I was a proud cast member of The Philadelphia Revels from 1997 until our local company disbanded a few years ago. Each year in December, Revels groups all over the U.S. present wonderful shows filled with music, dance, poetry, and plays within the play, celebrating the solstice, year-end, and Yuletide traditions of different cultures and historical eras. Our local productions ranged from ancient Celtic to Medieval to Middle Eastern to Victorian, but my favorite was our Christmas in Colonial Philadelphia show. I helped to research and write bits of that script, and what I learned led me to set my 3rd novel, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, in post-Revolutionary War Williamsburg during the Christmas season.
This month (and up through Twelfth Night) here on my blog, I figured I'd talk about some of the older, lesser-known Yuletide customs. Wouldn't hurt to remind us all that the season existed, and was just as magical, before electric lights and the Chipmunks. And even, to a small extent, before Christianity.
In the historical half of POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, readers will note that most of the Yuletide trappings are secular, revolving around food, drinking, superstitions, and giving money to those below you in station. By the latter, I mean that servants and workers were given coins by their employers and patrons. Working and poorer classes went door-to-door, wassailing and asking for money. Rich folk threw elaborate dinner parties. No one else much bothered with the season.
Before the 19th century, Christmas was a minor religious holiday. Many Christian sects didn't celebrate it at all, partly because the actual day wasn't specified in the Bible, and also, as the Puritans put it, the season promoted drinking and debauchery. (The Puritans, in fact, outlawed Christmas.) Many stores and markets were open on the 25th. At first, only Catholics held services. Protestant churches joined in after many of their congregants began attending the Catholic masses to hear the special music of the day.
One other thing is the difference in the way we define SEASON. Most Americans now think of Thanksgiving through December 25th as the Christmas season, but that's a recent development. Traditionally, the Yuletide season is December 25th through January 6th (Epiphany--the day the Magi visited Christ). Many cultures still celebrate Christmas on Epiphany, which came to be called "Old Christmas." This is also the 12th day of the Christmas season (you know, 12 drummers drumming?) and both its eve and the night of the 6th have been called Twelfth Night. I'll cover Twelfth Night customs in another blog.
Time for an eggnog break.