To Westminster Cathedral last night to meet Gil & Lauren and Kai Jäger at the Sankta Lucia ceremony organised by the Swedish Church in London. Wonderful singing from the choirs of the two churches and the Olaus Petri Choir from Örebro. The cathedral was packed out. The lights went out as the white-robed Lucia singers bore their candles to the sanctuary.
Christians arrived in these islands in the ninth century, with instructions from Rome to adopt and adapt local pagan feasts. Christmas was derived from the midwinter Yuletide feast; Sweden’s Lucia has similar roots. The midwinter pagan feasting always tended to outshine its Christian gloss, and Christmas was long deprecated by churchmen until Oliver Cromwell put his foot down and banned it outright, sending troops to make shopkeepers open on Christmas Day.
The Restoration restored the holiday but left its reputation unchanged, until Charles Dickens renewed it with A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers, which is why the nostalgic imagery of Christmas is from the early nineteenth century.
Christmas had acquired a sentimental respectability, but by smuggling its pagan values back in. At the bleakest time of the year we burn the Yule log, decorate the evergreen fir tree, exchange gifts and feast. The planet’s frosted pole has swung as far away from the sun as it will get. With the starving spring still to get through, we warm and feed each other. In the harshest of times, we party.
In recent years I have thought of Yuletide shaking off its Christian disguise. But I don’t think that’s right. While Russian gas heats our homes, winter’s hardship remains a concept to most of us. Rather, the old feast has been rededicated to the new gods of consumption.
Still, it was good to see Westminster Cathedral sporting a fine fir tree in its sanctuary as the white-robed celebrants processed up its (for once) packed nave.
» Westminster Cathedral blog report
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