Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Epiphany

Epiphany is the last day of Christmas, and commemorates the visitation of the Three Kings to the child Jesus. The feast day is also known as Little Christmas, or Nollaig Bheag, in Ireland. My family has always referred to it as Little Christmas, and traditionally, we celebrate it much as we do Christmas day, though on a smaller scale. We always choose one present to set aside for Epiphany before we start opening everything Christmas morning, and it is a source of pride to make this package be one of the most intriguing present we can find. Those gifts remain under the tree for the full twelve days, and when they little girls get up on Epiphany morning, they discover that the Three Kings have stopped by on their way to Bethlehem and left a small gift for each of them under the tree as well. We usually have an Italian meal, very similar to the gnocchi and ham we had for Christmas dinner, and generally make merry. It is a wonderful tradition, and an excellent way of keeping the spirit of Christmas in the home, when the world is well finished with it. Below is a clip featuring the song, We Three Kings. I liked both the arrangement, and the graphics:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


It would be most remiss of me if I did not include a post on wassailing during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The word wassail itself comes from the Old English phrase waes hael*, which is loosely translated into be in health. The phrase would be used rather formally, when presenting a cup of mulled ale, or wine, and the correct response was, drinc hael, or drink in health.

There are actually a couple tradition attached to wassailing, and both are quite old. It was customary for the great houses to serve their guest strong, spiced drink during Christmastide. The wassail was usually served from a great bowl, made especially for that purpose, the forerunner of our punch bowls. Usually, it was wine they were serving, spiked with lemons, oranges, and a variety of spices. The ordinary folk made do with the far older spiced ale, and would take the wassail about the orchard, encouraging the barren trees to be strong and fruitful when the spring came again, then pouring the drink onto the roots. This was generally accompanied by singing, and when the orchard had been properly encouraged, the fold would retired to their homes and drink wassail themselves. Eventually the two tradition merged, so to speak, and eventually developed into the custom of carolling from door to door, the singers being treated to a drink for their efforts.

While the tradition of wassailing was not necessarily restricted to the Christmas season - it could be practiced any time after the harvest, and before the trees began to bud out again - it has always been strongly associated with it, especially between New Year's Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany. Below is a clip of The Yorkshire Wassail:

And here are the words to one of the oldest wassail songs:

Wassail, wassail, sing we
In worship of Christ’s nativity.

Now joy be to the Trinity,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
That one God is in Trinity,
Father of heaven, of mightes most.

And joy to the Virgin pure
That ever kept her undefiled
Grounded in grace, in heart full sure,
And bare a child as maiden mild.

Bethlehem and the star so shen,
That shone three kinges for to guide,
Bear witness of this maiden clean;
The kinges three offered that tide.

And shepherds heard, as written is,
The joyful song that there was sung:
Gloria in excelsis!
With angel’s voice it was out rung.

Now joy be to the blessedful child,
And joy be to his mother dear;
Joy we all of that maiden mild,
And joy have they that make good cheer.

Wassail, wassail, wassail, sing we
In worship of Christ’s nativity

And here, since one can never have too much of a good thing, is a recipe for brewing wassail:

10 very small apples
1 large orange stuck with whole cloves
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry red wine
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cloves3 allspice berries
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups extra fine sugar
12 to 20 pints of cider according to the number of guests
1 cup (or as much as you like) brandy

Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.

Insert cloves into the orange about 1/2" apart. Bake the orange with the apples in a 350° oven. After about 30 minutes, remove the orange and puncture it in several places with a fork or an ice pick.

Combine the red wine, cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, apple and orange juice and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat slowly without letting the mixture come to a boil.

Simmer on very low heat for 15 minutes. Strain the wine mixture and add the brandy. Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples and orange on top and ladle hot into punch cups.

Makes enough for 15-20 people

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Adeste Fideles

The well known Christmas carol, Adeste Fideles has a very interesting history. It was written in the mid eighteenth century by John Francis Wade, a Catholic Englishman, who fled the religious persecution back at home. He eventually settled in Douay, France, which was the site of a large Catholic college, and the home in exile for many English, Scottish and Irish Catholics. John Wade made his living by copying and selling plain chant and other music, and encouraged the revival of plain chant in Divine worship. The earliest known manuscript of Adeste Fideles was written in 1743 or 1744, and in known as the Jacobite Manuscript, because it contains a prayer for King James III, father of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The song went through several revisions before it was published in France in the Evening Offices of the Church. It was published in England more that 20 years later, in a work entitled, Essay or Instruction for Learning the Church Plain Chant. It is rather remarkable that a piece of music, written in Latin, by a virtually unknown author who was a member of a persecuted Church and a supporter of an exiled King, should have gone on to become one of the most well-known Christmas carols in the world.

For an in depth history of Adeste Fideles, go to this website. It is very good. And here is a rather fine arrangement clip of Adeste Fideles for classical guitar:

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas in Secret

The feast of Christmas is unique in the calendar of the Church’s holy days, in that it has been celebrated with a mixture of both religious and secular traditions, almost since the time of its creation. Pope Julius I fixed the date of December 25th for the celebration of Christmas in 350, and while a good deal of investigation went into determining that as the actual date of our Saviour’s birth, it also happily coincided, and therefore replaced several pagan festivals that we held at the same time. The Church, in her wisdom, did not forbid the harmless aspects of these celebrations. Indeed, since they inevitably revolved around the concept of light returning after the darkness of winter, many of the traditions were ‘baptised’ so to speak, and since our Lord is the true light that comes into the world, were easily adapted to Christian symbolism. Christmas Day itself was exclusively a Holy Day, marked by attendance at Mass, and feasting. However, the merrymaking spilled over into the following days, eventually becoming the twelve days of Christmas. There was always a gift-giving aspect to Christmas, though usually this associated more with New Year’s Day, or the Epiphany, rather than the Day itself.

Then in 1644, Oliver Cromwell, and his Puritan Parliament, in their wisdom decided that the celebration of Christmas was sinful and outlawed it. The reason given was that, while we are bidden to remember our Lord’s passion and death, we are nowhere commanded to remember His birth. (Eventually, the ban was extended to include all saints’ days, as well as Easter and Whitsun.) It was a remarkably all-encompassing ban. Churches were forbidden from holding any sort of service at all and all businesses were to remain open. The singing of carols, the exchanging of gifts, even the cooking of mince pie, where all banned, under pain of fines or imprisonment. If the day was to be marked at all, it should be by fasting and penance – and the older you were, the more obliged you should feel to undertake the penance.

Needless to say, this particular decree was quite unpopular, and all right-minded people (primarily Catholics and High Church Anglicans) continued to observe the feast of the Christmas in secret. Christmas services were celebrated discretely. Catholicism itself was still outlawed, so generally, the Christmas Masses had to be said in someone’s house, although some Protestant ministers, and Anglican priests defied the ban, and held services in their churches. (Generally, the more sympathetic one was to “popish” traditions, both in the liturgy and in theology, the more inclined they would be to continue to celebrate Christmas.) Nor was it merely the religious aspect of the holiday that was observed, but as far as possible, the traditional celebration of the twelve days of Christmas was kept as well. Folk would sneak along to each other’s homes, brew a bit of punch, feast on mince pies, sing carols, exchange gifts. Generally, they would get away with it too, in spite of the fact that, of themselves, Christmas celebrations are not particularly discrete, and in spite of the fact that there were specially police out, whose job was to sniff out (sometimes literally) any sign of forbidden merriment.

I do find the idea of celebrating Christmas this way rather fascinating. It ties in to my interest in both Catholic and Jacobite history. (Christmas celebrations were re-established by Charles I when he came to the throne.) I can’t help wondering whether the fact that it was forbidden added a bit of spice and excitement to the fun. Below, I am posting a clip of a Christmas carol that would have been sung during this period of history:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Here is an old carol for New Year's Day, which I thought was rather fun:

The group is called "Nowell Sing We Clear". I had never heard of them before coming across this tune, nor have I been able to find out too much about them. They seem to be a four man folk group, specialising in old, obscure Christmastide carols and songs.