By Kathryn Walton
Many of the most signature parts of Christmas in the Middle Ages (and today) actually come from pagan rather than Christian traditions. So, if you want to find out how you can make your Christmas and end of year celebrations just a little bit more pagan, read on!
Christmas held a central position in the medieval church and in medieval society. Surviving accounts of Christmas and New Years paint a vibrant image of a festive event filled with merriment, feasting, foolery, and gifts. If you want to learn more about what a medieval Christmas might have looked like, check out the features on Christmas in the Middle Ages and Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions.
But the end of year celebrations had featured in England, across Europe, and around the world long before the introduction of Christianity. The winter solstice has been a time of celebration for many religions from everywhere around the world for time immemorial. Stonehenge, constructed in pre-historic Britain, for example, was built to mark the passing of the shortest and longest days. Karnak Temple in Egypt, which is more than four thousand years old, was also built to celebrate the sun’s movements. The Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu, built in Peru in the fifteenth century, also frames the longest sun in December.
So, when Christianity was established in England and across Europe in the early Middle Ages many traditions from the pagan celebrations were drawn into the Christian festivities.
The Introduction of Christianity in Medieval England
Christianity was introduced into England a bit haphazardly over several hundred years. It was evident in Roman Britain, but it was not until the seventh century that it became firmly established in England.
At the end of the sixth century, Gregory the Great sent a group of missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons and other pagan groups living in England at the time. I should say that we have very little concrete knowledge about what exactly the pagan religions practiced in England and even across Europe looked like prior to the introduction of Christianity. Surviving accounts of the religions were usually written hundreds of years later by Christian individuals and so modern scholars have to do a great deal of guessing when figuring out what the religions might have looked like.
One thing we do know, however, is that one of the strategies those missionaries used to convert pagans to Christianity was to absorb some of the practices and traditions of the pagan religions into the Christian one. One of the primary things absorbed were the celebrations.
According to Keith Thomas, whose influential book Religion and the Decline of Magic illuminates the continuities between paganism and medieval Christianity, many formerly pagan celebrations became Christian in this way. As he writes, “New Year’s Day became the feast of the Circumcision; May Day was Saints Phillip and James; Midsummer Eve the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Fertility rites were converted into Christian processions and the Yule log was introduced into celebrations of the birth of Christ.”
As a result, pagan traditions shaped the celebrations that took place surrounding Christmas and New Years’.
Pagan Derived Holiday Traditions
What the celebrations looked like would vary of course between regions and communities, but there are some very famous components of the midwinter solstice celebrations that made their way into medieval Christmas celebrations.
1. Feasting. Feasting, which is as common at Christmas today as it was in the Middle Ages, was a feature of pagan celebrations. The major pagan solstice celebrations that we have some knowledge of in England and Europe all featured some kind of feast, and some had specific rituals associated with laying out a feast and the kinds of food served. Yule is the name given to the Germanic midwinter festival celebrated in pre-Christian Britain and Scandinavia. One of the practices associated with Yule was leaving traditional foods out on the table for female deities. (Perhaps this is a pagan ancestor of the current cultural tendency to leave cookies out for Santa?) Church officials in the Middle Ages who were trying to Christianize the end of year celebrations had very little success convincing people that they should give up their elaborate feasts in favour of fasts and penance. And so, elaborate feasts became a staple of medieval Christmas.
2. Drinking. Church officials also found it particularly challenging to stamp out the excessive drinking that tended to take place during medieval Christmas celebrations. This practice also derived in part from pagan celebrations. The Old English origin word for Yule appears to refer to the period of time surrounding what we now call Christmas. But in Scandinavian sources, the word actually appears to refer to ritual drinking. So, in its original pagan form, some solstice celebrations involved drinking as part of the religious ritual.
3. Mumming. This tradition is more associated with New Years than Christmas but was part of the medieval end of year celebrations and is thought also to have come from pagan practices. It involved dressing up in disguises (often as an animal, as a member of the opposite sex, or as a kind of monster) and going out to dance, celebrate, and get into mischief. It was a practice that the church tried very hard to get rid of in the Middle Ages but without a great deal of success.
4. Gift Giving. The gift-giving that has pretty well taken over contemporary Christmas celebrations has roots in several pagan festivals as well. It was common in Saturnalia, which was a seven-day feast that occurred in December to celebrate the Roman God Saturn. In that celebration, wax dolls were given to children. According to Alexander Murray (who has a great article on pagan traditions in Medieval Christmas in History Today) this tradition has rather horrific origins; it may have been a vestige of a much earlier pagan tendency to sacrifice children. Kalends, which was a pagan version of New Years’, also featured gifts of figs, honey, and pastry for good luck.
5. Fires. Pagan solstice festivities also tended to heavily feature fires in a variety of forms. The lighting of candles was common, and tapers often appeared in the celebrations. In Germanic and Scandinavian countries, the Yule-Log also featured in the solstice celebrations. In its Christian iteration, the Yule-Log consisted of the biggest piece of firewood that would fit in the family hearth. It was preserved throughout the year and brought in on Christmas Eve to burn throughout the next day. It was thought to be bad luck if it were allowed to go out at all on Christmas day.
6. Shrubbery. All three pagan celebrations that I have mentioned – Saturnalia, Kalends, and Yule – had people adorning their houses with whatever evergreen shrubbery was available in their region. In the North celebrators of Yule brought evergreen plants like mistletoe. According to Murray, the appreciation for mistletoe is thought to have been inherited from the druidic religion. The Christmas tree too was drawn from Yule celebrations in some form into medieval Christmas celebrations.
7. Baking. Ritual baking was also common in pagan festivities surrounding the holidays. Murray suggests that the ritual baking of cakes and pies was present in Saturnalia, and it certainly featured in Yule. During Yule, revelers would bake a pie that resembled a boar for the feast.
There are other traditions beyond what I have listed here. But even from this small sample, it is easy to see that many aspects of medieval Christmas (and Christmas today) come from pagan sources.
Across the Middle Ages there were various attempts by church officials to stamp out some of these pagan practices and place focus more heavily on the Christian parts of Christmas (which were of course also a staple of medieval Christmas). However, as is evident in the fact that many of the practices still survive today, they were largely ineffective.
How to Put a Little Pagan in Your Christmas
So, what should you do if you want to make your end of year celebrations this year a little bit more pagan?
First, bring in more shrubbery. Christmas trees are common today but if you want to go that extra mile, go out and find some other evergreen plants to adorn your living space. Anything green will work. Take advantage of the natural environment in your geographic region and decorate your living space with some shrubbery.
Second, light just a whole bunch of celebratory (and safe) fires: candles, fireplaces, the fireplace channel, whatever you’ve got. Fire it up! Shed some light on what is in the northern hemisphere one of the darkest days.
Third, dress up in some kind of disguise to entertain and amuse your family and neighbours (from a distance this year). Remember that masks and costumes aren’t just for Halloween. If you’re celebrating a pagan Christmas, dress up as your favourite animal, person, or monster, and enjoy yourself.
Fourth, do some baking. Cakes and pies made from traditional ingredients are especially appropriate. And if you’re feeling really ambitious bake something in the shape of an animal – boar or otherwise.
Finally, give gifts, celebrate with others in peace and comradery, enjoy some drinks (if that is something you like to do), and, most importantly, as Dr. Seuss would put it, FEAST! FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!
But above all remember that the components of the pagan solstice celebrations that made their way through the Middle Ages all the way to today are all about fun, fellowship, and festivity. So, enjoy your holidays in whatever way feels best to you.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: A yule log in a farmhouse in Gotland, Sweden. Drawing by Pehr Arvid Säve (1811—1887)