From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London: William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 58-70.




Heathen Customs at Christian Feasts.

BY  THE  REV.  A.  N.  COOPER,  M.A.

IN the worship of Juno, dating back to times long previous to Israel setting foot in Egypt, the women were dressed in linen garments, holding a mirror in the left hand, and a sistrum (a rattle), in the right. The Israelites having fallen into the idolatries of the country, brought the mirrors which they had used in her worship out of Egypt with them. What was to be done with them? Certainly there was no harm in the mirrors themselves, and they were made of valuable material. Should they be destroyed? Not so, Moses directs they should be put to profitable use, and formed into a laver of brass for the tabernacle: and the bible evidently sanctions and approves the common sense of Moses.

This will serve to remove from the mind any impression which may lurk there, that the heathen customs surviving in religious festivals are to be referred to in the same malevolent spirit with which Gibbon alludes to the same thing. It is 59 evidently with a sense of pleasure he traces out the similarity between Christianity and Paganism, implying there is little difference between them, instead of admiring the common sense of the Christians, able to turn old and sometimes base customs into profitable and godly uses.

But it was not merely good policy and common sense to act as they did, it was impossible to have acted otherwise. Religion, like a language grows. “It grew and waxed a great tree.” We speak of our language as Anglo-Saxon, as of our religion as Christian. And yet who wonders to find in it words like father, mother, and daughter, which were in existence before the Indo-European family separated; other words, especially those connected with wealth and dignity, were given to us by our masters the Normans; while being a maritime nation, we have imported a fresh word with every fresh article, and for such common words as tea, sugar, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, cassia, cinnamon, tobacco, myrrh, citrons, rice, potatoes, cotton, chintz, shawls, we borrow from the Chinese, Malay, Arabic, Mexican, Hebrew, Malabar, South American, Bengalee, and Persian language. Not only do we find from the analogy of languages, but also from the example 60 of the old Jewish religion, that we should expect this borrowing to have gone on. Even Newman would allow that the Jewish Church received its doctrine of immortality from Egypt, and its doctrine of angels and demons from Babylon; if that be so it is no great wonder if the heathen were also allowed to hand down certain customs as well as doctrine to the Christian community.

But many people would jump to the conclusion that because a custom was heathen, it must necessarily be wrong. Not so. If we take the trouble to go to the facts of the case, and find out what the heathen festivals were in honour of, we find them intended to salute the New Year with vows of public and private felicity, to indulge the pious remembrance of the dead and the living, to ascertain the inviolable bounds of property, to hail, on the return of Spring, the genial powers of generation, to perpetuate the memory of the foundation of the city of Rome, and to restore, during the humane licence of the Saturnalia, the primitive equality of mankind. Not such very atrocious objects, are they? And if we turn to the question whether the early Christians could have abandoned the festivals and the customs connected with them, had they wished to, it must 61 be admitted to be very doubtful. Superstitions survive long after they have been formally abandoned. In nothing did the Roman Catholic Church do better service than in its efforts to make people abandon the belief in ghosts. Nobody could be admitted to communion who did not publicly affirm they had no such belief. Yet how has spiritualism survived everywhere.

How comes it, may be asked, that so many of the Christian feasts synchronize with the old heathen festivals. The feast of the New Year with the Circumcision, the feast of the Saturnalia with Christmas. The goddess Februa, worshipped on the 2nd February, has the same date as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Bona Dea with her mysteries on the 1st May; Apollo on the 24th June, the Tutelary deity of Rome on 29th September, and Pomona on the 1st November, each are represented on red letter days in the Christian calendar. How are we to account for these coincidences? The best rule we ever came across for settling difficult passages of Scripture is Canon Mozley’s. He says, “always take the simplest meaning of the words unless there be some obvious reason against it.” Now the obvious explanation of the 62 matter is this. The ancient religious festivals of Rome were public holidays. On certain of them, the Saturnalia for example, the slaves were obliged to be at liberty, and every one had leisure. What more likely than that the authorities of the church should take their people when they could get them, and that in a church largely made up of slaves and freedmen, sellers of sulphur matches and old clothes, the opportunity made the day. The most orthodox of writers admit that the rise of these festivals is involved in the greatest obscurity. Not only the day, but even the year of the birth of Christ himself, is so doubtful that good reasons might be given for dating it eight years previous to the generally received time. Therefore what wonder if the actual day when St. Bartholomew was flayed alive in some obscure place on the Malabar coast of India, or when St. Matthew died in some unknown region of the Persian desert, were quite unknown and had to be settled by guess work, and that one day being as probable as another, the sensible Christians of the early church chose days when they were at liberty to do their saints honour.

With the days, the customs associated with the 63 days followed almost as a matter of course. The most common and best known of these is the employment of holly and evergreens at Christmas time. The doors of the ancient Romans were under the special protection of their gods, and these were wreathed with laurels in honour thereof. From wreathing the outsides, it was a natural step to wreath the inside of the places where Christians assembled, as all will be aware that there were very obvious reasons for not wishing to call attention to them. The wreathes, which had a certain significance to the heathens, had another one to the Christians. They saw, especially in the holly which puts forth its red berries about Christmas time, an effort on its part to show honour to the Lord.

The use of mistletoe at Christmas is confined to those countries where once the Druidical religion was established. These had an extraordinary veneration for the number three, and the mistletoe was sacred to them because not only its berries, but its leaves also grow in clusters of three. To the Christian it had a very different meaning. They saw in it an illustration which nature gave them of the Christmas mystery. Here was an ordinary tree producing that which 64 was unlike all its kind and yet of it, a golden branch differing from everything the old stocks had ever seen before, and though taking fibre and substance from the womb of the parent tree, possessing a nature and essence different.

It is to flowers however that man naturally seems to turn in order to give expression to the image of his emotions. Flowers have retained more of the fragrance of a world which dwelt around the gates of the terrestrial Paradise than anything else in creation. To have been placed on this earth “to dress and to keep it,” was the divine intention, and as might be expected flowers have been found, in all times, full of pure sympathy with the human heart, and were earliest enrolled in the service of decoration. In the Floralia of the ancient religion, people saw in flowers an acceptable offering to the gods, chaplets of flowers crowned every victim for the sacrifice, and the votaries themselves were wreathed with them. No wonder the Christians saw in them the most simple and innocent method of adorning their altars. St. Jerome (4th century), praises his friend Nepotian for his pious care for the divine worship, in that he made flowers of many kinds contribute to the beauty 65 and ornament of the church, and in the use of flowers in divine worship, the Protestant churches of Germany agree with our own. At Easter they are more especially in evidence, as having been raised again from the earth.

“The world is small,” we are often saying, and as we get older we find how limited our means of enjoyment are, however great our wealth or opportunity. What can any one do on a festival but eat, drink, and be merry, so whether we live in one century or another, we are sure to find food and drink playing a great part at times of rejoicing. The particular fare eaten by Christians at certain times was enjoyed by the heathens long before the Christian era. In point of antiquity, Easter eggs would be deserving of first mention. These were eaten, having first been coloured, in the very remotest antiquity during the festival of the spring. To this day they are a prominent feature in the festival of Noruz or New Year, held throughout Central Asia about the 25th March. The hot cross buns of Good Friday are the sacred cakes of antiquity, stamped with the sign of our faith to hallow their use. The loving cup of Christmas is the old Scandinavian wassail bowl, in which, as they 66 passed it one from another, they were supposed to drown every animosity of the past year. The Romans being haunted by fear that the dead might return were constantly propitiating their manes, and among other methods by throwing out beans to pacify them, of course reserving portions for themselves, and so a repast of beans became common in Lent and other seasons of mortification. Accompanying the dancing, which formed so prominent a feature in the festival of old time, were small cakes made for the refreshment of the dancers, these were generally seasoned with herbs, and so at Easter time in memory of the bitter herbs eaten with the Passover Lamb, the custom grew up of eating tansy (German, tanze a dance) cakes.

The hallowed cake of the Ancient Britons, which, whosoever ate, had a vision that night of the man or woman whom Heaven designed should be their wedded mate, has given place to the wedding cake itself, the innocent means of enjoyment to many, and which has attracted to itself the peculiar property of the earlier edible. So one might go on, and if local tradition were observed, it would be an endless task to describe the various foods and drinks 67 which, originating in heathenism, have been merged in Christian observances.

The paganalia were feasts celebrated in honour of the gods, goddesses and heroes, when the people resorted to their temples or tombs. When the Britons were converted, Pope Gregory the Great ordered that the same customs might be kept up, only the days to be observed should be the birthdays of holy martyrs, or the anniversary of the dedication of the church. The ancient ways might still be observed so far as they were free from positive objection. Of course sacrifices to false gods and devils could not be allowed, nor inhuman rites practised, but all that made for innocent enjoyment might be continued. The village feasts, once universal, now partly abandoned, and partly merged in the club day, will nearly always be found to coincide with the ancient dedication of the church. This is a rule to which there are very few exceptions, and the ancient dedication may often be discovered by the day of the village feast; for at the Reformation many of the old dedications were given up, but the village fairs or feasts were not.

It makes one think more kindly of the pagan times when we observe the care they took that all, 68 even the bond slave, should enjoy a holiday occasionally, as one especially remembers that in this nineteenth century of Christianity, good men have had to labour hard to obtain this occasional privilege for the poor and helpless. During the discussions on the Factory Acts, and Early Closing Acts, it has been stated in Parliament there are multitudes of people who do not know what a holiday, nor even a Sunday is. There was no such obligation on the Christian slave owners of America to give their slaves a holiday, as there was upon the heathen slave owners of the old world. Virgil describes the husbandman in the Georgics, as a careful observer of feast days, on them he abstains from all active labour, only doing such light tasks as can offend no god. If we find then lingering in the village feast some pagan relic like the bearing of rushes or the wreathing of the sticks, may we not well retain them in gratitude to those who have given to many their one holiday in the year?

As might be expected the ancient and interesting ceremony of marriage has received the tribute of all nations and religions in the form with which we are familiar. It is absolutely impossible to trace up the origin of the wedding 69 ring, which is variously ascribed to a link of the fetters which women wore in token of subjection; to a portion of the price paid for them to their fathers and brothers, and to the endlessness of the love they were supposed to have inspired. The wedding cake has already been alluded to in its character of divining: it played an important part in Roman weddings, where confarreatio or eating together formed a binding ceremony. Aulus Gellius, who wrote in the second century of our era, tells us that the Romans wore the ring on the third finger of the left hand, and alludes to the belief in the connection of a vein of that finger with the heart. The bridal favours are relics of the ribbons and garters of the bride which used to be contended for, and proudly worn by the lucky possessor, and an ancient custom of marrying at the church doors is derived from the Etruscans who were always married in the street, the door of the house being thrown open at the conclusion of the ceremony. The very name of the altar of Hymen warns us to what remote times we are to be carried back in tracing marriage customs, and in throwing of wheat (not rice), we have the symbol of a simple peasantry wishing the best blessings they could 70 imagine, while in the throwing of the shoes or sandals by the happy pair, not at them, we have the parallel of the ancient general burning his bridges behind him, and refusing to go back.

In what we have borrowed from heathenism, it would be impossible to find anything to object to, and if the customs themselves in their primitive state were undesirable, and unsuitable for this refined age, we may credit those wise people who adapted the heathen customs for Christian uses with the sense which has deprived them of all that was wrong, and have so blended them as to show that both Christian and Heathen can observe them and show they are both the children of one God and Father of us all.