A good crowd of members gathered to enjoy the last meeting of 2016 with a bring and share buffet and several activities as well as a seasonally inspired talk by Keith Aplin. There was a competition for decorated cup-cakes and a couple of fun quizzes as well as individuals sharing their own Christmas traditions. Keith Aplin is a Lay Reader at St Peter’s Church in Wisbech and he is a driving force behind the collection of food for the Trussel Trust Food Bank. Keith told us about the old and new traditions that have combined to give the UK and North America the sort of Christmas we now celebrate. He linked the ancient traditions of marking the shortest day in mid-winter with festivals of light and feasting to the relatively modern Christian festival marking the birth of Christ. The Romans had a mid-winter festival of feasting linked to the dying of the year and increasing day length known as Saturnalia. Norse traditions tell of a wild hunt that is seen in the sky at the end of the mid-winter festivals; the hunt involves Odin or Woden being hauled through the sky in a sleigh pulled by an eight legged beast and accompanied by a raven – seeing or hearing the wild hunt was always an omen of death or disaster.
Elements of all these traditions are reflected in the ways in which we now celebrate Christmas: we light our houses (and towns) with coloured lights, we bring evergreens into the house and we eat, drink and be merry! We have Father Christmas who brings gifts and he is traditionally depicted as travelling in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (Rudolph is a twentieth century addition). European countries celebrate the feast of Santa Claus on 5th December when Saint Nicholas or Sinta Claas delivers small gifts to children who have been good; he is accompanied by Black Peter who punishes naughty children.
In Britain Christmas was suppressed during the Commonwealth from 1649 -1660 but after the restoration Old Father Christmas was revived as a symbol of the “good old days” and he was responsible for delivering presents to children who had been good. He was dressed in green and in some ways harked back to old notions of the Green Man who is often incorporated in church buildings (Christians were very good at incorporating local and native traditions.) The red Father Christmas we are now so familiar with was unknown until Coca Cola gave him a red coat to better reflect their corporate identity!
The nativity story is only recorded in two of the gospels and each of these is told from a differing point of view; one is the story of Mary and one the story of Joseph. Keith sang two traditional carols (unaccompanied) to illustrate these two traditions. The nativity story as we understand it owes many of its traditions to St Francis of Assisi who wanted to emphasise the simplicity and poverty of Jesus’ background in contrast to the opulence of the church.
Much of what we celebrate at Christmas also goes back to Charles Dickens and “The Christmas Carol” and the poem “The night before Christmas” by Clement Clark Moore published in 1822.
Keith gave us lots to think about in the way we celebrate Christmas and the way different traditions have developed.
[Margaret Lake ]
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