Monday, December 28, 2015

Montaigne on Christmas

Montaigne's chapel in his castle

 I know that Wittgenstein used to celebrate Christmas with his family (see my Christmas blog last year), but how did Montaigne? I have no idea. In his Essays he shares many personal experiences with us, but although Montaigne was a religious person – he had even a chapel for personal use in his castle and he came there often – he doesn’t tell us about his Christmas celebrations. Maybe he had a mass celebrated for himself and his family in his chapel or maybe he went to the church across the gate of his castle. I don’t know, but the former seems most likely to me. And how did Montaigne spend Christmas Day, when he was at home? With his wife and children? No idea.
Only once Montaigne tells what he did that day, but it was not in his Essays but in his travel journal. During his travel through France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne spent the whole winter of 1580-1581 in Rome. On Christmas Day he went to the papal mass, as he let his secretary write down in his diary, and he gave a short description of what happened. Actually, it was nothing special, with the exception that it was new to Montaigne that the pope, the cardinals and other prelates sat down most of the time with their heads covered, while chatting with each other. The lustre seemed to be more important than the devotion, so Montaigne.
And did he watch the woman, too, during the mass, as young people still do today during a religious service? Anyway, in the next indentation the secretary tells us that Montaigne wasn’t impressed by the beauty of the women and that it didn’t correspond to the reputation Rome has. Was this a general observation or one he had made during the mass?
In his Essays Montaigne mentions Christmas only twice and even then it’s only for referring to the winter season and not to the religious feast. The first time is in his essay “Of presumption” (II, 17): “An understanding person of our times says: That whoever would, in contradiction to our almanacs, write cold where they say hot, and wet where they say dry, and always put the contrary to what they foretell; if he were to lay a wager, he would not care which side he took, excepting where no uncertainty could fall out, as to promise excessive heats at Christmas, or extremity of cold at Midsummer.” The second time that Montaigne mentions Christmas is in the essay “Of physiognomy” (III, 12): “What good will this curiosity do us, to anticipate all the inconveniences of human nature, and to prepare ourselves with so much trouble against things which, peradventure, will never befall us? [Like] ... to put on your furred gown at Midsummer, because you will stand in need of it at Christmas!”
So, in fact Montaigne ignored Christmas in his writings, although it must have been important for him, since for him religion was more than just a custom in an age in which everyone was religious. But maybe this explains why Montaigne didn’t mention Christmas in his essays. Sometimes we don’t talk about what is important to us, simply because it is so obvious that it is. Not celebrating Christmas in some way was unthinkable in Montaigne’s age. We tend to ignore what we think that everybody knows, even if it isn’t so.

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