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Fellow Creatures at Christmas: a Ranter's Yuletide Fable
Behold, behold, he is now risen with a witness, to save Zion with vengeance, or to confound and plague all things into himself; who by his mighty angel is proclaiming (with a loud voice) that sin and transgression is finished and ended, and everlasting righteousness be brought in with most terrible earth-quakes and heaven-quakes, and with signs and wonders following."
A Fiery Flying Roll: A Word from the Lord to all the Great Ones of the Earth.— Abeizer Coppe, London 1650.
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The World Turned Upside Down
I’ve been looking for a word. It is something like “sacred”. It is the idea of something being set-aside as special, or holy: separated from the everyday world by some particular quality or by mutual agreement. The word could be “sacrament”: the notion of ordinary things acquiring a spiritual significance. Or “sanctification”, the process of becoming holy. But it isn’t quite either of these. The problem with both of these words is their association with religion and with the particular religious quality of holiness, and the word I am looking for does not denote holiness as such. Sometimes, indeed, it can mean its exact opposite.
No. The word I’m looking for is slightly more down-to-earth than that. It’s spiritual, but not necessarily religious. It has something to do with the idea of creating a space, of setting aside that space for some special ritual activity. So, for example, at Christmas, during the ritual Mummer’s plays in the Medieval period, the players would create a circle, perhaps by marking it out with a stick on the ground, or just making a circle in the air. They would enter that circle, and then it was understood by everyone watching that everything that happened within that circle had its own significance. It was outside of ordinary reality.
So Jack-the-Lad or Johnny Goodfellow would enter the circle and become St George, say, or Father Christmas or the Dragon. The characters would fight in that circle. The characters would die in that circle and come to life again, and it would carry ritual significance beyond the circle. The actor, meanwhile, would leave the circle and just become himself again.
But this isn’t quite it either. We are all familiar with this process, since it is the same one that allows us to suspend our disbelief long enough to watch a play or a movie or our favourite soap and to get some kind of vicarious pleasure out of it. We know the characters aren’t real, and that the actors are just actors, but we suspend our disbelief long enough to allow the plot to take on some semblance of reality, so that when the character suffers, we suffer with him, when he is elated, we are elated too, when he mourns, we mourn, and when he dies we too can feel the grief of the moment.
I still haven’t found the word. I know it exists. What I am looking for is a word to describe Christmas.
So, yes, we set aside Christmas as special. We circle it around and make it different from other days. But it’s not holy. It’s like holy but not quite. It carries a special quality, an atmosphere if you like. There is a reverence associated with it. It is full of ritual significance. But it is not a religious thing, or not in the way that religious people would have us believe. Yes, it is the day of Jesus’ birth, but it is also the day of Mithras’ birth. Mithras is the sun. It is the day of the divine child, the day of the rebirth of the sun, associated with the midwinter solstice. It is the day when the sun begins to move again after it has stood still in the heavens for three days during the solstice period. So it is the day that the light returns, when the first vestiges of light are coming back after the darkest time of the year. And we light fires and candles and fairy-lights and Yule logs in commemoration of that, in order to encourage it maybe, as a kind of sympathetic magic. It is a very ancient festival indeed.
And we eat, of course, and we drink. It is a feast. A feast of plenty in the lean period. A feast of preserved foods, of brandy-soaked fruit and Christmas cake and rich, sultry, dark things. A day of drinking and feasting and pleasure. A day of excess. A day of ritual fecundity, bringing in the greenery in from outside, with mistletoe as one of its symbols (surely representative of drops of sperm) and with kissing as it’s purpose.
And who doesn’t like kissing?
In the Medieval period it was ruled over by the Lord of Misrule or the Abbot of Unreason who would turn everything upside down for the twelve days of Christmas in febrile acts of buffoonery, making the Lords servants and the servants Lords, and inverting the common order of things.
In Roman times it was the Saturnalia, the ancient festival of Saturn, celebrated for seven days from the 17th of December (thus including the solstice but not Christmas): a time of freedom from restraint, of merrymaking, of fun, of riot and debauchery, of alcohol and sex. Not a lot different from today, in fact.
The Saturnalia involved a school holiday, the giving of gifts and a market. There was a banquet in which the social hierarchy was reversed: the slaves were served by the masters and special clothes were worn.
The Nordic and Germanic Yule also involved a great feast. The peasants attended the temple bringing with them gifts of food and ale. As long as the ale lasted the feast would continue, sometimes for several days and nights. Trees were decorated and brought indoors, along with other greenery, including holly branches, candles were lit and presents were given.
One of the Norse sagas refers to Yule as “a time of greatest mirth and joyance among men."
Amongst the Celts it represented the day set-aside from the thirteen-months-of-twenty-eight-days calendar they practiced. Thirteen times twenty eight equals three hundred and sixty four, which is one day short of a year. The extra day was a special day all by itself, was noted as the day of the divine child, and took place on the 25th of December. At least according to Robert Graves, in his book, The White Goddess, it did, though I must admit you can’t always trust him. But this is why, according to some authorities, the ancient Brits took to Christianity so well and so early: because they already had a notion similar in their own religious tradition - and why the early Christians (canny politicians that they were) adopted it as the sacred day of their own divine child.
And there is, indeed, something magical about the notion: of God being born on the Earth, being born in a stable, amongst the lowly creatures, of the poorest people, a carpenter and his young wife. I can still feel the resonance of all that, a kind of shimmering quality, of “Mary’s boy-child, Jesus Christ“, and “man will live forever more because of Christmas day.” It is still very special.
I almost found the word there, by the way. It was on the tip of my tongue, and then it faded again. It lies somewhere between the two words, “magical” and “resonance” (with a bit of “shimmering” thrown in), that I eventually selected.
But it is much more ancient than this, of course. It goes back, back, right back, to the very dawn of human history, to the earliest periods we have evidence for, to the time of the great monuments, of Stonehenge and Avebury.
A few years ago I went to see my old friend, the archaeologist and author Michael Parker-Pearson at Durringdon Walls near Amesbury in Wiltshire. In case you don’t know it, Durringdon Walls is the sister circle to Stonehenge, only about five or six miles away as the crow flies, and connected to it by the river Avon, which snakes its way passed both monuments. It is where Woodhenge is situated; and, in fact, Woodhenge is really part of the same complex. If you stand on Woodhenge looking North to North East out over the landscape you will see what appears to be a large crescent hill, on which houses are built. In fact it is not a hill. It is a henge, entirely man-made, raised over many years by these ancient people with their antler picks and ox-shoulder spades, the largest henge in Britain. But whereas Stonehenge is orientated to the mid-summer solstice, Durringdon Walls is orientated to the mid-winter solstice. And Mike showed me what they found there: a huge fire, layers and layers, year after year, where whoever visited there or lived there, in the days when Stonehenge was being built, would roast pig. So there were layers of reddened soil and charcoal riddled with charred pig-bones. That was what they got up to. They overdosed on pig-meat, no doubt washed down with large quantities of alcohol. This is almost certainly the case. The people who built Stonehenge and Durringdon Walls are known by archaeologists as “the Beaker People”, as a consequence of the large quantities of decorated beakers they left behind. It’s the beakers that define them, and it’s what they put in those beakers that matters. Personally I think it had to have been something other than water.
So there you have it: the origins of Christmas in a pig-eating alcohol fest of vast and extraordinary proportions, taking place in the Neolithic period, at the mid-winter solstice, when the sun stood still in the sky for three days, and huge fires were lit to encourage it to move again.
So, anyway, what all this amounts to is an introduction to the story of what happened to me at Christmas in 2005.
But first I have to go on another excursion, another diversion, by way of the Ranters, if you are to get the true significance of all of this.
Hence the quote from Abiezer Coppe, above, which opens this tale.
Those of you who know me will know that I am obsessed by the Ranters.
They were a sort of anarchist spiritual cult who flourished, briefly, in the period of the interregnum between the end of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II in 1660. They were Christians, but they took on a particularly radical form of Christianity known as antinomianism. “Antinomian” means “against the law”. It refers to the doctrine of free grace, by which it is understood that Jesus came to overthrow the law, to forgive our sins and that therefore, we cannot sin any more.
It’s more complex than this, of course: but that’s its essence, in a nutshell.
The Ranters were the extreme left-wing, as it were, of this form of Christianity, the extreme left-wing of what would later become the Quaker movement, who considered themselves so free of sin that they would happily blaspheme in the Lord’s name, would drink, smoke, rant, sing, dance, whore, eat, indulge, with absolute abandon, because, in their terms, everything is sacred. Everything is from God.
The quote from Abeizer Coppe gives you a flavour of the philosophy - “his mighty angel is proclaiming (with a loud voice) that sin and transgression is finished and ended”.
The “word” to “the Great Ones” is a political warning. The Great Ones are the great and the good, the wealthy, the titled, the men of property, that the Lord will bring down, will level.
But there is also the notion that we are ALL God. That God exists in all of us. Hence Coppe’s amusing repetition of the term “My most excellent Majesty (in me)” and “mine own Almightiness (in me)”. It is the brackets (in me) which he repeats over and over in the text which is amusing: just in case you don’t get the point. Coppe’s God is Coppe, or some form of Coppe, some essence of Coppe (in Coppe) who utterly transforms the world, and Coppe, by his presence.
The Quakers would address each other as “Friend”, hence their name: “The Society of Friends.” The Ranters, however, called each other “Fellow Creature.”
“Hail Fellow Creature!” It says everything that needs to be said about our condition on this Earth.
So there you have it: a sort of pantheist, ecstatic, radical-political, levelling democratic Christianity.
I first picked up on it reading Christopher Hill’s great book, The World Turned Upside Down back in the 70s, and I’ve been following up on it ever since. As soon as I read that book, I knew that I was a Ranter.
The term “The World Turned Upside Down”, which applied to the world of the Ranters, also, interestingly enough, applied to Christmas, and to the Lord of Misrule, who would invert the common order for the season. Christmas was the season in which the world was turned upside down.
The Puritans, who the Ranters were opposed to (and who eventually instituted a military dictatorship under Cromwell) abolished Christmas.
The Puritans might be understood as the political party of the rising merchant classes, the new Great Ones of the Earth, and they understood very well the subversive nature of Christmas.
It was the very slogan of Christmas that had helped bring about the revolution that overthrew the King, and, as they were well aware, threatened to continue into complete political reversal, into economic levelling and political democracy, which was the demand on the lips of large portions of the population at the time, and which had to be stopped if the financial and political gains of the merchant classes were to be consolidated into a state political system. It wasn’t only the Ranters that were challenging the state. There were all sorts of cults and political and spiritual ideas stirring in the minds and hearts of the population at this time, and threatening to transform the world forever.
So, on with the tale.
As you may know, I am a postman, part time.
I do this to keep the roof over my head, to pay for food and warmth and electricity, and for the time I need to keep writing.
Christmas is the busiest time for postmen. There is a lot of overtime available.
One of the jobs we do is a form of county-wide sorting. A lot of mail gets mislaid. The sorting machines can’t cope. So they bring in the ordinary post-person to sort it out by hand.
Thus it was, in 2005, that I was throwing letters into slots.
What we had to do was to read the postcode, and then throw the letter into a slot with that postcode above it. It is mind-numbingly dreary work, but essential, if you are to get your Christmas mail on time.
Some of the mail has been missorted completely, so we are getting letters from all over the country. We throw this into a slot which is called “missorts”.
And it was while I was doing this, just before Christmas that year, that a certain letter passed through my hands.
It was addressed to Zion Barn, Ranter’s Lane.
I looked at it and laughed. There’s a name to conjure with, I thought. And I threw it into the missort slot and forgot about it.
It wasn’t until Christmas day that the full significance of that letter that had accidentally passed through my hands struck me.
As I began by saying: there is something about Christmas. We set it aside. It has a resonance, a quality, that imbues it with special meaning. We dress up for it. We eat a special meal. We associate it with profound things, like “peace on earth” and “good will to all men”. It has emotional power, spiritual significance. It has its roots deep in history. From the Christmas dinner table, indeed, we send out messages of hope and reconciliation throughout the world.
- Help me: I’m still trying to find that word. -
It is a Christian thing. It is a Northern thing. It is a pagan thing. It is a Celtic thing. It is a European thing. It is a human thing. You cannot ignore it. It is in the very air you breath on that day. In the atmosphere. In the psycho-spiritual atmosphere as it were, in the very soul of the people. It is sacred and profane. Spiritual. Mundane. High. Low. The sacrament of a sanctified meal. A welcome to strangers. The clinking of glasses. A toast raised on high. An offering to the gods. An offering to the sun. A sacred moment in time. A wish. A fulfillment. A hope. A transformation. A resolution. A charm.
So, then, it is Christmas morning and I am dressing up to go to lunch with my Mum and Dad. I have on my best shirt, my silver cuff-links that belonged to my Dad, with a yin and yang symbol on them, and a gold watch that belonged to my Granddad, and which makes me feel like I am part of a lineage, and there is something emotional in me.... maybe the cufflinks, maybe the watch, maybe just the moment.... maybe because it’s Christmas.... something deep, profound... when it strikes me with all the force of God.... like a finger pointing down to me through history.... like a beam of light shimmering across the ocean…. like a spiritual message, just for me.... that letter.... that letter, I think.... no one in the entire world at that moment.... no one but me.... could have understood its message....
It’s like someone has struck me directly on the forehead.
Of all the postmen in all the world.... That letter had to pass through my hands.
Zion Barn. Ranter’s Lane.
Who else could have understood it?
It’s like a clue left in history, in a place name, the solution to a puzzle.
None of this is very logical. Bear with me. This is not a logical tale.
I kept thinking it was a message from God. That’s all I could think. It’s a message from God. But how was this possible? It was as if God was selecting me, at that moment, of all the people in the world, for some special attention. Of all the people, I kept thinking. Of all the people…
As if all of these historical events - the English Civil War, the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levellers – had conspired to address me at that moment, through a letter which had passed through my hands, and whose significance was only just becoming apparent …
Of all the people....
It was like there was a presence in the room with me, an immanence, in the very fabric of being, like God was whispering in my ear at that moment, and that I had been selected....
Of all the people...
For a particular task. A calling.
I had no idea what the task was. Still don’t.
I also know that this doesn’t make sense, and, indeed, knew it at the time. It was a letter, that’s all. Actually a Christmas card. There was an address, and as a postman there was a reasonable chance that I would have come across it at some time. Even now I know I can’t explain this. I’d picked up the letter and thrown it in the slot, noting the address with some amusement, but it wasn’t until Christmas day that it assumed all of its significance. It was to do with the lineage. Father’s cufflinks. Grandfather’s watch. The Ranters, those hoary old crazy men of times long passed, as it were, reaching out to me, telling me that I was a part of their lineage, that I was descended from them in some special way, to carry forth their message. That’s all. A moment of excitement, of inspiration maybe. A moment of revelation.
My Grandfather lies dead in a grave in Birmingham. He was a Jew. My Father is thankfully still alive. The Ranters were English, but are themselves heirs to a strand of history which came through the Jewish religion. We call it Christianity now, but in other times, in times past, it has borne other names. They were called The Poor, The Way, the Children of Light. Nasoreans. Nazarenes. The Children of God. One strand of their tradition was Gnosticism – actually the original strand - and the spiritual creed they have passed down to us is this: that we are all God. That God is love, and that we are children of love. That God is knowledge, and we are children of knowledge. That is Abeizer Coppe’s truth too. The Ranter‘s truth. The Gnostic’s truth. “Mine Own Almightiness (in me)”. And that this is how the lineage is passed on. Not through documents, or historical tracts (these are just the clues) but through the God that is inside of everyone. The God of freedom and justice and hope and equality amongst the nations, of equality between the races and equality between the sexes, of righteousness and righteous anger, of The World Turned Upside Down, of peace and goodwill to all men, of the willingness to sacrifice for the truth and for the good, and for a better world for everyone. The God of Christmas.
All this I got from the thought of a letter that had passed through my hands briefly a few days before, as I did up my cufflinks on Christmas morning 2005.
I’ve found the word I’ve been looking for, by the way. It is “liminal”.
It’s from the Latin, limen, meaning threshold.
It is a word commonly used in psychology and anthropology to refer to a state of mind or a ritual state that exists outside the normal conventions. A state between the states. It refers to the reversal of hierarchies, a state of uncertainty, a state of transformation, a moment of poise and clarity before the great change is to begin.
In anthropology it refers to the Rites of Passage by which boys become men. It is the still time of separation between the easy play of childhood and the responsibility of being an adult. In the Rites of Passage the children are divested of their childish things, even their names, and taken to a place of separation before they are subjected to trial. Having undertaken the trial they become adults. Then they are treated as adults. They are given an adult name, an adult task. They slough off their childhood persona and adopt their new grown up one. But the liminal time is the time between these times. The undefined time when they are neither adults nor children. The time of waiting. The time of potential. A moment of poise between the worlds.
That is the liminal time.
The time of the Ranters was a liminal time in history. It lay in the interregnum between the death of one King and the reign of another. A time of uncertainty, when the world was turned upside down, when everything was stirring, when no one knew what the new world would be like, when everything was up for grabs. The world could have changed decisively in that moment. It could have become a world in which all citizens had a stake. There could have been a democracy, and people were arguing for that. It called itself the Commonwealth, and people were arguing for that too. Look at the word again. It means what it says: Common + Wealth = wealth in common. That’s what people were arguing for. They were arguing for an overturning of the normal world and it’s replacement by a new world, a world in which all men would be equal, and all wealth shared in common, the slogan of Christmas made real. When the Commonwealth was overthrown, the Ranters spun off into their own psychic space. The revolution, frustrated in the real world, took over their souls, and God erupted into their hearts making them all mad.
Examples of liminal beings in the human world are shamans, diviners, mediums, priests, monks, hippies, hoboes, gypsies and artists. Examples of liminal beings in the mythical world are mermaids, mermen, centaurs, sphinxes, ghosts and satyrs. Liminal beings in the literary world include cyborgs – half man, half machine – and Dracula – neither dead nor alive. Liminal beings are often dangerous. They draw us into their state of inbetweenness. They are neither here nor there. They are betwixt and between. Neither one thing nor the other. Half human, half animal. Half spirit, half man, they stand on the threshold between the worlds.
Father Christmas is a liminal being. He exists only for this one day, and is neither human nor spirit, but embraces the whole world with his gifts, crossing thresholds (and coming down chimneys) to do so.
There is something of the devil in Santa Claus - something of Old Nick in Saint Nick - and he is really quite a threatening creature, as the popular song makes clear:
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.
In psychology liminality refers to a psychic state of transformation, between the dull certainty of our ego-lead world, and the possibility of creative disruption leading to a more inclusive state of mind.
Christmas is a liminal time. It represents the time between times, before the old year is ended and the new year is begun. It is a meal in which we remember those without food. A home from which we remember the homeless. A place of warmth from which we remember those who are cold. A place of hospitality from which we remember those who are lonely. An invitation to the whole world to join our feast, to celebrate with us, to raise a glass on high in remembrance of who we are.
In Celtic times Christmas day was a separate day from the rest of the year, a day outside of the monthly cycle, a time out of time. On this day the normal rules are suspended. The normal flow of time is suspended. Time stops for a day, to allow entrance from other worlds, other times. It is a time to remember the dead. On this day the dead come back to haunt us, to whisper to us, to bring us messages from other worlds. It is a doorway between the worlds, on the threshold of other dimensions, when we can change our fate. It is the day, therefore of our resolutions. These days we’ve moved the day back a week or so, to New Year’s Eve, but in Celtic times Christmas day was New Year’s Eve. It was the day after the old year had finished, and the day before the new year was to begin.
Other gods said to have been born on the 25th December include Horus, Osiris, Krishna, Dionysus, Heracles, Tammuz, Adonis, Hermes, Bacchus and Prometheus. What all of these mythical beings have in common is that they are all sons of a god born to a human parent, often to a virgin, sometimes in a stable.
They are liminal beings, half gods, half men, able to intercede on our behalf. They are the saviours, the redeemers, the ones by whose sacrifice we can be saved.
The Christian story predates Christianity by many hundreds of years, and the Christ-child has many names. Jesus, too, is a liminal being, part human, part divine, part of an ancient lineage. Born to a human mother, but of a spiritual seed. Born of a tradesman but of Royal blood. A miraculous child. He is born in a stable to represent his animal nature. Sometimes he is born in a cave. Out of the cave of darkness comes the light. He is the son of the Sun, our Father who art in heaven, the divine light who shines down on us all. He is the son of light who heralds the return of light to our darkness. He is visited by magicians and kings to show that the highest and most erudite must bow down before him. He is a harmless child and yet the most powerful man in the land fears him and loathes him and must commit acts of atrocity to be rid of him. Even the stars seek him out. He is the symbol of the divinity which is in all of us, our own child-soul of immortality, the divine spark of light that lies in the core of our being. The innocent beloved. The beloved of God. The children of God, for that is what we are.
I went to find Ranters Lane a few days later, by the way. It’s not far from where I live. In the whole of the UK there is only one Ranter’s Lane. It snakes along between Cranbrook and Wadhurst near Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. In Cranbrook there’s a Quaker Lane too, which implies that particular Quakers and Ranters might have found a home here, a place of refuge in this quiet corner of the country, away from London, the great city that spawned them.
There’s also a Ranter’s Oak, which brings a clear picture to mind. These ranting preachers usually gave their sermons in the open air, often under oak trees. So we can picture our solitary Ranter there, beneath the overhanging branches of an ancient oak, with a small crowd gathered around him, pouring forth his fiery invective against all the injustices of the world: calling for the return to Commonwealth, for an end to Monarchy, for equality, for fairness, for democracy, for an end to old corruption. Listen to him. Can you hear his voice? He is making the same sermon to this day.
- Coppe excerpts
Excerpts from A Fiery Flying Roll: one of the most interesting books ever written.
- Quaker Information Center | A Gateway to Quakerism
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A happy new year to you. Also, a happy new day, a happy new hour and a happy new minute. A happy new second. A happy new breath. A happy new moment. A happy new everything.