If we observed Christmastide — the twelve feast-days from Christmas to Epiphany — today would have been dedicated to the memory of St. Thomas Becket, the tenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury who went head to head with kings of England, and, for his pains, was cut down by four of the king’s knights inside his own cathedral.
I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of the case to know whether the excommunication spree which incited the monarchy against Beckett was warranted or not, but I do know that shortly after Becket’s untimely demise, the Pope canonized him, and Becket’s tomb at Canterbury became a shrine and regular destination for pilgrims.
The practice of going on pilgrimage must have been an early form of tourism. There is no doubt a whole industry sprang up around it, food and lodging along popular pilgrimage routes, and souvenirs to be purchased as evidence of having seen the shrine. (Photography would have been an anachronism in the Middle Ages.) While certainly many went for religious reasons, hoping for some benefit from venerating the shrine — there were stories of miracles and blessings associated with Becket’s remains — I suspect that many more went simply because it was something to do.
When Geoffrey Chaucer sent his troupe of tale-telling pilgrims to Canterbury in the twelfth century, he seems to have been of my opinion, suggesting, in his ever-so-famous Prologue, that the coming of spring infected people with wanderlust such that they set out in droves on the roads to these places of piety. But if the tone of the Canterbury Tales are any indication, the pilgrims did not go with pious intentions, unless the intention to have a good time be a mark of piety.
While Chaucer was certainly writing social commentary for his own time, six-hundred years later we can draw this connection: the culture of the Middle Ages, like our own, was adept at turning what were meant to be sacred moments into machines for entertainment and money-making.
I went researching Christmastide because I wondered if having a cycle of specific observances would lend purpose to these doldrums of December, when Christmas is past, and the New Year is yet to come, and things seem to hang in limbo, aimless and overfed. But if we observed those twelve days of Christmas, wouldn’t they just become another part of the machine, adding more anxiety to an already over-full holiday schedule, more meals to prepare, more gifts to purchase?
We live holiday to holiday in this week already, as though Christmas and New Years are somehow inherently better days than these between. And while it is right to keep a feast in observance of this extraordinary birth, remembering this birth should drive back, with new energy, into the ordinary days.
Because Christmas reminds us that the God of the universe, Whose right it was to be always outside of this mundane world of time, stepped into our ordinary and lived our ordinary days with us and died the death which belongs to humankind. In so doing, He in a sense eradicated ordinary days, superimposing His forever-kingdom on our swiftly-passing now, so that each of these days, even in the doldrums of December, has reverberations in the halls of eternity.
Now we are pilgrims, journeying to one day see those halls; each day is progress along the way. The holidays — holy days? — are not just about food, fun, and family, but stand as sign-posts, reminding us of the kingdom and King to whom we belong. And though at Christmas we celebrate the birth of One who died, He did not die as a martyr, a victim of mad monarchs or impetuous knights, He died, and in His death He conquered. As we step into the New Year, we follow this conquering King.
©2013 by Stacy Nott