This feature looks at the origins of Christmas and how it was celebrated in the Middle Ages. It includes links to articles related to this topic.
Many ancient religions held great importance for the phenomenon of the winter solstice, the time when daylight was at its shortest and the night was at its longest during the year. In the Julian calendar, this date originally fell on December 25th. It was at this point in the year that the Romans held midwinter celebrations called Saturnalia, which was the god Saturn. This included feasts and the custom of giving wax dolls to children as presents. There were other traditions too, including in Celtic areas of the Roman empire, where men and women would dress in clothes of the opposite sex, and then go dancing with aninal masks on.
Meanwhile, the new religion of Christianity was also developing a series of their own special days, and around the year 300, it was decided that a feast day would be held in honour of Christ’s birth. Unfortunately, the actual date of Jesus’ birth was not recorded in the gospels or any other early Christian writings. Since it was a common practice at the time for emperors to celebrate their birthdays on dates abitrarily chosen, it was decided to pick a date for Jesus’ birthday, and December 25th was selected. The theological basis for this date was that it fell exactly nine months from March 25th, which was believed to be the day on which the world was created, and would also be the date of Christ’s conception.
During the Early Middle Ages Christmas became one of the most important days in the Christian year, and by the fifth century the celebration was expanded with the creation of Advent and other feasts days for St. Stephen, John the Evangelist and the Innocents (the children executed by Herod) for the three days following Christmas. The original tales of Jesus’ birth from the gospels were expanded – for example, the story of the three Maji was changed so that not only did they become kings, but were given names and their own backgrounds (one eighth century legend described one of the three as being black).
The feast of Christmas also started incorporating other pagan ceremonies and practices, especially those from the Germanic peoples. Some Christians were openly resentful of these practices. St. Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, visited Rome in 742, and complained that during Christmas season people were “singing and dancing in the streets in pagan style; heathen acclamations an sacrilegious songs; banquets by day and night.” Meanwhile, other Christian leaders accomodated or tolerated some of these practices, and gradually they became part of the standard Christian festival.
Christmas is one of two days in the Christian calendar (the other being Easter) when three masses are performed on a single day – beginning with a midnight mass, followed by another at dawn and a third later in the day.
To add to the importance of Christmas masses visual images were added, such as displaying a crib in the church to represent the place where Jesus was born. By the early-twelfth century, the liturgy would include dramatic scenes, such as ‘angels’ singing. This would lead to the development of plays, especially in towns, were Bible scenes were dramatized. For example, two ‘Shepherds’ Plays’ from Wakefield, written in the early fifteenth-century, made use of eleven verses of Luke’s Gospel and turned it into fifty pages of elaborate performance.
The tradition of Christmas carols goes back as far as the thirteenth century. The word ‘carol’ meant that this was originally a type of song with dancing, and early carols would have one person singing while the others danced in a circle.
Most carols now commonly played during Christmas come from post-medieval times. An example of a carol from the Middle Ages is the Coventry Carol, which was played during a play from the town of Coventry. It is actually a sad song, depicting the Massacre of the Innocents in which Herod orders all male infants in Bethlehem killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child.
The tree was an important symbol in various pagan cultures. Evergreens, which in ancient Rome were thought to have special powers and were used for decoration, symbolized the promised return of life in the spring and came to symbolize eternal life for Christians. The Vikings hung fir and ash trees with war trophies for good luck.
In the Middle Ages, the Church would decorate trees with apples on Christmas Eve, which they called “Adam and Eve Day.” However, the trees remained outdoors. By sixteenth-century Germany, it was the custom for a fir tree decorated with paper flowers to be carried though the streets on Christmas Eve to the town square, where, after a great feast and celebration that included dancing around the tree, it would be ceremonially burned.
The 16th century London historian John Stow found an account from 1444 which reported that “a standard of tree being set up in the midst of the pavement (in the London neighbourhood of Cornhill) fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmas to the people.” He further explained that in his city, “every man’s house and also his parish church was decked with holme, ivie, bayes, and whatever the season of the year afforded to be green.”
Click here to listen to Sarah Peverley talking about Christmas traditions in the Middle Ages, from the BBC Radio programme Night Waves
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a Christmas Poem, by Jean Louise Carriere
The Significance of the Coronation of Charlemagne, by Monica Fleener
Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas, by Steven Hijmans
Dating Christmas, by Andrew McGowan
Toward a Theory of Pre-industrial European Folk Ritual: The Case of Polish Wigilia, by Sarah Slevinski