These days, the Twelve Days of Christmas aren’t kept as carefully as they once were, however, in the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for workers to put down tools and relax and celebrate Christ’s birth with masses and revels that stretched over almost two weeks. But why was the period so long when Christ’s birth happened in one day?
– Chuck Clip, Ghosts of Traditions Past, UASL, December 2022
This is the question Chuck Clip asks of his audience as the visit his new installation Ghosts of Traditions Past, which officially opens on Sunday, December 18th, 2022. In asking it, he sets the stage for an exploration of “Christmas traditions” in both images and words which explores how Christianity essentially usurped pre-Christian festivals associated with the end-of-year – notably that of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
This usurping of already-popular / observed festivals from pre-Christian eras was pretty much de rigueur for the early Church, both to stamp its authority on things, and to bring people into the fold, so to speak. However, With its week-long festivities, Saturnalia was an obvious target for the Holy Roman Church for “conversion” to a “Christian” celebration, and in about the 4th century AD, it settled on December 25th as the date of Christs birth (although in reality, He had most likely been born in the spring or autumn) – the date which, under the Julian calendar used the the Romans, the winter solstice fell.
In fairness to the nascent Christian church, the Romans had themselves sequestered the period in which Saturnalia was celebrated from earlier belief systems, notably those of the Celts in Western Europe and (particularly) the British Isles, who had in turn absorbed traditional going by even further into history – of which more anon.
It is from Saturnalia (itself, as noted, “borrowing” for other pagan festivals of earlier peoples) that many of what we regard as “Christmas traditions” come: the giving of gifts (such as candles, intended to signify the growing return of the Sun after the solstice and small terracotta figurines known as signillaria); the placing of coins in food for dinner guests to find; the use of wreaths; and so on. And, of course, the celebration of a “king” (Saturnalicius princeps), which generally occurred within Roman households – albeit one far from being a redeemer born as a babe, one far more mischievous and disruptive (and so also referred to as the “lord of mis-rule”), seen as a means by which Romans could thrown off the invisible bonds of orderly society and simply revel in a (brief) period of disorder, pranks and generally having fun at the expense of others.
Within Ghosts of Traditions Past, Chuck takes his audience on a 12-chapter tour of Christmas, a walk through a snowbound landscape to view 12 individual images representative of the traditions we now associate with Christmas and their likely origins, each told through local chat as one approaches each of the images.
Starting with Saturnalia (which itself started as a single day of festivities before expanding to around 7-8 days commencing some 14 days before the end of the 29-day Julian month of December (all of which helped to formulate the notion of the “12 days of Christmas”), these chapters take us through many of the pagan rites and observances which have been either absorbed into the Christian observance of the birth of Christ either directly or through their prior acquisition by Saturnalia.
Thus, following them in what amounts to a clockwise direction from the entry point (a tunnel leading into the landscape at its 6 o’clock position), the images run in an arc from the left, each one offering the story of a given Christmas tradition – the symbolism of the Christmas wreath, the pagan meaning of holly berries, the meaning of the yule log – even the significance of mistletoe in both pagan and Roman times.
The first 10 of the pieces are located to the snowy plain, backed by ghostly trees, with the final two on the rocky slope leading up to a Christmas tree sitting within Stonehenge, where visitors can obtain a special gift for the season from Chuck. And if you think that Stonehenge is somewhat out-of-place within this Christmas setting, being today more associated with summer solstice celebrations, you’d not be entirely correct.
Recent research (2017-2021) by a consortium led by the University of Bradford and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, and involving the universities of Birmingham, St Andrews, Warwick, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, has revealed that Stonehenge sits within one of the largest prehistoric sites in the UK, a ring of 10m wide, 5m deep “shafts” encircling it, the Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. Dating back over 2,500, this ring of shafts 2km across, lends considerable weight to the idea that in Neolithic times, Stonehenge was the centre of extended winter solstice celebrations.
In much the same way, I’d hazard a guess that the use of ghostly trees surrounding the installation sit as a reflection of the tree and The Green Man as a symbol of rebirth and renewal – themes also closely associated with Christ, but which hold their origins to multiple pre-Christian religions. The Green Man (is that him or the face of God looking down on the setting from above?) also sits as a reminder that, even in the midst of its attempts to stamp its authority on the “old ways”, Christianity fell subject to pagan motifs; many are the churches and cathedrals to be found with the face of the Gren Man carved over their entrances or within their halls.
In viewing Ghosts of Tradition Past, I’m reminded of an observation by W. Somerset Maugham: Tradition is a guide and not a jailer. With this exhibition, Chuck cleverly uses the strictures of Christian seasonal tradition to guide visitors to an understanding of the festivals, beliefs and symbols which are both enfolded within that tradition and yet pre-dates it.
- Ghosts of Tradition Past (UASL, Karpov, rated Moderate)