The Christmas Patrimony, Part II

Part I of The Christmas Patrimony can be found here.

One which already is so employed is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Seemingly an age-old custom, it really started in 1880 at Truro Cathedral with Bishop Edward White Benson (father of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson and later Archbishop of Canterbury) and precentor Somerset Walpole. Their version was later adapted for a service on Christmas Eve, 1918, by Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge. A chaplain during World War I, he had been looking to design a service that would offer hope to veterans and others affected by that horrible conflict. The result was complete success, with the practise spreading throughout the world and across denominational lines. The Lessons and Carols were first offered in the United States at Massachusetts’ Groton School in 1928; they made their premiere appearance at a parish church at St. Thomas’, Hanover, New Hampshire. To-day there is even an official version issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and their beautiful strains may be heard in many Ordinariate communities in North America, Great Britain, and Australia.

But another, similar custom – Epiphany Carol Services – has also become popular in Anglicanism; the principal church of the Ordinariate in Britain, London’s Assumption and St. Gregory, Warwick Street, annually observes this service lavishly. The venerable church – renowned for its Jacobite connexions – is lit only by candles, and the service is presided over by Msgr. Keith Newton, the Ordinary.  In addition to relevant scriptural passages, readings from Bl. John Henry Newman, T. S. Eliot and G. K. Chesterton are also offered. The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park lends its excellent schola cantorum for the musical accompaniment, and the whole is rounded off with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Ordinariate communities looking to bolster observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas might well look into doing something similar.

But there are more arrows in the Patrimony’s quiver. The above-mentioned Cardinal Vaughan schola brings to mind that group’s occasional collaboration with His Majesty’s Sackbutts and Cornetts, an ensemble dedicated to music of the Renaissance. Now, one keynote of many Episcopalian parishes in large cities, college towns, and other places with early music enthusiasts is their collaboration therewith in seasonal services. Nowhere is this more evident than at revived Mummer’s plays – again, usually performed after Christmas, as a way of resurrecting the festive nature of the Twelve Days and beyond. In Medieval England, as on the Continent, these performances were jovial affairs featuring certain stock characters: St. George and the Dragon, the doctor, and latterly Father Christmas. After the Reformation they declined, although holding on here and there (and contributing to the rise of that quintessential English Christmas entertainment, the Pantomime or “Panto”); in the New World they maintained their sway in such widely disparate places as Newfoundland, the Appalcachians, and Philadelphia – where they eventually morphed into the Mardi-Gras like annual Mummers’ Parade, whose New Year’s Day date is the one major reminder of their connexion with Christmas.

But the 19th century revival touched upon earlier breathed new life into mummery as well. The Folklore Society published old Mummers’ Play scripts and composed new ones – and their performances across the country are once again features of Yuletide life. Amongst others, in the mid-20th century this revival inspired Episcopalian layman John Langstaff (who had considered a clerical career, but opted for music instead), to fuse folk music, dance, and mumming into the Christmas Revels, which started in Boston and spread to cities across the country. In 1973, he authored a version of the Mummers’ Play of St. George and the Dragon. This in turn has become a post-Christmas day custom of a number of Episcopal parishes, generally in concert with local early music groups. Ordinariate communities might essay this sort of thing as either or both a parish entertainment or fundraiser. In either case, it is a great opportunity to acquaint both the musicians and the public at large with the Ordinariate – and may be done as simply or lavishly as particular circumstances allow.

Another medieval Christmas tradition was Wassailing. This might be done either by visiting in turn various houses in the parish, singing a Wassail carol, and after a suitable toast partaking of the same, or else visiting each of the apple trees in the local orchard, singing the song and pouring some of the contents of the Wassail bowl on them, and then the participants draining the rest. In either case, a large number of Episcopal parishes have revived the tradition – some coupling it with their Advent Carol service as a sort of after-party, others making it the centrepiece of a large festive parish post-Christmas dinner, or else a Christmas or Epiphany pageant. Either way, the ceremony to-day consists of mixing any one of several Wassail recipes or alternatives such as Lamb’s Wool in an ornate Wassail bowl whilst appropriate songs are sung. The contents are then ladled out for the participants, and the “Was-hael, drinc-hael” toast drunk. Ordinariate communities could very readily adopt this custom – again, either as a means of drawing the parish together, a fund-raiser, or both. In the latter two cases, of course, it offers a top-notch chance to evangelise through joy!

Another  tradition gaining in popularity to-day across denominational boundaries (having hopped from Episcopal to Lutheran, Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and even Catholic parishes), and which – in its more complex expressions – can encompass mumming, wassailing, and much else besides, is the Boar’s Head festival, which finds its roots in Medieval feasts of the same name. Known to most modern folk primarily through the accompanying Boar’s Head Carol, this was celebrated in many of the same great institutions that went in for caroling – and upon which the secession from the Church had the same effect. Despite its symbolism (the ugly and dangerous wild boar was seen as a symbol of the devil, and its Christmas-time dispatching was seen as an image of Christ’s victory via the Incarnation) it was despised by the Puritans. By the mid-19th century, the feast was celebrated in only two major locations: Queens’s College, Oxford, and one of London’s famed livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Butchers, who process with the hapless porcine’s head through the streets of the City to Mansion House, where it is presented to the Lord Mayor.

Nadir was followed by revival, however; but while it would reappear here and there in Britain and the Commonwealth, it was in the United States that it would come into its own. In his Sketchbook (the same volume in which he introduced Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman to the world), Washington Irving had chronicled the Christmas celebrations at Bracebridge Hall (in reality, Aston Hall near Birmingham), cementing forever in the minds of educated Americans the notion of an “Olde Englisshe” Christmas. Therein he recorded the Boar’s Head feast as celebrated by Squire Abraham Bracebridge (his real name), an alumnus of Queen’s College, and wrote down the words of the accompanying Carol. One of those inspired by Irving’s writings was an upstate New York philanthropist, politician, gentleman farmer and youthful convert to the Episcopal Church named George Mortimer Tibbits. As a mark of his success, he pulled down the wooden colonial house in Hoosick, New York bequeathed him by his father, and replaced it with a grand stone mansion he proudly named Tibbits Hall. There, for his family, servants, and tenants, he did his best to relive the Christmas described by Irving with Boar’s Head, Yule Log, and all. By his death in 1878, he had also endowed an Episcopal Church in Hoosick, All Saints, which his son and grandson would successively serve as rectors of.  The latter, Fr. Edward Dudley Tibbits, was a convinced Anglo-Catholic and an early member of the American branch of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. He in turn founded the Hoosac School in 1889 as an Episcopal boarding school. Three years later, inspired by his boyhood memories of his grandfather’s celebrations at Tibbits Hall, he introduced what he called the “Boar’s Head and Yule Log Pageant.” It has been performed annually at the school ever since, and features the two items described brought in procession into the dining hall, accompanied by the carol and escorted by students dressed as beefeaters. Afterwards the gala Christmas dinner is served.

In 1936, Fr. Nelson M. Burroughs, who as a curate assigned to Troy, New York had assisted with the Hoosac ceremony, became rector of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, having secured permission from Hoosac to use their musical and theatrical arrangements, he introduced a much more elaborate version of the event – the Boar’s Head festival – in the cathedral itself, rather than in a hall. Having been promoted to Bishop of Ohio in 1960, Burroughs brought the ceremony to Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland; in both places it continues to this day. Since then, it has exploded, with scores of churches of the above-named denominations as well as various universities and academies – and at least one hotel – putting it on. It can range from a relatively simple affair, as at its school of origin, to elaborate pageants with hundred of performers requiring months – and sometimes, initially, years – to prepare. Given that a number of Catholic churches are already offering it, Ordinariate communities might well take a look at the possibility of doing so. In the right hands, it too could be a powerful means of evangelisation – both for non-parishioner participants and the audiences. Reinforcing the Twelve Days, these presentations are generally offered after Christmas.

Far less effort is required for another English Christmas custom – the cracker. Having nothing to do with saltines or oyster crackers, these cardboard tubes wrapped in paper are filled with a number of small items: a little toy, a piece of paper with a joke on it, and the like. There will also be a folded up paper hat in the shape of a crown. When one end is pulled, there is a sharp noise – a “crack,” hence the name. Typically, a group of people will hold them in a circle, all pulling both ends of the crackers each hand is grasping in unison. Typically done before Christmas or Epiphany dinner, this allows each of the party to wear their paper hat through the meal. Extremely popular in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, they are widely available in the United States through specialty shops and mail order. Christmas crackers are usually used by families at home, but could easily be adapted by smaller Ordinariate communities.

A last word must be offered about greenery, one of the key elements in Britain’s Christmas reputation in America. As mentioned earlier, in keeping with the spirit of Advent such decorating at home might well be put off until Christmas Eve – or a day or two before if convenience really requires it. If so delayed, putting up the evergreen boughs, holly, mistletoe, and tree can be – as with placing the Christ Child in the manger with some ceremony after Midnight Mass, and the Three Kings at the Epiphany. Those Ordinariate communities with churches of their own may find it more convenient put up such decorations after the last regular Mass or Evensong of the last Sunday in Advent –or later. A number of Episcopal churches have turned this annual “Hanging of the Greens” into a service of sorts, and this is something that might be considered among us. But after the Epiphany, the Christmas Tree – even bought on Christmas eve – becomes a fire hazard, and must go. Nevertheless, the nativity scene and some of the greens, should be kept – in the home at least – until Candlemas Eve, the true end of the Christmas season as far as our ancestors were concerned. Robert Herrick, that stalwart of the literary side of the Patrimony, indicated the whys and wherefores of removing them quite clearly in his two poems, “Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve” and “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve.” But if a parish should opt for some sort of “Hanging of the Greens,” they might well consider leaving a few up for Candlemas Eve, and taking them down in the same manner.

Candlemas ends Christmas, and it is good to remember that the candles blessed on that night were treasured up by our ancestors as sacramentals; lit during times of dangers and fear, and whenever someone was receiving the Sacrament if the Sick at home. The liturgy of the Candlemass itself we may leave to the clergy; but if they should opt for a full candle-light procession out of doors, it is an unforgettable experience. This writer himself has witnessed a few of these, and can testify how powerfully watching a line of parishioners, singing Christmas carols for the last time in the liturgical year and holding their candles in the cold winter brings home the light shining in darkness, and the darkness not comprehending it. That light and that incomprehension are at once our joy and our pain; all the customs of Christmas – both of the Anglican Patrimony and all the Catholic World – are meant to deepen the one in us, and strengthen us against the other. With that, I wish my readers a very Happy and Merry Christmas!

About Charles A. Coulombe

I am a Catholic Historical speaker and author.
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One Response to The Christmas Patrimony, Part II

  1. Thanks for this wonderful two-part post, Charles! Most interesting. I hope we can restore and revive many beautiful traditions from our patrimony


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