Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy St. John's Day

When my six-year-old son, En-Uk, heard about the traditional twelve days of Christmas, he said, "I want to go to that place!"

We'd have to go back a few hundred years, I suppose, to a time when people actually celebrated the twelve days from December 25 to January 5 with continuous feasting, merrymaking, and giftgiving.

The 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, has King Arthur and his court celebrating the New Year with the giving of gifts, a tradition that the poem identifies in line 491 as "hanselle," using the Middle English term, of course.

Modern English returns to an older form, "handsel," which recovers the lost "d" consonant.

According to the Free Dictionary, the etymology is: "Old English handselen, a handing over (hand, hand + selen, gift) and from Old Norse handsal, legal transfer (hand, hand + sal, a giving)." This dictionary also provides as its first definition "1. A gift to express good wishes at the beginning of a new year or enterprise."

That fits the Sir Gawain usage, with its giftgiving on New Year's Day -- coming up this upcoming year on Sunday, so expect hangovers in church.

Today, however, we celebrate St. John's Day, which the Sir Gawain poet also mentions, in lines 1020-1026, which I borrow here from the printing edited by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967):

Much dut watz þer dryuen þat day and þat oþer,
And þe þryd as þro þronge in þerafter;
Þe ioye of sayn Jonez day watz gentyle to here,
And watz þe last of þe layk, leudez þer þoghten.
Þer wer gestes to go vpon þe gray morne,
Forþy wonderly þay woke, and þe wyn dronken,
Daunsed ful drely wyth dere carolez.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1 (New York / London: Norton, 2000), edited by M. H. Abrams et al., provides Marie Borroff's modern translation:

That day and all the next, their disport was noble,
And the third day, I think, pleased them no less;
The joys of St. John's Day were justly praised,
And were the last of their like for those lords and ladies;
Then guests were to go in the gray morning,
Wherefore they whiled the night away with wine and with mirth,
Moved to the measures of many a blithe carol;

Modern scholars of the poem note a problem with the poem's chronology at this point and following, as explained by Norman Boyer of Saint Xavier University:
The dates get confusing at line 1020, since one day seems to be omitted. "That day and all the next" of line 1020 refer to Christmas day and December 26 (St. Stephen's Day). "St. John's Day" of line 1022 is December 27. What appears to be missing, according to the poem's most recent editors, is a line or two after line 1022 referring to December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, the last of the three major feasts following Christmas. Thus "the last of their like for those lords and ladies" (line 1023) would refer to the "joys" of December 28, and the guests would "go in the gray morning" (line 1024) of December 29 (which in England is the Feast of St. Thomas à Becket, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by associates of King Henry II on Christmas Day 1170). The three days described in Part 3 are thus December 29, 30, and 31, and at the beginning of Part 4 Gawain leaves for the Green Chapel on January 1.
Whatever the eventual solution to this problem, the lords and ladies at the court of the Green Knight bring their celebrations to a halt rather sooner than did King Arthur's court above, but perhaps they were simply returning to their own courts for further festivities. The poem does not say, but given the traditional twelve days of Christmas, we would expect continued celebrations -- replete with ten lords a-leaping and nine ladies dancing.

Finally, for those of you patiently awaiting or impatiently a-leaping, here's something on St. John's Day, courtesy not of the courtly Sir Gawain but of Catholic Culture:

St. John's Day was a general holy day in medieval times, not only as the third day of Christmas but also in its own right (as the feast of an Apostle). The significant part of the traditional celebration was the blessing and drinking of wine, called the "Love of St. John" (Johannesminne; Szent János Aldása) because, according to legend, the Saint once drank a cup of poisoned wine without suffering harm. The prayer of this blessing can be found in the Roman Ritual (Blessing of Wine on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist). In central Europe people still practice the custom of bringing wine and cider into the church to be blessed. Later, at home, some of it is poured into every barrel in their wine cellars.

People take Saint John's wine with their meals on December 27, expressing the mutual wish: "Drink the love of Saint John." It is also kept in the house throughout the rest of the year. At weddings, bride and bridegroom take some of it when they return from the church. It is also considered a great aid to travelers and drunk before a long journey as a token of protection and safe return. A sip of Saint John's wine is often used as a sacramental for dying people after they have received the sacraments. It is the last earthly drink to strengthen them for their departure from this world.

All this emphasis upon wine resonates with the wine mentioned in line 1025 of Sir Gawain. Perhaps wine was originally mentioned twice in that Gawain passage, first in connection with St. John's Day and then in connection with the imminent departure of the guests, which may have led the copyist's eye (and therefore hand) to inadvertently skip the (putative) lines on Holy Innocents' Day.

While we muse on that, let us honor St. John the Evangelist with a drink.


At 6:05 AM, Blogger Berlinbound said...

Yes, let's do just that.


At 6:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting and sharing a drink. Cheers.


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