as the martyred St Stephen, there was a C9th Scandinavian St Stephen whose links to horsemen helps explain the Boxing Day Hunt. ‘Hunting the Wren’ can be traced back to the Druids.

The second day has links to St John and the blessed wine protecting from lightning. Wassail was Old English for ‘be in good health’. The wassail bowl of spiced hot cider fortified with port and sherry was passed around and showed trust in your companions. This lingers on with the warmth in celebrating over our mulled wine. The third day Holy Innnocents Day is a dark moment in the nativity story and is considered unlucky. Edward 1V had his coronation moved from the 28th, the feast day of St Nicholas, patron saint of children. The 29th, St Thomas’s day recalls the murder of Thomas Beckett while on the 6thJanuary, Epiphany, Twelfth Cake has two extra ingredients added. Whoever got the dried bean was elected king for that day while the Queen had got the dried pea. The ‘Twelve Days’ carol was the closing carol of the season. Adding up the combination of all the presents over the 12 days comes to 364 and so a gift for each day of the year except Christmas Day and the one gift we cannot give, Christ.

Our first meeting of 2019 is a week later than usual, on Thursday January 10, at 2pm in Grayshott Village Hall. Tim Redmond will be taking us on a virtual tour of Big Ben. For more information please contact Caroline on 01428714276