Christmas Day was one of the most important days of the year for medieval Christians. Being a time of festivities and gatherings, it is not surprising that several key events took place on December 25th, many of which were connected with the Catholic Church.
The connection between December 25th and the birth of Jesus Christ was established by the early fourth century. The Chronograph of 354, a text produced for a Roman citizen, includes an entry as part of its list of dates: “On December 25 the Birth of Christ at Bethlehem of Judea.” Other notices of Christmas Day would emerge in the early part of the Middle Ages.
The Baptism of Clovis
The spread of Christianity throughout Europe was a process often led by the baptism of pagan rulers – and with them their subjects. Perhaps the most important conversion to take place was with Clovis, King of the Franks, who established a powerful state in northwestern Europe towards the end of the fifth century. In 493 Clovis had married Clothide, a Burgundian princess, and she set about to persuade him to convert to Christianity. Within a few years her efforts proved successful, and Saint Remigius, the Bishop of Reims, was brought in to carry out the baptism, which would take place on December 25, 496.
Gregory of Tours writes about what happened next:
The public squares were draped with coloured cloths, the churches were adorned with white hangings, the baptistry was prepared, sticks of incense gave off clouds of perfume, sweet-smelling candles gleamed bright and the holy place of baptism was filled with divine fragrance. God filled the hearts of all present with such grace that they imagined themselves to have been transported to some perfumed paradise. King Clovis asked that he might be baptized first by the Bishop.
Once Clovis was baptized, another 3,000 of his followers also took part in the ceremony. Clovis would go on to be recognized as the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty and is often considered to be the first king of France.
Another mass conversion that took place on Christmas Day was carried out by Augustine of Canterbury. According to a letter he wrote, Augustine baptized 10,000 people in England on December 25, 597.
Charlemagne becomes Emperor
Perhaps one of the most significant events to take place in the Middle Ages was when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, which took place on December 25, 800. That title had not been used in western Europe for centuries, but Charlemagne had in recent years built up a state that stretched from modern-day Austria to The Netherlands – if anyone was deserving of an imperial title it was him.
In November of the year 800, Charlemagne had come to Rome to deal with accusations against Pope Leo III. It seems likely that the Frankish ruler and the Pope came to an agreement, where Leo would be exonerated and Charlemagne would get a new title. According to Annales regni Francorum, this is what happened on Christmas Day:
And that very same day, when the king rose from prayer before the confessio of St Peter, Pope Leo placed a crown on his head and he was acclaimed by the whole people of the Romans: ‘To Charles augustus, the God-crowned great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory!’ And after the acclamations, he was saluted by the pope in the customary manner of ancient emperors, and the name of patricius was abandoned and he was called emperor and augustus.
Hungary begins and Westminster burns
The start of the Kingdom of Hungary may have happened on December 25, 1000, or January 1, 1001 – and it was one of several things that are unclear about this event. Stephen I had been the Grand Prince of the Hungarians since 997, but it seems he wanted to get extra Christian-based legitimacy for his rule. Stephen would receive a crown from Pope Sylvester II, and with this crowning Hungary would be now known as a Kingdom.
Several other rulers were known to have been crowned on Christmas Day: Bolesław II of Poland in 1076, Baldwin of Boulogne as the first King of Jerusalem in 1100, and Roger II as the first King of Sicily in 1130 are examples.
William the Conqueror would also be crowned on Christmas Day in 1066. It had been only a couple of months since the Norman ruler had defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. The coronation would take place at Westminster Abbey, with William placing armed guards outside the abbey church. However, things did not go as planned, as the chronicler Orderic Vitalis explains:
But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred. For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with one voice if not in one language that they would. The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings. The fire spread rapidly from house to house; the crowd who had been rejoicing in the church took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot. Almost all the rest made for the scene of the conflagration, some to fight the flames and many others hoping to find loot for themselves in the general confusion. The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge.
A Christmas Truce
A happier event took place in 1428, during the Siege of Orléans, which was being fought over between the English and French during the Hundred Years’ War. The two sides had been fighting for a couple of months, but in an event similar to the famous Christmas Truce of World War One, they decided to halt the hostilities for the day.
The author of the Journal du siège d’Orléans describes the scene:
The following day of Christmas, a truce from one side to the other was given and granted, lasting from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. And during this time, Glacidas and other lords from England provided notice to the bastard of Orléans and to the lord of Saint Sevère, Marshal of France, that they had loud minstrels, trumpets and clarions: an agreement was made; and the instruments were played for a rather long time, making great melody.
You can read about more events that happened on Christmas Day from A Christmas Chronicle, by Aloysius Horn.
Top Image: 15th century depiction of the crowning of Charlemagne – BnF MSFrançais 6465, fol. 89v.