WITH just a month to pass before Christmas Day, the tempo of life seems to accelerate and time appears to whiz past with an ever-increasing speed.
This might be something to do with the fact we are all growing older, or it might be that there is so much to complete before Christmas, not to mention the vital preparatory efforts that inevitably involve a number of other important celebrations that cannot be missed.
This activity is not surprising because Christmas celebrates the Birth of Christ, consequently lots of customs and events are linked to a range of other Church festivals. These were, and in many cases still are, celebrated from the beginning of Advent which this year begins on Sunday December 4. Advent means “arrival” and is regarded as the first festival of the Church.
This year, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday but in the past, there were many preparatory events and celebrations – and there are lots of them nowadays too. One of the early domestic customs was (and perhaps still is) undertaken on the Sunday before Advent. It is called Stir-Up Sunday. By long tradition, this was to day to stir the ingredients of the Christmas pudding.
It was also considered a prestigious day for making the puddings. It is likely that the custom was prompted by the Collect of the Day’s Mass which began, “Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” Not surprisingly, some ladies raised money for their churches by mixing the ingredients on that day, and selling the mixture to raise funds for their Church.
Yesterday, November 24, was Cutting Off Day when lace-makers cut off the pieces they had been working upon, and sold them. The following day was a holiday for them.
Still in November, the week containing November 22 marks the end of the flat racing season and on the Thursday nearest November 23, it was the day of Driffield Hiring Fair. Most hiring fairs involved a lot of merrymaking, eating and drinking as employers sought new workers among those who attended the hiring fairs. Local farmers and other businessmen were among those who sought workers in this way.
December’s name derives from “decem” which means ten and which was its position in earlier calendars but the Anglo-Saxons called it haligmonath which meant the holy month. In some northern countries it was known as wintermonath, the winter month when frost, snow and ice could be expected. However, the passage of time along with seasonal changes to our weather patterns meant that the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar had become inaccurate.
Using the Spring Equinox as a guide, it was noticed that the equinox that had occurred on March 25 at the time of Julius Caesar had slipped to March 11 by the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585). In 1582, therefore, Pope Gregory made the necessary alterations to the calendar by removing ten days, thus causing October 5 to be known as October 15. To make the calculations permanent, he introduced the Leap Year that involved the appearance of February 29 every four years. It became known as the Gregorian Calendar and the Pope became widely known as Gregory the Great.
However England, being newly Protestant, suspected some kind of Popish plot and refused to accept the new calendar, and Scotland did likewise although it had been accepted by European countries. England continued to celebrate various events on the old dates, and so we still have Old Christmas Day (December 6), Old Midsummer Day and the wonderfully titled Old Lady Day. Even within my lifetime, a lot of country folk calculated their farming year by using the old calendar, for example Martinmas was celebrated on November 23 instead of November 11. One important change in the New Calendar was that January 1 became the start of the new legal year instead of March 25 which is The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, otherwise known as Lady Day or St Mary’s Day in Lent – and, of course, Old Lady Day.
Old Christmas Day in the Julian calendar is still remembered on December 6 in some European countries, Holland in particular, when Christmas presents are exchanged. It is also the Feast Day of St Nicholas whose name gave rise to Santa Nicholaus, or Santa Claus. St Lucy’s Day is celebrated on December 13 where in Switzerland they believe she was the wife of St Nicholas alias Santa Claus.
As Christmas approached, it was believed that ghosts roamed freely on the Eve of St Thomas, December 20, and the following day was celebrated as the Feast of St Thomas when children went A-Thomassing. They toured the houses hoping to be given St Thomas gifts of sweets, pepper cake or ginger bread with cheese. In return, they presented householders with gifts of twigs of holly. Then suddenly it was Christmas – but our readers must wait for a few more weeks.
Place of sanctuary
DURHAM Cathedral with its huge bronze door knocker was one of the places of sanctuary in the north of England. Another prominent one is Beverley Minster in the former East Riding with its stone chair known as the Freed Stool or Sanctuary Chair. It does appear, however, that fleeing criminals could obtain sanctuary in all churches and churchyards but certain conditions could be imposed. For example, sanctuary may be available for only a limited period and the criminal who sought sanctuary may be expected to make some compensation for his crime.
It is not known how, why, when or where the system of obtaining sanctuary was created but it may have begun with the rise of Christianity, although some accounts suggest the idea is as old as the Israelites in the time of Moses when certain cities were ordered to provide refuge for criminals who repented and wished to reform themselves. It is thought that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs and American Indians all had their places of sanctuary.
In England, it may have begun in the year 693 by the King of the West Saxons whose name was Ina. It was, in fact, remarkably similar to our modern idea of putting offenders on probation. The basic idea was that anyone accused of a capital offence could take refuge in a church and if he did so, his life would be spared but he was directed to make compensation for his crime.
When Alfred the Great was king, people who were guilty of minor offences could take refuge in a church and remain for three nights to be free from capture. But the offender had to compensate his victims.
The essence of his curious way of dealing with offenders was that whilst in the sanctuary, they had to be complete safe from attack, and violation of the right of sanctuary was regarded as a very serious matter.
Henry VIII passed several laws governing sanctuary because he realised that men who might fight for their country were avoiding such responsibility by committing crimes and then seeking sanctuary.