No one who is seriously interested in Christmas can afford to overlook this cornerstone book by Clement A. Miles, first published in 1913. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is a remarkable read for the folklorist, the casual Christmas buff, or the historian.
Miles traces mid-winter festivals that date back to our most ancient times, and shows how ascendant Christianity took the traditions, motifs and sentiments of these celebrations and melded them into the splendid Christian holiday that resonates today. I quickly point out here that Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is not a revisionist, anti-Christian work; rather, this is the deeply detailed and researched work of a folklorist who looks at the many parts of our contemporary Christmas and traces them back to their earliest roots. It is fascinating.
Miles spends some time in his explication of the three traditions of Christmas – Christmas, Noel and Yule – and then reveals the origins of many beloved Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree, carols, the Yule log, feasting and various games still played around the holiday hearth.
Sadly, your correspondent has not been able to learn much about Miles. He died on February 2nd, 1918 at only 37 years of age. He was a member of the Folk-Lore Society, and had for many years been on T. Fisher Unwin’s literary staff. Miles also worked for the Friends’ War Victims’ Relief Committee, and possessed a wide knowledge of European languages, translated Sabatier’s Modernism and other works from the French, and was co-translator from the Italian of Gayda’s Modern Austria: Her Racial and Social Problems. His early death was clearly a great loss to anyone interested in history or folklore.
Here is a quote from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan that best provides a bit of the flavor of the book:
Before we pass on to the pagan aspects of Christmas, let us gather up our thoughts in an attempt to realize the peculiar appeal of the Feast of the Nativity, as it has been felt in the past, as it is felt to-day even by moderns who have no belief in the historical truth of the story it commemorates.
This appeal of Christmas seems to lie in the union of two modes of feeling which may be called the carol spirit and the mystical spirit. The carol spirit—by this we may understand the simple, human joyousness, the tender and graceful imagination, the kindly, intimate affection, which have gathered round the cradle of the Christ Child. The folk-tune, the secular song adapted to a sacred theme—such is the carol. What a sense of kindliness, not of sentimentality, but of genuine human feeling, these old songs give us, as though the folk who first sang them were more truly comrades, more closely knit together than we under modern industrialism.
One element in the carol spirit is the rustic note that finds its sanction as regards Christmas in St. Luke's story of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. One thinks of the stillness over the fields, of the hinds with their rough talk, “simply chatting in a rustic row,” of the keen air, and the great burst of light and song that dazes their simple wits, of their journey to Bethlehem where “the heaven-born Child all meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies,” of the ox and ass linking the beasts of the field to the Christmas adoration of mankind.
For many people, indeed, the charm of Christmas is inseparably associated with the country; it is lost in London—the city is too vast, too modern, too sophisticated. It is bound up with the thought of frosty fields, of bells heard far away, of bare trees against the starlit sky, of carols sung not by trained choirs but by rustic folk with rough accent, irregular time, and tunes learnt by ear and not by book.
Again, without the idea of winter half the charm of Christmas would be gone. Transplanted in the imagination of western Christendom from an undefined season in the hot East to Europe at midwinter, the Nativity scenes have taken on a new pathos with the thought of the bitter cold to which the great Little One lay exposed in the rough stable, with the contrast between the cold and darkness of the night and the fire of love veiled beneath that infant form. Lux in tenebris is one of the strongest notes of Christmas: in the bleak midwinter a light shines through the darkness; when all is cold and gloom, the sky bursts into splendour, and in the dark cave is born the Light of the World.
There is the idea of royalty too, with all it stands for of colour and magnificence, though not so much in literature as in painting is this side of the Christmas story represented. The Epiphany is the great opportunity for imaginative development of the regal idea. Then is seen the union of utter poverty with highest kingship; the monarchs of the East come to bow before the humble Infant for whom the world has found no room in the inn. How suggestive by their long, slow syllables are the Italian names of the Magi. Gasparre, Baldassarre, Melchiorre—we picture Oriental monarchs in robes mysteriously gorgeous, wrought with strange patterns, heavy with gold and precious stones. With slow processional motion they advance, bearing to the King of Kings their symbolic gifts, gold for His crowning, incense for His worship, myrrh for His mortality, and with them come the mystery, colour, and perfume of the East, the occult wisdom which bows itself before the revelation in the Child.
Above all, as the foregoing pages have shown, it is the childhood of the Redeemer that has won the heart of Europe for Christmas; it is the appeal to the parental instinct, the love for the tender, weak, helpless, yet all-potential babe, that has given the Church's festival its strongest hold. And this side of Christmas is penetrated often by the mystical spirit—that sense of the Infinite in the finite without which the highest human life is impossible.
The feeling for Christmas varies from mere delight in the Christ Child as a representative symbol on which to lavish affection, as a child delights in a doll, to the mystical philosophy of Eckhart, in whose Christmas sermons the Nativity is viewed as a type of the Birth of God in the depths of man's being. Yet even the least spiritual forms of the cult of the Child are seldom without some hint of the supersensual, the Infinite, and even in Eckhart there is a love of concrete symbolism. Christmas stands peculiarly for the sacramental principle that the outward and visible is a sign and shadow of the inward and spiritual. It means the seeing of common, earthly things shot through by the glory of the Infinite. “Its note,” as has been said of a stage of the mystic consciousness, the Illuminative Way, “is sacramental not ascetic. It entails ... the discovery of the Perfect One ablaze in the Many, not the forsaking of the Many in order to find the One ... an ineffable radiance, a beauty and a reality never before suspected, are perceived by a sort of clairvoyance shining in the meanest things.” Christmas is the festival of the Divine Immanence, and it is natural that it should have been beloved by the saint and mystic whose life was the supreme manifestation of the Via Illuminativa, Francis of Assisi.
Christmas is the most human and lovable of the Church's feasts. Easter and Ascensiontide speak of the rising and exaltation of a glorious being, clothed in a spiritual body refined beyond all comparison with our natural flesh; Whitsuntide tells of the coming of a mysterious, intangible Power—like the wind, we cannot tell whence It cometh and whither It goeth; Trinity offers for contemplation an ineffable paradox of Pure Being. But the God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished. Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merrymaking; and in some degree the memory of the Incarnation has been able to blend with the pagan joyance of the New Year.
Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable www.ManyBooks.net. It is essential reading for Christmas.