Saturday, December 28, 2019

Childermas Day

The Feast of the Holy Innocents. From Dr. Eleanor Parker at A Clerk of Oxford:
Medieval writers were honest and clear-eyed about such uncomfortable truths. The idea that thoughts like these are incongruous with the Christmas season (as you often hear people say about the Holy Innocents) is largely a modern scruple, encouraged by the comparatively recent idea that Christmas is primarily a cheery festival for happy children and families. Our images of Christmas joy, both secular and sacred, are all childlike wonder and picture-perfect families gathered round the tree. And this is nice, of course, for those who have children or happy families, but for those who don't - those who have lost children or parents or others dear to them, those who face loneliness or exclusion, those who want but don't have children, family, or home - it can be intensely painful. Not everyone can choose not to think about grief at Christmas; many people will find it intrudes upon them, whether they wish it to or not. 'In sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last'. The modern version of Christmas tends to sideline and ignore that pain, asking it to at least keep quiet so as not to spoil the 'magic'. But that's not the case with medieval writing about Christmas and the Christ-child. There are, of course, many merry and joyful medieval carols, and the season was celebrated in the Middle Ages with great enthusiasm; but there are also many carols like this which are serious, melancholy, and sad, which acknowledge the fact that the child whose birth is celebrated came to earth to die. Older writings on Christmas, like this lullaby, do not exclude but encompass human pain - it's that pain, they say, which Christ has come to earth to share. The idea is well expressed by John Donne, writing a little later than the medieval period (though only a few decades after the Coventry mystery plays were abolished), in a sermon he preached on Christmas Day 1626:

The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.
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