Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Christmas of Olde England

"Christmas" was invented around the 3rd century AD but it may not have been celebrated here, in England, until it was introduced by the Normans. So Christmas, which we assume is native to us, is a pan-European import to England, dating from post 1066. The first "Christmas cards" date from around 1840. They were not religious but invented to be a good way of keeping in touch with those you rarely see. They were soon Christianised, seeing that they coincided with a Christian festival.

In the chill open air, today we listened to these sounds of pre-electronic Christmas, performed by a group of Mummers.  Mumming probably had a Swiss and German pantomine origin.  At its height, in the late 19th century, mummers put on Christmas plays at English country houses whose hostesses rewarded them well, to help raise money for their own Christmas celebrations. Today, this group sang ancient Carols, including the medieval English "Cherry Tree Carol" (see above). This ancient carol tells the story of expectant mother Mary asking an elderly Joseph for cherries - an English treat.  Joseph refuses, on the grounds that the "real" father of her baby should give her some fruit, at which point Jesus, the Saviour (from her womb) commands the cherry trees to bow down to give His mother fruit.

I found myself strangely moved by these songs sung sweetly, among ancient hills.  Apart from when I have read Thomas Hardy's novels, I have often forgotten that England has a long, rich folk culture. It has completely vanished from our technological lives: its sounds are at odds with electricity, amplification and "beat". English folk culture is now only championed by enthusiasts and by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who studied folk tunes to inspire music, true to these islands. 

Our English folk tradition was almost completely overwhelmed by European, American and Afro-American culture. This disregard adds to my frustration with the straight-jacketed narrative of "English history" that we are force-fed daily. Who is in control of this narrative?  Is it the victors of wars, the BBC, or the "neutral" Open University which so influences the BBC?

For me, this official  narrative of the past, which does not integrate simpler folk culture, is far too narrow, too lacking in the appeal of a kinder, slower, spiritually and linguistically richer country : Olde England.


  1. Hi Annis
    I can imagine how you feel. Listening to some folk-inspired music brings me to tears. I do not think that it is wrong to mourn. Here are some ways, perhaps, to live with this.
    Be yourself and be true to your motto. Then you will enshrine it, as you are doing. Read the old stuff (as C S Lewis advised). Lastly, and you may disagree my emphasis on this one, we are looking forward to the consummation of all things when all the nations (ethne) will be blessed who are expecting the coming. This is our hope even if the beloved nation of our human history seems to have died.

  2. Thanks Alson. Oddly I think England may be recovering itself due to austerity. The sounds of carols in London streets is being clearly heard, old brass bands. People are sensing we lost our way and are reaching out for older more stable things. We shall see. There is a wonderful BBC Great Expectations on TV at Christmas. Even the photo of the set of Satis House made me shudder. So atmospheric. I agree about the looking forward.