Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day


[This year's Christmas piper has no drones but he is a piper nonethless!]


More from "Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan" by Clement A. Miles:


Where, as in religious communities, the offices of the Church are performed in their full order, there follows on Matins that custom peculiar to Christmas, the celebration of Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning every priest is permitted to say three Masses, which should in strictness be celebrated at midnight, at dawn, and in full daylight. Each has its own Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, each its own Introit, Gradual, and other anthems. In many countries the Midnight Mass is the distinctive Christmas service, a great and unique event in the year, something which by its strangeness gives to the feast of the Nativity a place by itself. Few Catholic rites are more impressive than this Midnight Mass, especially in country places; through the darkness and cold of the winter's night, often for long distances, the faithful journey to worship the Infant Saviour in the splendour of the lighted church. It is a re-enactment of the visit of the shepherds to the cave at Bethlehem, aglow with supernatural light.

Various symbolical explanations of the three Masses were given by mediæval writers. The midnight celebration was supposed to represent mankind's condition before the Law of Moses, when thick darkness covered the earth; the second, at dawn, the time of the Law and the Prophets with its growing light; the third, in full daylight, the Christian era of light and grace. Another interpretation, adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas, is more mystical; the three Masses stand for the threefold birth of Christ, the first typifying the dark mystery of the eternal generation of the Son, the second the birth of Christ the morning-star within the hearts of men, the third the bodily birth of the Son of Mary.

At the Christmas Masses the “Gloria in excelsis” resounds again. This song of the angels was at first chanted only at Christmas; it was introduced into Rome during the fifth century at Midnight Mass in imitation of the custom of the Church of Jerusalem.

It is, indeed, from imitation of the services at Jerusalem and Bethlehem that the three Roman Masses of Christmas seem to have sprung. From a late fourth-century document known as the “Peregrinatio Silviæ,” the narrative of a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east by a great lady from southern Gaul, it appears that at the feast of the Epiphany—when the Birth of Christ was commemorated in the Palestinian Church—two successive “stations” were held, one at Bethlehem, the other at Jerusalem. At Bethlehem the station was held at night on the eve of the feast, then a procession was made to the church of the Anastasis or Resurrection—where was the Holy Sepulchre—arriving “about the hour when one man begins to recognise another, i.e., near daylight, but before the day has fully broken.” There a psalm was sung, prayers were said, and the catechumens and faithful were blessed by the bishop. Later, Mass was celebrated at the Great Church at Golgotha, and the procession returned to the Anastasis, where another Mass was said.{10}

At Bethlehem at the present time impressive services are held on the Latin Christmas Day. The Patriarch comes from Jerusalem, with a troop of cavalry and Kavasses in gorgeous array. The office lasts from 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve until long after midnight. “At the reading of the Gospel the clergy and as many of the congregation as can follow leave the church, and proceed by a flight of steps and a tortuous rock-hewn passage to the Grotto of the Nativity, an irregular subterranean chamber, long and narrow. They carry with them a waxen image of an infant—the bambino—wrap it in swaddling bands and lay it on the site which is said to be that of the manger.”

The Midnight Mass appears to have been introduced into Rome in the first half of the fifth century. It was celebrated by the Pope in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, while the second Mass was sung by him at Sant’ Anastasia—perhaps because of the resemblance of the name to the Anastasis at Jerusalem—and the third at St. Peter's. On Christmas Eve the Pope held a solemn “station” at Santa Maria Maggiore, and two Vespers were sung, the first very simple, the second, at which the Pope pontificated, with elaborate ceremonial. Before the second Vespers, in the twelfth century, a good meal had to be prepared for the papal household by the Cardinal-Bishop of Albano. After Matins and Midnight Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, the Pope went in procession to Sant’ Anastasia for Lauds and the Mass of the Dawn. The third Mass, at St. Peter's, was an event of great solemnity, and at it took place in the year 800 that profoundly significant event, the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III.—a turning-point in European history.

Later it became the custom for the Pope, instead of proceeding to St. Peter's, to return to Santa Maria Maggiore for the third Mass. On his arrival he was given a cane with a lighted candle affixed to it; with this he had to set fire to some tow placed on the capitals of the columns. The ecclesiastical explanation of this strange ceremony was that it symbolised the end of the world by fire, but one may conjecture that some pagan custom lay at its root. Since 1870 the Pope, as “the prisoner of the Vatican,” has of course ceased to celebrate at Santa Maria Maggiore or Sant’ Anastasia. The Missal, however, still shows a trace of the papal visit to Sant’ Anastasia in a commemoration of this saint which comes as a curious parenthesis in the Mass of the Dawn.

On Christmas Day in the Vatican the Pope blesses a hat and a sword, and these are sent as gifts to some prince. The practice is said to have arisen from the mediæval custom for the Holy Roman Emperor or some other sovereign to read one of the lessons at Christmas Matins, in the papal chapel, with his sword drawn.{15}

Celebrated in countries as distant from one another, both geographically and in character, as Ireland and Sicily, Poland and South America, the Midnight Mass naturally varies greatly in its tone and setting. Sometimes it is little more than a fashionable function, sometimes the devotion of those who attend is shown by a tramp over miles of snow through the darkness and the bitter wind.

In some charming memories of the Christmas of her childhood, Madame Th. Bentzon thus describes the walk to the Midnight Mass in a French country place about sixty years ago:—

“I can see myself as a little girl, bundled up to the tip of my nose in furs and knitted shawls, tiny wooden shoes on my feet, a lantern in my hand, setting out with my parents for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve.... We started off, a number of us, together in a stream of light.... Our lanterns cast great shadows on the white road, crisp with frost. As our little group advanced it saw others on their way, people from the farm and from the mill, who joined us, and once on the Place de l’Église we found ourselves with all the parishioners in a body. No one spoke—the icy north wind cut short our breath; but the voice of the chimes filled the silence.... We entered, accompanied by a gust of wind that swept into the porch at the same time we did; and the splendours of the altar, studded with lights, green with pine and laurel branches, dazzled us from the threshold.”

. . . . . . .


A Midnight Mass is now celebrated in many Anglican churches, but this is purely a modern revival. The most distinct British survival is to be found in Wales in the early service known as Plygain (dawn), sometimes a celebration of the Communion. At Tenby at four o'clock on Christmas morning it was customary for the young men of the town to escort the rector with lighted torches from his house to the church. Extinguishing their torches in the porch, they went in to the early service, and when it was ended the torches were relighted and the procession returned to the rectory. At St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen, an early service was held, to the light of coloured candles brought by the congregation. At St. Asaph, Caerwys, at 4 or 5 a.m., Plygain, consisting of carols sung round the church in procession, was held. The Plygain continued in Welsh churches until about the eighteen-fifties, and, curiously enough, when the Established Church abandoned it, it was celebrated in Nonconformist chapels.

In the Isle of Man on Christmas Eve, or Oiel Verry (Mary's Eve), “a number of persons used to assemble in each parish church and proceed to shout carols or ‘Carvals.’ There was no unison or concert about the chanting, but a single person would stand up with a lighted candle in his or her hand, and chant in a dismal monotone verse after verse of some old Manx ‘Carval,’ until the candle was burnt out. Then another person would start up and go through a similar performance. No fresh candles might be lighted after the clock had chimed midnight.”

One may conjecture that the common English practice of ringing bells until midnight on Christmas Eve has also some connection with the old-time Midnight Mass.