From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Lady Day & Other Lost Holidays

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Blog_barbaraHolidays have taken it hard in the last decade or so. Used to be, a glimpse at the windows of any elementary school could tell you the season: construction paper ghosts and witches meant Halloween, angels and Santas heralded Christmas, red hearts promised Valentine’s Day, and the eggs and bunnies appeared for Easter.

But political correction has taken its toll. Witches and ghosts are banned as promoting satanic sympathies, Christmas angels and Easter bunnies are too Christian to be tolerated, and Valentine’s Day is banned for raising the ugly possibility that some people really are loved more than others. Nativity scenes are banned from public places, and in the spirit of equal (negative) time, so are the giant menorahs. According to my friends with children in New York City schools, the students are so culturally diverse these days that the school system’s given up trying to sort out Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza, and the only mandated celebration now is Winter Solstice.

Secular holidays haven’t fared much better. We used to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; now they’re jumbled today in a single three-day weekend marked by ski trips and lots of sales at the mall. In many offices, Martin Luther King Day falls under the “day of personal observation”, an employee’s choice. Even the Fourth of July is under attack, with many lobbying for making it a permanent long weekend regardless of whether it’s the second, third, or fifth of July.

Writing books set in the past means that your characters celebrate holidays often now long forgotten. As we’ve mentioned here before, Twelfth Night was a more festive celebration in 17th and 18th century England than Christmas. Most holidays still remained close to their religious beginnings as holy days.

In my July book, Royal Harlot, King Charles II and his Court enjoy a grand masque celebrating the February holiday of Candlemas in 1665. Ostensibly a Christian holy day, Candlemas marks the purification of the Virgin Mary and the first presentation of the infant Jesus Christ to the elders in the Temple. But in the way that those in power today can never resist turning almost anything into a good photo op, so Charles had decreed that the allegorical theme of the Candlemas Day masque would show how the various enemies of England should be righteously vanquished –– thinly disguised propaganda to build support for Charles to wage war on the Dutch.

Just as the king used the Candlemas masque for propaganda, his mistress (and my heroine) Barbara, Countes of Castlemaine, saw it as an opportunity to flaunt her own position. Seventeenth century court masques were a mixture of lavish display, music, and amateur theatrics that permitted the courtier to show off their “talents” and wear nifty costumes. Playing the part of Venus urging Mars to war, Lady Castlemaine’s costume included scandalously short men’s breeches (the Restoration version of Daisy Dukes) to display her long legs, and nearly every jewel the king had given her. The king was enchanted, the queen was put out, war was declared on the Dutch soon after, and what any of this had to do with the infant Jesus and the elders in the Temple is pretty hard to fathom.

Which brings me, finally, to Lady Day. Lady Day is another Christian holiday turned secular. Originally the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, Lady Day was intended to honor the Virgin Mary –– the Lady. In Britain, it also became one of the Quarter Days (the other four are Midsummer Day, Michaelmas Day, and, of course, Christmas Day) when new servants were hired and rents and rates were paid.

Until 1752, when England shifted from the Julian Calendar to the Georgian, Lady Day also marked the start of the “official” year, rather like the modern American business year begins on July 1. According to the folks at Wikipedia, a vestige of the traditional rent-paying on Lady Day still lingers in the United Kingdom, where tax day is April 6 –– Lady Day adjusted for the days lost in the calendar change in 1752.
More on Lady Day

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