The article below was published last year in a Welsh newspaper and highlights the very different perspective people in the Middle Ages had on the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps there is a challenge here to all of us to recover the true spirit of Advent and to regain that more theologically subtle understanding of the feast held by our forefathers?
More religion and less sentiment at Christmas in medieval Wales
Dec 24 2010 by Steffan Rhys, Western Mail
Our assumptions about the celebration of Christmas are shattered when we turn back the clock to medieval Wales, argues Dr Madeleine Gray , reader in history at the University of Wales, Newport
YOU would expect a traditional medieval Welsh Christmas to be all about Jesus’ birth.
Whatever our feelings about religion, we do think we have a picture of the first Christmas – the stable, the baby in the manger, the shepherds coming down from the cold hills. But strangely enough, there were very few pictures of this scene in medieval Wales.
There is one lovely little painting in a manuscript in the National Library in Aberystwyth. Mary is lying under a good Welsh tapestry blanket, with the baby on her lap. She has clearly just finished feeding him. At the foot of the bed, Joseph is having the traditional post-birth nap!
There is also a very battered stone carving in St David’s Cathedral, some very faded painted wooden panels in Llanelian near Colwyn Bay and the remains of a stained glass window at Gresford – and that’s it.
Our “ignorant” peasant ancestors had a much more theologically subtle understanding of the whole story. For them, it began nine months earlier when the Angel Gabriel told Mary she was expecting God’s child. There were pictures of this event, called the Annunciation, in illuminated manuscripts and in churches all over Wales. It is carved in alabaster on a tomb at Abergavenny and there is even a little wooden carving under one of the choir stalls at Gresford. Sometimes a picture of the Annunciation survives in fragments of stained glass when everything else has been lost, suggesting that this picture was the one people wanted to save above all others.
There were also lots of pictures of the Virgin and Child, including the famous statues at Cardigan and Penrhys. There were even pictures and carvings of Jesus’s earthly family tree. This was shown literally as a tree growing out of the body of his ancestor Jesse. The kings of Israel stood in the branches and Mary and Jesus were at the top. There is a massive stained glass window of this Tree of Jesse at Llanrhaiadr in the Vale of Clwyd. In Abergavenny it was carved in wood, the size of a real tree. All that is left of that carving now is the figure of Jesse, at least twice life-size. Painted and gilded, the whole thing would have been awesome.
But in virtually all of these paintings and carvings, Jesus isn’t a baby. He is a well-grown toddler, reaching out to his mother or to the audience. Welsh people of the middle ages didn’t want to get sentimental over a little baby. They believed in a God who was human, one they could engage with and relate to.
Christmas nowadays seems to start before the leaves have fallen from the trees. Pubs and restaurants are advertising Christmas specials by the end of August – Cardiff’s lights are turned on at the beginning of November – by the time we get to the great day we’ve all eaten and drunk too much already and if we’re honest it can be a bit of an anticlimax. But it’s traditional, isn’t it?
Well, maybe. But if you went back far enough in time, you would find that the run-up to Christmas was very different. For our medieval ancestors, Advent (the month before Christmas) was a time of fasting and penitence. No chocolate-filled Advent calendars then! You prepared to celebrate Christ’s first coming to earth by thinking about his second coming as a judge. Every church had a terrifying painting of the Last Judgement with souls being pitchforked down into Hell. Jesus was shown not as a sweet little baby but as a judge, in red robes.
Celebration didn’t start until Christmas Day. Mind you, once they started, they did know how to party. Elizabeth de Burgh had a Christmas party in Usk Castle in 1326 that went on for the full 12 days. There were two boars’ heads, venison, beef and pork for all comers in her new Great Hall. The tradition was that if you turned up looking reasonably respectable, you could stay for three days before anyone even asked who you were. And for those who couldn’t scrub up, there would have been a generous distribution of leftovers outside the castle gates. There would have been music, dancing, poetry and entertainers. For the great and the good, three swans were cooked, two herons, two bitterns and a holocaust of smaller birds. The kitchen got through 800 eggs on Christmas Day alone.
This was not just conspicuous consumption. Elizabeth was a shrewd politician. What she was doing was what the American political theorist Joseph Nye called “soft power”. She had only just reclaimed her estates from Edward II’s favourite Hugh le Despencer. If local people wanted to be invited to her feasts and entertainment, they were more likely to be prepared to support her against the king.
Medieval Welsh landowners also entertained in style. Snowed up in Merionethshire, the old poet Llywelyn Goch spoke of:
Listening after Christmas
To the cooks slicing the meat;
Quick fiddle and bagpipe,
Blending of voices nightly,
Sanctus bells and laughter
And hailing men to have wine. (translated by Joseph Clancy)
But this was after Christmas – and all the more enjoyable because you had to wait for it.
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