Merrymaking at mid-winter

Cotehele's Christmas garland stretches the length of the Great Hall.
Cotehele's Christmas garland stretches the length of the Great Hall.
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Are you itching to get out the tinsel? Maybe a jolly gnome in a red cap is winking at you right now. If so, you’re not alone.

Apparently eight per cent of homes were Christmas-ready at the end of November – tree up and dressed, flashing Rudolphs, stick-on snowflakes in every window, etc. All before Advent had even begun.

On the other hand, when decorating a medieval Great Hall, you have to start early. And think big. How about a 60-foot-long garland, made up of 40,000 dried flowers? At Cotehele House, in Cornwall, National Trust staff tackle one of those every year. Gardeners collect flowers from the estate during the summer, and the finished garland is in place by mid-November.

Topsy-turvy

For centuries, Santa’s forebears have cheered December’s dark days. Odin, Yule, Old Father Christmas, they all had one thing in common; their midwinter festival of eating, drinking, dancing and merrymaking was for adults only.

Children had their very own saint, Nicholas. This fourth century Turkish bishop was renowned for his miracles and his way of secretly giving to the needy, sometimes leaving coins in their shoes.

Youngsters in some continental countries still receive their presents on December 6, the saint’s feast day. Nicholas, riding a white horse, brings gifts for those who’ve been good.

In England around 400 churches are dedicated to St Nicholas, although most of his feast-day customs disappeared after the Reformation. However, one has been successfully revived.

The installation of a youth as Bishop went down well in our medieval cathedrals. “God has put down the mighty from their throne, and has exalted the humble and meek”, the congregation heard as the real Bishop changed places with a choirboy.

Seated on the bishop’s throne, the Boy Bishop looked the part with replica robes, gold ring, mitre and crosier. He had the duties as well, except for celebrating Mass: but at York Minster even that was permitted.

York’s “Bairn Bishop” worked the hardest. He covered 60 miles in a fortnight, calling on the gentry and at religious houses. With his retinue of six he sang and received donations; whatever money was left after expenses, he was allowed to keep.

Anarchic customs and role reversal were once part of the Christmas period. The tradition of Boy Bishops, dating back to the 12th century, echoed that. But while the people were in favour, Henry VIII wasn’t. In 1541 he banned Boy Bishops on the grounds that they were an affront to dignity - which of course, they were.

Today the cathedrals of Salisbury, Hereford, Westminster, and Newcastle all have Boy Bishop ceremonies. There’s a revival of interest in St Nicholas too, as an antidote to the commercialism of Santa. But how, you might be wondering, did we get from a well-loved saint to the shopkeepers’ friend?

St Nicholas was popular throughout Europe, so when Dutch settlers arrived in New Amsterdam they brought with them their saint, and his gift-giving habit. In 19th century New York a sprinkling of Nordic folklore turned St Nicholas into Santa Claus, a rotund gnome with a red cap and white beard.