269. Old European Christmas

DSCN1839In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge says, “Long past?”, and the ghost replies, “No, your past.” We’re going to turn that on its head. You already know about your childhood; you don’t need me for that. During the next three posts, we are going to travel several hundred years into the past and watch Christmas evolve into what we enjoy today.

Last night I watched a DVD of Santa and Pete, in which Saint Nicholas leaves Amsterdam to visit the New World. There he finds his red hat and coat, learns to come down chimneys, trades his horse for reindeer, and they learn to fly after drinking an old African potion. It’s a sweet movie, but it has nothing to do with reality.

Christmas has a real history, which is not as sweet, but is absolutely fascinating. Our guide for this will be an academic history of Christmas called The Battle for Christmas, written by Stephen Nissenbaum, which I first mentioned last year in A Christmas Booklist.

Some historians are dry as dust: others have a novelists touch and bring history to life. Nissenbaum is one of the latter. If you like Christmas and you like history, you can look forward to a good time with him if you seek out the book for yourself. Of course, he is a historian, so the book is dense.

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I imagine that everyone knows that many of the traditions of Christmas, like holly and the yule log, are pagan in origin. It is also widely known that the date of Jesus birth is not found in the Bible. Put those two ideas together, and it is no surprise that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas in early New England. It’s all very logical, but it isn’t the whole reason – probably not even the major reason.

Puritans were little worried about Paganism itself. Odin and Balder did not enter into their thinking. Their world was strung between two poles – God on the right and the Devil on the left. They weren’t afraid of holly and evergreens, but they were afraid of disorder. And disorder was always waiting in the wings, locked into the agriultural cycle.

All across northern Europe, both before and after Christianity, fresh foods were available in spring and summer, and into autumn. Grains were planted in spring and harvested in fall. Some was kept to be ground into flour for winter bread. Some was preserved by fermentation to form a variety of beers. Cabbage was fermented into sauerkraut, which kept millions of German peasants alive through the winter.

In America, as late as the Revolution, apples were preserved as hard (fermented) cider which would store through the winter. Most of the excess grain grown anywhere west of the Appalacians went to market as the portable and storable product called whiskey. Alcohol may bring a tipsy smile, but it is also a food that does not spoil.

From peasants in the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution, the only leisure for the European lower classes was in winter, when farm work could not be done. Early in the winter, the season’s barley had become beer, the extra animals who could not be kept alive through the winter had been slaughtered, and the pantries were as full as they would ever be. It was time for a party.

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When I first read The Battle for Christmas about ten years ago, finding this tie to seasonality was like meeting an old friend. I spent my youth tied to the Oklahoma-farmer version of agricultural seasonality, with planting times and harvest times, with putting up vegetables for the winter for the family and putting away grain and hay for winter feed for the animals. The season of cattle breeding was keyed to bring on late fall births, so there were new calves and new milk just in time to provide work and income during the winter when no grains were growing.

I had already based the entire Menhir series on a hero who grew up tied to the agricultural cycle in a land of peasants and lords, where drought and overpopulation made life a struggle for food. In such a place, early winter is a time of relative plenty and late winter is the starving time — a subject I will address here next month in an excerpt from those books.

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So we have the onset of winter, enforced leisure, plenty of food and beer (at least for a while). The celebrations of this point in the year were raucous, with plenty of drunkenness and, no surprise, plenty of sex.

Along came Christianity — always the enemy of a good time — and tried to Christianize the holiday by tying it to Jesus birth. It didn’t work. click here to continue the story


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