Old English Midwinter Festival

December 25, 2011 by staff 

Old English Midwinter FestivalOld English Midwinter Festival, Christmas Day, which occurs shortly after the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, is regarded as Christ’s birthday by most (but not all) Christians throughout the world.

Before the Christian era, an annual midwinter festival was held to mark the gradual return of the sun after three months of progressive darkness during which crops did not grow and surplus livestock had to be slaughtered to preserve dwindling supplies of fodder for precious breeding animals.

December 25 was sanctified as Christ’s birthday by the Roman emperor Constantine three centuries after the Crucifixion. His decision to declare the day an immovable feast in the Roman Empire in 325 AD was initially unpopular, but it eventually took root in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church calendars.

Christmas was proclaimed a 12-day holy festival by the Council of Tours in 567 AD and this is apparently the basis for the frivolous carol about a partridge in a pear tree that was first published in English in 1780 and which may have a hidden meaning.

Protestant and Puritan theologians could find no scriptural basis for the celebration of Christmas and it was suppressed in Scotland and England in 1583 and 1647 respectively. Secular festivities like Hogmany and New Year were permitted, and these have remained popular.

Some Christian fundamentalists still regard Christmas as a spurious festival, pointing out that the Christ did not instruct his followers to celebrate his birthday in the Sermon on the Mount.

They also reject the use of pagan symbols such as holly, mistletoe and Yule logs.

The festival resurfaced in Protestant Europe about 100 years after Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape, but the exchange of Christmas presents and the emphasis on children were 19th century phenomena. Before this, adults celebrated by going to church, singing carols and eating festive meals.

Santa Claus is another name for St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who spent 10 years in prison for his beliefs and died in Turkey in 326 AD. He was particularly popular in the Netherlands, where he was regarded as the patron saint of sailors. His feast day on December 6 survived the rise of Protestantism and was marked by the distribution of gifts to children.

Dutch immigrants to the US popularised him as “Sinterklaas” and devised some fanciful legends about his generous nocturnal activities. He was first transported through the air on horseback, but his steed was replaced by eight reindeer in 1823. Red-nosed Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, was invented in 1939.

Advent wreaths and evergreen Christmas trees originated in Germany and have since spread throughout the world. Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced the custom to England in 1841 and the well-to-do soon followed his example, decorating their trees with candles, ribbons and glass ornaments. The first mention of a decorated tree in SA dates from June 1855, when a “Christmas Tree Party” was held to celebrate five-year-old Mordaunt Boyle’s midwinter birthday. It was decorated by the sisters Emma and Ellen Rutherfoord, daughters of a wealthy British merchant who had settled in Cape Town. They had seen a festive tree during a long visit to England in 1853 and 1854, and they used tapers, sugar plums and flowers to good effect.

“Mr Boyle pronounced it perfectly beautiful,” Emma wrote to her sister Mary in India, but she was not there to light the tapers at the appointed hour. On returning home she was waylaid by an eager young clergyman named Andrew Murray (1828-1917), who proposed marriage after a mere month’s acquaintance.

Emma was shocked by his unseemly haste and shut herself in her bedroom to recover her equilibrium. Her suitor did not give up, however, and the pair were married in Wynberg in July the following year.

Earlier, Emma told Mary of the gifts she had given family, friends and servants for Christmas 1852. These consisted mainly of items of handwork and improving religious books.

Mr Rutherfoord gave his daughters presents from a consignment he had recently imported from China for his business. Emma received a silver filigree card-case “too good to use”, Ellen’s gift was a pretty silver chain, Lucy was given a feather fan, and a beautiful China shawl was sent to Mary.

The obligation to dispense charity was instilled early in those days.

The Rutherfoords supported worthy causes sponsored by the Congregational Church in Harrington Street, but they could afford to be generous. In 1853, the Rev William Moister of the less affluent Methodist Church in Burg Street distributed pink “Christmas Offering” collection cards to the Sunday School children of Cape Town, Rondebosch and Wynberg in aid of missionary work. The youthful recruits raised the remarkable sum of almost £25, including £5 collected by the pupils of the predominantly coloured Sydney Street School in what later became District Six.

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