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Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas, A Royal Holiday

Christmas, A Royal Holiday

Christmas, for those who do not know, is a very monarchy-oriented holiday. Once upon a time, Christians would have taken such a fact for granted but, these days, it probably needs to be stated outright. The birth of Christ was foretold by the Israelite prophecies of a coming savior king as part of the sacred royal line. The prophecies, as most should know from the traditional stories, was that, on this day “a king” would be born and born in the City of David, the foundational monarch of the sacred line of Israel and their most famous monarch. The heralds proclaimed that “a king is born” and we have the three wise men, sometimes themselves referred to as “the three kings” who came to do homage to this new monarch. The story even has a royal villain in the person of King Herod who launched a campaign of infanticide to remove this potential threat to his crown. All of this is why, in the Catholic tradition at least, there is the figure of the Divine Child as a monarch, probably most famously illustrated by the Infant of Prague. None of these facts should surprise anyone, yet few seldom think about how dripping with royalism the holiday of Christmas is. And, it goes far beyond the time and place of the birth of Christ.


The pagan ancestors of the European peoples had their part in the Christmas story as well. As we have talked about here before, the birth of Christ was said to have been prophesied to the Emperor Augustus by the Tiburtine Sybil. This, the story goes, caused Augustus Caesar to refrain from allowing the Senate to declare him a god. It was also, of course, the command of the Emperor for a census to be taken which prompted the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Later, in the Christian era, when there was much debate on the subject, the date chosen on which to celebrate Christmas was that of the Winter Solstice according to the Roman calendar. This was when the pagan Romans celebrated the festival of Brumalia, in honor of the god Saturn (later becoming the Saturnalia, mostly in the East). The incorporation into the Christmas celebration of pre-Christian traditions such as the Yule log, exchanging presents and general merriment, later put off the more Puritanical Protestant sects of Christianity who considered the holiday altogether ‘too Pagan’ which is why Christmas was suppressed in Britain during the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, only to be restored when the monarchy was restored under King Charles II, the “Merry Monarch”.


The coronation of Charlemagne
Christmas, as the day marking the birth of the King who would save the world, had a huge significance on the monarchies of Christian Europe. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when it was determined to try to revive this entity in some way, Pope St Leo the Great famously crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” on Christmas day in 800 AD. So it was that the birth of the first German Empire occurred on Christmas. This seemed to set a trend in the western world as later, in 855, King St Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia was crowned on Christmas day (King Edmund being a highly revered royal figure until his shrine was destroyed when Protestantism came to power in England) and when Saxon England was eclipsed by the Normans, King William the Conqueror also chose to have his coronation on Christmas day in 1066. Local custom caused Christmas celebrations to be quite different across Europe, though there were always elements in common. The Germans, French, Italians, Spanish and so on all had their own traditions associated with the holiday. St Nicholas, whose image was rather painfully smashed together with various folk legends to create the figure of Santa Claus, was and still is very prominently revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church, particularly in Russia, though not necessarily in connection to Christmas. That, again, only came about later due to the melding of St Nicholas with other figures. In any event, Russians & their neighbors have Ded Moroz as a substitute for Santa Claus and would not take kindly to any tinkering with St Nicholas.

In the German lands, Christmas has always been extremely important and tied to the imperial legacy due to the coronation of Charlemagne (or Karl der Grosse as he is in German) on Christmas day. In the British Isles, Christmas gained noticeable royal support during the reign of the House of Stuart. King James I ordered a play to put on for the occasion (something which used to be common in schools but is likely forbidden these days) and King Charles I would dismiss his courtiers at Christmas time in order that they might go home to preside over the traditional Christmas festivities in their locales. Suppressed by Cromwell, as stated, Christmas came back with King Charles II and King James I, at least in England (the Scots actually continued to refuse to make it a public holiday until 1959!) and it carried on after the so-called “Glorious Revolution” under King William III and Queen Mary II. The Dutch Reformed Church had always celebrated Christmas and, of course, the German Hanoverians had no problem with it either.
Victoria & Albert around their Christmas tree
As a matter of fact, many of the current traditions associated with Christmas around the world, spread by the British Empire and the popularity of American culture, actually have German royal origins. The most prominent example of this is the Christmas tree which first came to the British Isles when King George III married Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz. However, it remained only a tradition of the Royal Family until the time of Queen Victoria and her marriage to another German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was due to his influence, and the establishment of the Royal Family as a model for the public, that Christmas trees came to be a common feature in every home, first in Britain and then across the English-speaking world (it had, of course, long been a tradition in German lands). Princess Henrietta, wife of Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen, introduced the custom to Austria and the Habsburg domains, the Duchess of Orleans (Princess Helene of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) brought it to France. In fact, the Christmas tree was so associated with royalty and nobility that it was initially banned by the communists in Soviet Russia until 1935 and even then was allowed only as a secular symbol with a mandatory Red Star on the top.

Many of the traditions associated with Christmas in the United States only appeared in the Victorian era due to their popularity with the rest of the English-speaking world. Partly because of the lingering effects of Puritanism in New England and the pushing of egalitarianism and opposition to anything associated with royalty or aristocracy, the early United States was devoid of most of the customs modern Americans think of as being traditionally associated with Christmas. These would not start to take root in America until roughly the 1820’s, increasing with their popularity across the British Empire thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In fact, the only thing similar, previously occurring on American soil, was probably the celebrations of Hessian or other German mercenaries employed by the British during the War for Independence. We do know that the first Christmas tree in Canada was featured at a party held in 1781 by the commander of the troops from Brunswick, Germany General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife in Quebec, where they were stationed in the event of another attack by the American forces.
Good King Wenceslas
Another example is Christmas music, with popular Christmas songs first becoming widespread due to St Francis of Assisi (who also popularized the Nativity Scene). With popular carols such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (“Glory to the new born King”), “Good King Wenceslaus”, or “Come, All Ye Faithful” (“Born the King of Angels”) they are soaked through with royal symbolism and monarchical references. Most of this stuff is so taken for granted, most never realize how present it is but if one could stop and consider each case and how different things would be if anything with any royal connection was taken out, what would be left would be hardly recognizable at all. In lands far distant from western Europe, Christmas traditions were imported from abroad, usually by colonial empires which invariably had monarchs at their head. Even countries closer to hand, such as Russia, did not have any sort of Christmas traditions westerners would recognize (though they of course observed the holy day of the birth of Christ) until Emperor Peter the Great brought these into fashion after his travels around Europe. In Estonia, the tradition of announcing the “Christmas Peace” began with Queen Christina of Sweden. Today it is done by the President, which seems far less special.
Frederick Barbarossa
Finally, on a deeper level, the Christmas story itself followed a pattern that many people in many various lands would revive again; that of a foretelling of a famous monarch coming back to save his people from misery. Christ was the divine king who was to come as the Savior of the world, offering spiritual salvation to all peoples, and of course this story continues with the Christian prophecy about the end of the world, that ultimately Christ will return to save the faithful and destroy the wicked. On a more secular level, similar stories were once quite common about monarchs that achieved legendary status. In Britain there was King Arthur who, according to legend, never really died but would return one day in Britain’s darkest hour to save them. Many centuries later the Jacobites would adopt a similar attitude about “the King across the water” who would return and bring about a state of affairs they considered ideal. The Welsh had a similar folk tale about a giant king named Bran the Blessed. In the German Empire there was the story that Emperor Frederick Barbarossa never really died but simply went to sleep deep under a mountain (the actual location and details vary with telling of the tale) and that at some point, in Germany’s darkest hour, he would wake up and lead them to greatness once again. The Sicilians used to tell a similar tale about Emperor Frederick II and some tradition-minded romantics, in the time of the foundation of the second German Empire actually went so far as to declare the prophecy fulfilled in the person of Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Taken altogether, Christmas can be considered one of, if not the, most monarchist of holidays. Just as Christ was crucified as a king, so too was His birth heralded as the birth of a king. Many of its traditions had monarchial origins and were spread by kings and princes around the world and the Christmas story set a narrative in the minds of the people that was later imposed on earthly monarchs. Today, few people, if any, give any thought to this at all. However, none of it is hidden, it simply is not a topic. If any person was to consider it for more than a moment, they would see that royal symbolism permeates Christmas at virtually every level. For myself, this Christmas will be a difficult one but I hope every adherent of traditional authority will take the time to consider the many connections discussed and, for all Christian readers certainly, will have a very happy Christmas.