10 January 2010

'Ceremony Doffed His Pride'—Christmas Solemnity


One of the Christmas traditions my wife and I have begun is that of having a very small number of close friends over as soon as possible after the Nativity for a solemn feast of traditional English Christmas fare, when we wear our best Christmas clothes, dine by candlelight, read poetry, and sing songs. When I say that the feast is ‘solemn’, I mean a quality which, in C.S. Lewis’s words—

will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. . . . Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. . . . The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp—and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching an altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast—all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonious things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual. [1]

Lewis has connected this solemnity directly with Christmas, not only in the reference here to the major-domo and the boar’s head, but in a passage from The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, which I have already quoted (here). Lewis describes Father Christmas himself:

Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn. [2]

In his long narrative poem, Marmion (referred to here and here), Sir Walter Scott has a moving description of the glories of a traditional English/Scottish Christmas which, I feel, captures this solemnity well. [3] Although this part of the poem seems to be often reproduced, most recently in A Classic Christmas (2009), [4] but also for example in Christmas in Prose & Verse (2000), [5] it is rarely identified as part of a larger work, and one might be excused for having the idea that Scott composed a poem called ‘Christmas in the Olden Time’! So to stave off future confusion, as well as to get myself into the spirit of our feast this coming evening, I offer this excerpt from the ‘Introduction’ to Canto VI of Marmion:


Heap on more wood!—the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deemed the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer:
Even, heath yet, the savage Dane
At Iol more deep the mead did drain;
High on the beach his galleys drew,
And feasted all his pirate crew;
Then in his low and pine-built hall,
Where shields and axes decked the wall,
They gorged upon the half-dressed steer;
Caroused in seas of sable beer;
While round, in brutal jest, were thrown
The half-gnawed rib and marrow-bone,
Or listened all, in grim delight,
While scalds yelled out the joys of fight.
Then forth, in frenzy, would they hie,
While wildly loose their red locks fly,
And dancing round the blazing pile,
They make such barbarous mirth the while,
As best might to the mind recall
The boisterous joys of Odin’s hall.

And well our Christmas sires of old
Loved when the year its course had rolled,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honor to the holy night;
On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
One Christmas Eve the mass was sung;
That only night in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then opened wide the baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doffed his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The Lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘post and pair’.
All hailed, with uncontrolled delight,
And general voice, the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubbed till it shone the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.,
Well can the green-garbed ranger tell,
How, when, and where the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round, in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls,
There the huge sirloin reeked; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savory goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
’T was Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
’T was Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.

Still linger, in our Northern clime,
Some remnants of the good old time;
And still, within our valleys here,
We hold the kindred title dear,
Even when, perchance, its far-fetched claim
To Southron ear sounds empty name;
For course of blood, our proverbs deem,
Is warmer than the mountain-stream.
And thus, my Christmas still I hold
Where my great-grandsire came of old,
With amber beard and flaxen hair,
And reverend apostolic air—
The feast and holy-tide to share,
And mix sobriety with wine,
And honest mirth with thoughts divine;
Small thought was his, in after time
E’er to be hitched into a rhyme.
The simple sire could only boast
That he was loyal to his cost;
The banished race of kings revered,
And lost his land,—but kept his beard. [6]


[1] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford U, 1965), p. 17.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, illust. Pauline Baynes (London: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 101.

[3] True, Scott is writing at a time when ‘Ceremony’ and ‘pride’ are already associated in many minds, but he hearkens back to the earlier age of which Lewis speaks when he says that at Christmas ‘Ceremony doffed his pride’.

[4] A Classic Christmas: Spiritual Reflections, Timeless Literature, & Treasured Verse & Scripture (NY: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 216-8.

[5] Allison C. Putala, ed., Christmas in Prose & Verse (NY: Platinum, 2000), pp. 84-6.

[6] The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1878), pp. 93-5.

5 comments:

kyle said...

Your new tradition sounds really delightful. What kind of poems and songs do you usually bring?

aaronandbrighid said...

I encourage people to bring pretty much anything that fosters the solempne spirit I talked about in the post. I myself read Milton's 'Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity' one year, and Washington Irving's Sketchbook chapter on 'Old Christmas'. I've also read Lewis's 'Turn of the Tide'. One year I chanted some Nativity stichera Vatopaidi-style, and a friend & I sang 'Masters in the Hall'.

Isaac said...

Wanted to tell you that your Betjemann post the other day was so good I had to share its contents with another friend of mine. I've got a GREAT recipe for bread pudding with currants and raisins that we love to make this time of year. Our Christmas feast this year, I regret to say, was probably more Norman than anything else: beouf bourgignon.

Also, would love to get your thoughts on something I've written over at my blog about the Church calendar. The entry is entitled: Thoughts about Calendars from a Former Liturgical Time-Traveler.

Rubricarius said...

A most blessed Nativity afterfeast to you from cold and snow-ridden England.

I trust your splendid solempne feast of English fare was enjoyable.

For over a decade now I have made the very deliberate choice not to decorate my home or even think in new calendar terms of the Nativity. There is a real joy in setting up and dressing a Christmas Tree (I suppose it really should be a Yule Log but..) on the real Vigil of the Nativity and a sense of communion with all those Christians who were one in the celebration of the Liturgical Year before the rupture introduced in 1582.

I trust you enjoyed steamed Christmas Pudding!

aaronandbrighid said...

Isaac> Thank you, sir, I'm glad you enjoyed that. Regarding the beouf bourgignon, it's Norman but intriguing. I need to talk the missus into making that someday. I read the calendar post--sounds good to me! I'll post a comment over there.

Rubricarius> Thank you from mildly chilly Oklahoma. Our feast was wonderful indeed. The menu, which I should perhaps have included in the post, is:

Gloucester cheese soup
Carrot Puree w/Browned Butter & Ginger
Blue Cheese Yorkshire Puddings
Prime Rib w/Horseradish Cream
& Chocolate Bread Pudding

These are accompanied with wassail, Armenian brandy served in a sword-shaped bottle, and a large assortment of seasonal brews.