Celebrating Christmas

PUBLISHED: 09:31 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Waterley Bottom Mummers, performing the Dursley Play in 1972: the character of Niddy Noddy is unique to this group

Waterley Bottom Mummers, performing the Dursley Play in 1972: the character of Niddy Noddy is unique to this group

Twelfth Night is steeped in superstition and pagan ritual. June Lewis shares with us a little of the myth and magic associated with the time of year.

Every year we hear the same mumblings about Christmas coming earlier and earlier - what is really meant is that the commercial drive to make shops produce their Christmas displays in early Autumn has become very noticeable. But for all that, even if the build up to the great day appears before Advent proper, our celebrations of the festive season are much shorter than those of our forebears. In Elizabethan times it was reckoned to spend some three months feasting and making merry - starting at All Hallowstide on November 1 through to Candlemas on February 2. The appointment of a Lord of Misrule to organise the festive frolics and chaotic capers dates back to the Middle Ages; a custom rooted in the Roman celebrations at Saturnalia when masters and servants swapped roles, with identities hidden behind elaborate masks. The medieval masques, then mummers' plays and pantomime have come down to our present day through these early traditions and carry the yuletide season far beyond the designated Bank Holiday days.

The decision as to which day should be decreed as Christmas Day itself has a much more complicated history. The Roman festival of honouring their god Saturn appears to have been held somewhere between December17 and 23. As there is no exact date of the Nativity specified in the Scriptures there has been a degree of compromise between assumed, calculated and convenient dates to set the celebration of it in the Christian calendar. History uses the momentous event as a date barometer: BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini - In the year of the Lord). It was a Scythian monk, Dionysius, who is credited with having the job of working out the years in AD terms. Later chronologists discovered that he was something like six years out in his reckoning of the first Christmas.

Back to the Romans again, it was Julius Caesar on the advice of his astronomers who instituted a calendar calculated from the movement of the sun; the previous reckonings based on the phases of the moon had turned out wildly inaccurate. The Julian calendar, as it became known, was in use until the sixteenth century when Tudor mathematicians and astronomers got together and discovered the Julian method had over-estimated the length of the year by eleven minutes and fifteen seconds - an accrued total of ten days. Pope Gregory XIII simply deleted them from the year 1582 and Catholic Europe adopted the new Gregorian calendar. Not so Protestant England, and for the next 170 years we were eleven days in front of the Continent until a Calendar Act was passed bringing us, literally, up to date with our European neighbours. Pinching eleven days out of September in 1752 caused riots in some places where people blamed the government of the day for some devious trick to shorten their lives!

To complicate matters further, England had reckoned March 25 as the start of the New Year rather than January 1; Christmas was celebrated (according to the new Gregorian dating) on January 6 and references can still be found to Old Christmas Day - which we generally know as Twelfth Night! In the Christian calendar this is Epiphany, when the three kings from the Orient brought gifts to the Christ Child.

Twelfth Night is steeped in superstition and pagan ritual and good old-fashioned country customs. To avoid any ill luck in the coming year Christmas decorations must be cleared away, particularly the greenery - tree, holly, ivy, and mistletoe - although the seventeenth century poet, Herrick, maintained that Candlemas was the time to be 'Down with the Rosemary and Bayes, Down with the Mistletoe'. From his pen we have gleaned many festive traditions - recording the fun and frolics that the Puritans had abolished in an Act of 1652 and lasted for eight sober years. The return of Christmas proper with the restoration of the monarchy was cause for celebratory verse: Then bring up the brave minc'd pies, Roast Beef and brave Plum-porridge, Our

loyal hearts to chear, Then prithee make no more ado, But bring up Christmas beer.'

Emma Dent chronicled the fun they had at Sudeley Castle at Twelfth Night in Victorian times, and the custom of the cake with its bean and pea hidden inside which gave the finder the honour of becoming King and Queen of the revels for that occasion - just as Robert Herrick had written of two centuries before.

Christmastide, irrespective of arbitrary date lines, is all about custom - the age-old carols and planning, preparing and cooking the familiar festive fare, packing presents, wading through lists of cards to be written, visiting old friends, the frenetic frenzy of getting everything done in time. Sometimes it seems no bad idea to spread the festive season out to almost match that of times gone by.

Capturing the wonders of Christmas past was a delightful task when I researched for my book on this special time in the Cotswolds. The resulting anthology of extracts from diaries and novels, church magazines and local newspapers, old recipe books and workhouse journals intermingles with the reminiscences of contemporary local folk - all made more magical by memory. Christmas at Stroud Maternity Hospital has left many memories: nurses carol-singing by candlelight, cribs decorated for the Christmas baby, stockings filled with hand-made gifts, beds festooned with paper chains; recalling the days of Matron Marion Light, who delayed her retirement so that she could spend one more Christmas at the hospital she so loved, captures the special time when Laurie Lee (whose daughter was born there) entertained the mothers by playing his guitar.

Tradition is central to Christmas for Pam Ayres and family and she conjures up the all too familiar scene of bringing down shoe boxes overflowing with the years old tinsel and baubles and bits to decorate the tree - always left to the boys. The result she said is that when all the lights are off 'the tree is transformed from an arboreal scrap heap to a thing of shining wonder'. Monastic life at Prinknash Abbey also revolves round tradition: decorating the house with holly (they didn't mention mistletoe!), plum pudding - which the Brothers make themselves, also, as custom decrees, on the first Sunday in Advent 'Stir Up Sunday' inspired from the Collect Excita, Quaerimus Domine.

Ellie Jarvis relayed the joy of receiving her 'best ever Christmas present - a lovely talking doll called Rosebud'. Fascinated by her mother's story about her Rosebud doll, Ellie could not really believe it could have been real: 'Mummy was never ever little like me ... she must be making it up!' (Tut, tut, as though our Katie - our chief writer for Cotswold Life would ever do such a thing!!!) Katie's son, Miles, put his recollections in writing: a letter to Santa warns him that 'I've had an experience of you before'.

Christmastide is the ideal time for telling tales, and the art of the storyteller is the stuff of legend itself. Keeping the ancient tradition alive, Chloe, a Midnight Storyteller, weaves the magic of the season with folktales where 'In the world of story, Christmas snow lies deep and crisp and even'.

'The best of all places for a magical Christmas' is poetically penned by Elizabeth Speller when the Round House at Inglesham became 'a world in itself: a white, icy world, tucked away beside the murmurings of the infant Thames'; and Jim Luce wrote himself into the local lore of recent winters past when he cycled down the middle of the Thames when it was frozen over at Lechlade.

My contribution? Well, it had to be the revival of the Fairford Mummers play, whose origins have been lost in the mists of time, inspired by the Waterley Bottom Mummers who celebrate their fortieth anniversary this year. Founded by a group of students who came almost equally from Wotton-under-Edge and Dursley, local pride of place was diplomatically preserved by using the name of Waterley Bottom which lies somewhere between the two towns. As with all Mummers performances, the play has developed organically, but based on the original Dursley play with the character of Niddy Noddy exclusive to the Waterley Bottomers.

The City of Gloucester Mummers also celebrate their fortieth anniversary this year and continue their tradition of performing their distinctive play on Boxing Day - St Stephen's Day, at noon outside Gloucester Cathedral. The group is granted the right of name by re-enacting the ancient ritual of Mumming within the city walls at that time on the payment of a rose to the Mayor of Gloucester. The ceremony of the Presentation of Roses is made every year on St George's Day. Although the major event of Mumming is at Christmastide, the City of Gloucester Mummers can be still be seen carrying on the tradition into the Spring - watch out for them at Randwick Wap. Now that is what I call carrying the spirit of Christmas on well beyond


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