Now as we all know, The Nativity is celebrated on December 25, a date set in 337 by Pope St. Julius I. So, Merry 1672th Christmas, everybody! For most of the Middle Ages, Christmas was not, as it is today, the culmination of the holiday season, but rather its beginning. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas, after all, and stretch until January 5th, also known as Twelfth Night, the day before Epiphany, the day the Magi arrived.
marks the Feast of St. Stephen
the Protomartyr of all Christianity. You may remember him as the guy that Saul helps to stone in Acts. And if you’re American, you probably spent at least part of your childhood wondering why “Good King Wenceslas”
looked out on the feast of Stephen instead of Christmas, since you sing the song at Christmastime. And now you know. According to some authorities, the Welsh used to celebrate St. Stephen’s Day by whipping any female servants caught in bed with holly branches, but that seems pretty unlikely to me.**
The Feast of St. John the Evangelist–not to be confused with St. John the Baptist–comes the next day, on December 27. St. John has the distinction of being the only one of the original twelve apostles to live to be an old man, rather than dying as a young martyr. According to one story, John was almost martyred, however, when someone tried to poison his wine, but he was saved because it was his habit to bless his wine before he drank it. John’s blessing didn’t just passively purify the wine–according to the story, the poison rose up magically from the chalice and formed into the shape of a servant that then slithered off. Thus, St. John often appears in medieval iconography as a man holding a chailce with what looks like steam coming out of it.*** In recognition of this near miss, traditional Catholics celebrate St. John’s with lots of wine. I guess magic snakes are as good an excuse as any.
If you look closely at the image from the medieval calendar above, you can see that December 28 is illustrated by two midgets impaled on a spear that’s being propped up by someone’s decapitated head. That’s because December 28th is The Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the children massacred by Herod in his failed attempt to kill off Christ. According to Phillippe de Commines, the fifteenth-century French historian, it was the late medieval tradition to keep as a holiday the day of the week that the Feast of the Holy Innocents fell on for the entire year thereafter. Following that would mean you’d have your Mondays off for all of 2010! If only I’d known about this tradition as an undergrad. ****
St. Thomas Becket, Henry II’s “turbulent priest” is commemorated with a feast on December 29. (He’s the one pictured above near the end with a dagger sticking out of his head.) As a Chaucerian, I’m pretty tired of Thomas Becket. I mean, what’s the big deal? He’s just a bishop who got killed by some overzealous royal sycophants. Sure, he’s known for curative powers, but what saint isn’t? The local miracles that got ascribed to him in Kent after his death make him seem like kind of a jerk. There are no nightingales in Otford, for instance, because Becket didn’t like their songs disturbing his prayers. And the people of Strood are born with tails because their ancestors were rude to Becket’s horse. So I don’t care that the Canterbury pilgrims were going to visit his shrine. Dude was an ass.
Rounding out the year, The Feast of Pope St. Sylvester
is celebrated on December 31
. Sylvester is chiefly notable for being the pope that Emperor Constantine was said to have given all his lands to, thus granting the papacy superiority to all temporal monarchs–at least, that’s the story the popes told. They even had a document forged, the so-called Donation of Constantine
, to back them up. Lorenzo Valla, the Renaissance scholar, eventually pointed out the many problems with it, including the fact that nobody seems to have mentioned the Donation in print until about four hundred years after it was supposed to have been written. Oh, silly medieval popes, your pitiful forgeries can only fool people for six hundred years or so. Why do you even try?
And that’s that, the saints for the second half of December. Check back next month for the second half of the twelve days of Christmas, amongst other things.
*For all values of N. Say, for instance, you don’t read this post until January 22, 2010. I still hope your 336th-Shopping-Day-Until-Christmas is a smashing success.
**Sure, the first few years, maybe you’d catch a serving girl sleeping in. But once word got round that it was a “tradition,” I’ll bet it was mostly obnoxious boys carrying around holly branches and threatening people with them, with not a sleepy wench to be found.
***But it’s not steam!–oh dear God, it’s a snake! Run!!!!
****Sorry, prof, I know Chaucer meets Mondays and Wednesdays, but I recently converted to medieval Christianity, you see, and I have to spend all my Mondays remembering the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.