New Year's Eve

Friday 31 December 2010

It's 31 December 2010, which means that we're now counting down the hours to the beginning of a new year.

You may well be planning to party in the New Year or carry out some familiar traditions - such as sing 'Auld Lang Syne' - so, to get you thinking, here are six familiar ways of welcoming in the New Year.

1) Watch Night
Many religious communities have a tradition of New Year's Eve being known as 'Watch Night'. The faithful of the community congregate to worship at services that commence on New Year's Eve night and which continue past midnight into the New Year. The Watch Night is a time for giving thanks for the blessings of the outgoing year and praying for divine favour during the upcoming year.

2) The Edinburgh Cannon
In Edinburgh the cannon is fired at Edinburgh Castle at the stroke of midnight.

3) Hogmanay
Scotland celebrates New Year as Hogmanay, which is the Scots word for the last day of the year. The roots of Hogmanay reach back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, as well as incorporating customs from the Gaelic New Year's celebration of Samhain.

4) Auld Lang Syne
The Hogmanay custom of singing 'Auld Lang Syne' has become common in many countries. 'Auld Lang Syne' is a traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns, which was later set to music. It is now common for this to be sung in a circle of linked arms that are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day. In Scotland the traditional practice is to cross arms only for the last verse.

5) First Footing
The practice of 'first-footing' starts immediately after midnight, and involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour's house, and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a type of rich fruit cake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder.

6) New Year's Resolutions
It is also customary to make New Year's resolutions, which individuals hope to fulfil in the coming year. The most popular resolutions in the West include to stop smoking or drinking, lose weight or get physically fit. What will you give up (or take up) in 2011?

However you're planning to see in the New Year, I would like to wish you all a very happy and healthy...

The Chrismologist's Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Monday 27 December 2010

So, new toys have been played with (and broken), you've stuffed yourself silly (and are feeling a little worse for wear), Boxing Day is over and with its passing comes the feeling that everything's gone a bit flat until the excitement of New Year.

But have no fear, the Chrismologist has the solution, the means to dispel all your winter woes during the dying days of the year...

That's right - a quiz! It's one that anyone from 8 to 80 can enjoy so why not test your family and friends now? I'll be posting the answers after New Year.

So, without further ado, here's the first question...

Remember to come back in the New Year when you will be able to find out for yourself how much you really know about Christmas and the festive season!

Who was Good King Wenceslas?

Sunday 26 December 2010

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen, forever ingrained in the national memory by the carol Good King Wenceslas.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen...

The carol tells the story of the aforementioned good kinglooking out of his castle to see a poor man foraging for firewood in the forest. In an act of Christian charity, Wenceslas decides to spread the Christmas cheer and sets off with his page, into the cold and the dark, to make sure the wretch enjoys himself to the full. But who was good King Wenceslas, and was he as good as the carol would have us believe?

Well, first of all you can discard the narrative from the carol as fact, as it was invented by that infamous Victorian caroller, J M Neale in 1853. He also took what was originally the tune of a spring time carol Tempus adest floridum to provide his little festive number with a melody. So, if an over-enthusiastic lyricist is responsible for the saccharin-sweet sentiment of the carol, who was the real life inspiration for the saintly monarch?

You’ll be relieved to hear that Wenceslas did at least exist, although he wasn’t a king. He was actually a duke, but you could call him a prince if you were feeling generous. Born circa AD 907, in Stochov near Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, he was ruler of the principality of Bohemia. He was raised as a Christian by his grandmother Saint Ludmilla. However, his mother Drahomíra was a pagan, and ruthlessly ambitious. She had Ludmilla murdered and then ruled as regent herself until Wenceslas came of age. However, intrigue plagued her court and a desire on behalf of the populace of Bohemia to see an end to the conflicts between the Christian and non-Christian factions within the region led to Wenceslas taking the reins of government himself.

As a mark of his pious Christian upbringing, it is said that Wenceslas took a vow of virginity and that German missionary priests, seeking to make Bohemia Christian, enjoyed his wholehearted support. By 929 Christianity was spreading throughout Bohemia, but Wenceslas’ own converting zeal upset his still non-Christian rivals. That same year, faced with the threat of invasions from Germany, Wenceslas submitted to the German king Henry I. This upset the nobles still further who then plotted to get rid of him. These same nobles worked on Wenceslas’ own brother, Boleslav, who then waylaid him on the way to mass. Boleslav cut him down at the door to the church, hacking him to pieces. Wenceslas was only 22 years old.

Almost as soon as he was buried, there came reports of miracles taking place at Wenceslas’ tomb. In 932, fearful of reprisals from beyond the grave, the superstitious Boleslav had his dead brother’s remains disinterred and moved to the church of Saint Vitus, in Prague itself. The church was a popular pilgrimage site during medieval times and eventually became a cathedral. Wenceslas himself was canonized and was made patron saint of Bohemia.

So now you know!

Cribs - featuring FC himself

Saturday 25 December 2010

The Chrismologist's Christmas Message 2010

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 25

Now I know that Advent Calendars don't usually include Christmas Day itself (I'm talking traditional Advent Calendars here, not the mass produced, branded, chocolate disgorging monstrosities) but I'm the Chrismologist and I bring you tidings of great joy! So, with that in mind...

Merry Christmas!

Yes, Christmas Day is here at last, and hopefully some of you are waking up this morning to find that Father Christmas has left you a copy of What is Myrrh Anyway? or Christmas Miscellany in your stocking!

I hope you all have a wonderful day, no matter where you are or what you're doing.

So we keep the olden greeting
With its meaning deep and true,
And wish a merrie Christmas
And a happy New Year to you.

(Old English saying)

NORAD Santa Tracker

Friday 24 December 2010

If you have any little ones in your house waiting for the arrival of a certain tubby gentleman with a bulging sack, then you might want to track his progress using the NORAD Santa Tracker.

Carols from King's

For many the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge heralds the true start of Christmas.

The service has been broadcast live from King's College Chapel in Cambridge since 1928, following the same pattern of scripture lessons, but with a combination of traditional carols (it always starts with Once in Royal David's City and ends with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) and a new commission (this year from Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara).

As darkness falls, the blue tones of medieval stained glass give way to the warmth of candlelight to create a unique atmosphere in which the Christmas story is told. It's a rare moment of tranquillity amid the mayhem of our increasingly commercial festivities and there's nothing quite like it for producing a feeling of goodwill towards all men.

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 24

Yes, it's almost here - only one day to go until Christmas Day! So, what does Christmas Eve itself have in store?

Well, traditionalists will be putting up their Christmas trees and other decorations today, whilst last minute shoppers will be panic buying, spending (on average) £33 on last minute purchases (if they can get to the shops, that is).

There are many traditions associated with this day, but some have long been forgotten. First there is the tradition of the Dumb Cake (a type of loaf!) which a young spinster would make in silence to help her determine the identity of her future intended.

Christmas Eve was considered a day of abstinence and, as such, was a day when traditionally fish was eaten rather than meat. It is also a day when younger parishioners attend a Crib Service at church.

Of course it is tonight when hopeful children (and some adults) hang up stockings (or sacks!) in the hope that Father Christmas might fill them to bursting with presents.

And some people attend Midnight Mass with churches welcoming in Christmas Day with a peal of bells (announcing the birth of Christ and the death of the Devil).

You can read more about these traditions (and a number of others) in What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany, which is still available from good bookshops until they close for Christmas later today.

What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany make the perfect Christmas stocking fillers!

The Queen's Speech

The Queen’s speech is as much a part of Christmas as over-eating and spending far too much money on presents. And yet it is also one of the more recently-developed popular Christmas traditions.

The practice of the monarch making a speech to the nation was begun in 1932, when the then king George V, father of our own monarch, broadcast a Christmas message to the British people over the radio.

And at 3.00pm on 25 December 2010 I will inaugurate another new Christmas tradition - the Chrismologist's Christmas message...

Jethro Tull - A Christmas Song

Thursday 23 December 2010

Something festive now from the flute-warbling folkster himself, Ian Anderson...

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 23

If you're anything like me, I'm sure you're up to your neck in preparations for Christmas. But amidst all the fuss and panic, why not take some time out tomorrow to enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve drink.

Posset was drunk on Christmas Eve to get the seasonal merry-making under way. It was made by combining hot milk with spices, lemon and sugar, as well as oatcake and bread. The posset was traditionally taken with a spoon. Good luck befell the fortunate youth or maiden who drew out the lucky coin (or even wedding-ring!) which had been dropped in the posset-pot!

During the 19th century, on Christmas Eve, it was the custom to offer each carolling guest a posset cup and a piece of apple pie or tart. This recipe serves 8-10.


4 cups of milk
4 tbs sugar
4 slices of toast
1 tsp cinnamon
4 cups of beer (preferably ale)

Heat the milk, sugar, and toast in a saucepan, taking care not to let it boil. Stir the cinnamon and beer together in a large bowl. Discard the toast, pour the hot milk over the ale and stir. It is best served still warm.

Puccini and the Panettone

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Today (December 22) is Puccini's birthday. Born in 1858, the Italian composer is best known for his operas, including La bohème, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and Turandot.

Puccini was known for the love-hate relationship he had with the conductor Toscanini and therein lies an interesting Christmas story.

Each year Puccini sent his friends a Panettone at Christmas. One year, having fallen out with Toscanini he forgot to cancel the conductor's gift.

Realizing the error, Puccini sent Toscanini a telegram that read: PANETTONE SENT BY MISTAKE, PUCCINI.

Toscanini responded with a telegram of his own: PANETTONE EATEN BY MISTAKE, TOSCANINI.

If you fancy making your own Panettone this Christmas (and there's still time - just) why not try this recipe?

(a.k.a. Italian Christmas Cake)

1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon dried yeast
4 tablespoons milk (or buttermilk)
100g (4oz) butter
50g (2oz) caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
3 (free range if possible) eggs, beaten
finely grated rind of ½ a lemon
finely grated rind of ½ an orange
400g (14oz) plain (all purpose) flour or white bread flour, sifted
1 teaspoon salt
100g (4oz) raisins or sultanas
75g (3oz) chopped mixed peel

1) Preheat the oven to 400F, 200C, Gas Mark 6. Butter a 20cm (8 in) cake tin and line with lightly buttered greaseproof paper.

2) Pour the milk (or buttermilk) into a bowl, then sprinkle on the sugar and yeast. Leave for around 10 minutes – it should start to go frothy.

3) Combine the butter and caster sugar in a bowl and beat them together until they are very fluffy. Then beat in the eggs gradually, followed by the lemon and orange rind (and the vanilla extract if you’re using it).

4) Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Now gently fold in the milky/yeast fluid, followed by the creamed butter/sugar mixture. Mix them all together until you have a soft dough.

5) Put the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes until it’s smooth.

6) Place the dough into an oiled plastic bag (or cover with a tea-towel and leave in a warm place). Leave it for about an hour until it has doubled in size.

7) Sprinkle the raisins/sultanas and mixed peel over the dough. Knead until they are completely mixed in. Place the mixture in the cake tin and leave it in a warm place, until it has doubled in size again. It will take about 45 minutes.

8) When it has risen, bake it in the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350F, 180C, Gas Mark 4 and bake it for another 30 minutes. When it’s done it should be golden brown and firm to the touch. Cool the Panettone, and dust it with icing sugar.

Pax Britannia: Silent Knight

Here's a little treat (hopefully) for all you Pax Britannia fans out there. As David Moore, Desk Editor at Abaddon Books, explains here, Pax Brtiannia has been receiving a lot of lover over the Internet of late. And so, by way of a thank you, here's a little Christmas gift from me to you.


Advent Cocktail... Holidays are coming

Here's something a little different from the usual Christmas tipple of Eggnog and Mulled Wine. It's an Advent Cocktail called the Watermelon Ling, and here's what you need and how you make it...

Watermelon Ling

2 shots Seagrams gin
1 tsp grated ginger
4-5 watermelon chunks
3/4 shot lemon/lime juice
½ shot ginger infused sugar
Topped with ginger beer

London dry gin muddled with fresh root ginger, watermelon, lime juice and jasmine infused sugar. Shake and strain over ice. Charge with ginger beer. Serve tall garnished with watermelon, white petals and ginger-orange gin based caviar*.

* You might want to miss this bit out. For some inexplicable reason, my local Tesco is out of 'gin based caviar' right now. Must be all the Watermelon Lings everyone's making right now.

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 22

It's that time of year now, when families start to visit church to take part in a crib service. The children among the congregation are invited to place the kings, shepherds, et al, into a pre-prepared stable scene. Actually there's one outside the church opposite my house. But where does this practice of recreating the Nativity tableau come from?

Well, as you can imagine, What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany have the answers, but just to give you a taster... One man is credited with creating the Christmas crib more than any other, and that is the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi (and it's not his only connection to Christmas either).

In 1220, Francis made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. While there, he saw how Christmas was celebrated in the town of Jesus’ birth and was so impressed that he asked the Pope, Honorious III, if he might recreate something like it in his own Italian home of Greccio.
With the help of a local landowner, Gionvanni Velita, and his friends, Francis succeeded in creating his own representation of the Nativity in a cave, surrounded by candles. Details over the actual participants in his Nativity scene vary, with some saying that Francis used statues to represent the holy family, while others say claim that real people, dressed in appropriate costumes, fulfilled the role. However, all the sources agree on the fact that at the centre of the scene was a straw-filled manger surrounded by real animals.

These days, most families have to settle for a wooden replica if they want to recreate a crib scene in their own home. In 1562 the Jesuits put up a crib in Prague, and this is considered to be the first crib of the modern kind.

In different countries the traditional Nativity scene has different names, of course. In Italy it is known as presepe or presepio; in Portuguese it is known as presépio, in Catalan it's the pessebre, in Spanish the name goes between El Belén (for Bethlehem, where Jesus was born) and also Nacimiento, Portal or Pesebre. The Maltese name is Presepju and the Czech names are betlém and jesličky. In Poland it is known as szopka, from Polish for 'small crib', in Croatian it is jaslice. In the Philippines, it is called a Belen (due to Spanish Influence). The Dutch name kerststal refers to the stable in which Jesus was born. The Scandinavian words julkrubba (Swedish) and julekrybbe (Norwegian and Danish) are made from the words for yule and manger. And in Russian and Ukrainian culture there was a type of portable Christmas puppet theatre called vertep, known in Belarus as batleyka, from 'Bethlehem'. So there you go.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - steampunk style

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Annie Lennox has a collection of her favourite Christmas carols out now. Ms Lennox has also released her version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen as a single. Below you'll find the video that accompanies the single.

I like it for three reasons. First of all I like the track, with its retro vibe. Secondly, I like the steampunk aesthetic and visual style of the video. And thirdly, I like the winter solstice imagery that accompanies the spiritual words of the carol.

All these elements combined in this way suit this old Steampunk Chrismologist down to the ground (which is, of course, hard as iron).

Winter Solstice marked by Lunar Eclipse

If you're up and about already in the UK (like me) then keep an eye on the skies (if you can see anything through the snow clouds) because there's going to be a total lunar eclipse this morning, when the Earth casts a shadow onto the Moon.

On the day of the winter solstice, December 21, the full Moon will start to pass through the cone of Earth's shadow at 6.32am. The partial eclipse begins when the Moon first enters the dark inner, umbral part of the Earth's shadow, and will become a total eclipse at 7.40am. It will reach its maximum at 8.17am, and end at 8.53am.

From southern parts of the UK, the initial partial phase and the beginning of totality will be visible, but the Moon will be dropping down into the western sky as dawn approaches. From those locations, when totality begins, the Moon will be very low in the west-north-western sky, close to the horizon and in a rapidly brightening sky. From locations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, totality will be visible in its entirety, but the Moon will be low down after the time of greatest eclipse.

John Mason, from the British Astronomical Association, said: "Observers should go out at about 6.30am when, if the sky is clear, the Moon will be visible in the western sky, and they will be able to watch as more and more of the southern part of the Moon becomes immersed in the Earth's shadow. They can continue watching until the eclipse becomes total at 7.40am, and hopefully for a little while after this time, if they have an unobstructed western horizon."

Dr Mason added: "For observers in the British Isles, the very low elevation of the Moon during the total phase means that it is not possible to predict just how dark the Moon will be when it is eclipsed, or what colour it will appear. One will just have to go out and have a look."

So, there you go. Good luck!

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 21

21 December is traditionally the date of the winter solstice, the year's longest night and shortest day, and sometimes referred to as Yule. The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun's position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observers' hemisphere. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the event of the winter solstice occurs some time between December 20 and December 23 each year in the northern hemisphere.

The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradually lengthening nights and shortening days. How cultures interpret this is varied, since it is sometimes said to astronomically mark either the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. Though the winter solstice lasts an instant, the term is also colloquially used to refer to the full 24-hour period of the day on which it occurs.

Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings and other ritual celebrations around that time.

Did you know...?
The word solstice derives from Latin sol, meaning 'sun', and sistere, 'to stand still'.

Saint Thomas' Day is also celebrated on 21 December. Saint Thomas is commemorated on this day because he was the last one of the apostles to become convinced of Jesus' resurrection - in other words, he was the one who for the longest time remained in the 'night of unbelief and doubt.' He is also supposedly to have died on this day c. AD72, near Chennai in India.

These are various traditions practised on this day, particularly in Germany, including the Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel, and the Rittberg wedding.

Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel (the 'lazybone' or 'donkey' of Saint Thomas day) were names given to the last person to get out of bed and for the last student to appear in class on that particular morning in Westphalia (roughly the region between the Rivers Rhine and Weser, located north of the Ruhr River).

The Rittburgische Hochzeit (Rittberg wedding), also in Westphalia, was an opulent meal served in the belief that if you ate well on Saint Thomas day, you could expect to do so all of the next year.

So, Happy Saint Thomas Day!

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 20

Monday 20 December 2010

Christmas has long been a time for telling tales around a roaring fire on a cold winter's night. There is, of course, the story of the Nativity, as related through the Bible, but another favourite of the festive season is the ghost story!

Probably the most well-known Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but it is by no means the only one. Some of the best Christmas ghost stories were written by M. R. James (1862-1936). Many of them were intended for reading aloud, to select gatherings of friends, as Christmas Eve entertainments.

So accomplished a writer of ghost stories was he, that his method of story-telling is now known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale includes a characterful setting, a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar protagonist, and the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that results in attracting the unwanted attention of some supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave. James' intention was always to, 'put the reader into the position of saying to himself: "If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!"'

Continuing in this Jamesian vein, this Christmas, BBC 2 will be screening a new adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You (made famous by Jonathan Miller's unsettling 1968 adaptation), this time starring John Hurt and Gemma Jones.

Did you know...?
On this day in 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the oldest ever monarch of the United Kingdom, surpassing Queen Victoria, who lived for 81 years, 7 months and 29 days.

The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 19

Sunday 19 December 2010

Just like Christmas cards and manufactured decorations, Christmas wrapping paper rose to prominence during the 19th century, at a time of growing industrialisation and the development of a consumer culture.

Before the mid-1800s Christmas presents had usually only been given to children and were small things that might be placed inside stockings on Christmas Eve. However, by the 1880s, the purchase of manufactured goods had increased, as had the production of boxes in which to store them. From there it was only a small step to create special paper to wrap it all up in.

In the late 19th century presents were wrapped in white tissue or brown paper, with a gift tag or token sprig of holly attached. From there people started using coloured tissue paper. Joyce Hall (who would later found Hallmark Cards) started producing wrapping paper in 1918, with the designs becoming more elaborate as the years went on.

And then, of course, there's this sort of Christmas Wrapping (with more of those wonderful lights!).

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

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