I am nicking this post, looking at the history of Christmas, from my business website which won’t be there for much longer (I am officially retired!)
In 350AD the Pope decreed that the feast of Christ’s Nativity should be held on December 25. This was fortunate because in Northern Europe it was essential to find some excuse to celebrate the period of the winter solstice.
Communal feasting, lights, fire, song, dance and traditional ritual helped (and still help) to see people through the depressing time when the days are at their shortest, the nights are at their darkest, and the shadows are at their longest. This is probably why Christmas festivities have survived so strongly in otherwise secular societies, while more significant Christian feasts like Easter have lost their importance in the social calendar.
The Christmas season was a lengthy affair in the Middle Ages, beginning with the festival of St. Nicholas on 6th December and ending with Twelfth Night and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th). In a time when people relied on good weather and good light to work, there was little to be done except keep warm and make merry. Many animals would have been slaughtered, since little winter fodder was available, and the harvest had been gathered, so food was usually plentiful.
St Nicholas was a 4th century bishop of Myra in Turkey, patron saint of, amongst others, children. One legend has him saving three sisters from prostitution by dropping gifts of gold through their windows, for dowries, so his feast was associated with gift-giving. Dutch tradition venerated him as Sinterklaas and he travelled to America as Santa Claus.
By contrast, Father (Lord/Old/Prince/Captain) Christmas was originally a pagan figure similar to Bacchus. When the 1`7th century puritans tried to outlaw pagan Christmas festivities, he was adopted, by their opponents, as the personification of old Christmas and survived in mummers’ plays until the Victorians turned him into a children’s gift giver and he finished up melded into Santa Claus ho ho ho.
His original persona was part of the drunken revelries presided over by the Lord of Misrule, an important figure who turned the established order on its head for the duration of the festival; men dressed as women, lords and servants changed places, and games took the place of work.
“First in the feast of Christmas, there was in the king’s house a lord of misrule, or master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman, were he spiritual or temporal. These lords beginning their rule on Allhallon eve, continuing the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas day. In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisings, masks and mummeries, with playing at cards for counters, nails and points, in every house, more for pasttime than for gain.”
John Stow’s Survey of London 1598
Although Christmas trees, traditional in other parts of Europe, were only introduced into Britain in the 19th Century, it was an old tradition to decorate the home with holly, ivy, and other greenery.
St.Augustine, in his mission to convert the pagan Saxons, was instructed by the Pope to decorate the church with greenery at Christmas. In place of fairy lights there was the yule log, filling the hearth and kept burning through Christmas.
“Against the feast of Christmas every man’s house, as also the parish churches, were decked with holm, ivy, bays and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and standards in the street were likewise garnished.”
Stow’s Survey of London 1598
Food was as important in the celebration of Christmas as it is now, although there was no set menu and the principal idea was to eat as much as possible of anything going and make sure everyone else did the same. A time of scarcity might be round the corner when the fruits of the last harvest began to be used up, and Lent would keep people on a miserable diet for 6 weeks, but over the dark and chilly period of the winter solstice, everyone tried to consume as many calories as possible.
Turkey was added to the seasonal repertoire as soon as it was imported from the New World, but other Christmas favourites included goose, peacock pie, marzipan and exotic fruits and spices. In Victorian times, turkey was the luxury option and goose (via goose clubs) was for the poor.
“Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas to come
To welcom their neighbours, good chere to have some.
Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall,
brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withal
Biefe, mutton and Porke, and good Pies of the best
pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey wel drest
Chese, apples and nuttes, good caroles to heare,
as then in the Cuntrey is counted good cheare.
“30 December 1537
My Lord, may it please you to know that yesterday I was at the hunting where there was slain a fine black boar, of the which I send you the head, praying you to accept in in good part.
The Lisle Letters”
Winter was a time for hunting, and the boar’s head was a traditional delicacy at Christmas, usually served with an orange or an apple in its mouth. The Medieval taste for mixing meat, fruit and spices produced the modern mince pie, though in today’s mix, nothing remains of the meat except the suet.
Another dish that often mixed meat, fruit and spices was the figgy pudding, a version of frumety, rather like porridge. By Georgian times it had evolved into a plum pudding, wrapped in a pudding cloth and boiled, before being flamed in brandy: the Christmas Pudding of today, packed with all the ingredients that would have been hugely expensive luxuries in the past.
December 25, the feast of the Nativity, was not considered to be one of the major festivals in the early Christian calendar, which was dominated by the all-important Easter. But from the 13th Century there was a growing interest in the Virgin Mary and in stories of the Holy Family, so Christmas increased in importance. St Francis of Assissi began the tradition of setting up a nativity scene on Christmas Eve.
The Reformation saw the end of prolonged and wild Christmas festivities which were seen, with good reason, as pagan. But in Cromwell’s time, under the influence of the puritans, even religious aspects of the festival were frowned upon and churches were closed. With the restoration of Charles II, Christmas was restored – any excuse for a celebration.
Music was as important a part of Christmas celebrations in Medieval times as it is in today’s shopping malls. Carols – songs in which the congregation could join – celebrated many festivals, but it is the Christmas carols which survive.
Wassailing, joyous singing and drinking, had no religious significance but was an important part of the Christmas season. Church bells rang out on Christmas Eve, not only to summon people to Mass; noise, as well as light and warmth, kept the evil spirits at bay. No one wanted silence at Christmas unless mourning demanded it.
Christmas in Mourning
Please it you to weet that I sent your eldest son to my Lady Morley to have knowledge what sports were used in her house in Christmas next following after the decease of my lord her husband. And she said that there were none disguisings nor harping nor luting nor singing, nor no loud disports, but playing at the tables and chess and cards; such disports she gave her folks leave to play, and none other.“
Margaret Paston, 24 December 1459
January 1 was established as the start of the New Year by the Romans. In the Middle Ages the calendar year began, confusingly, on March 25 (the start of the tax year even now) but January 1 was still called New Year. New Year was the time for giving of gifts, and in courtly circles this meant giving gifts to the Monarch, as a helpful reminder of one’s existence.
“7 January 1534
Your New year’s gift the King’s Majesty received right joyously, and I delivered it to his Grace with mine own hand, being present Mr Bryan and Mr Kyngston, which prefered it in the best wise, and said to his Grace, ‘Although my Lord Lisle be far from your Highness, yet doth he not forget you.’ To whom his Majesty answered, ‘We thank him.'”
The Lisle Letters
New Year gained prominence after the Reformation in strict Protestant areas, like Scotland, where Christmas revelries were frowned upon but people still needed a reason to celebrate the dark days.
In Medieval and Tudor times,the wildest, loudest and most drunken revelry in the Christmas period occured not on December 25, but on January 5, the Eve of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings. This is when a cake was baked, containing a bean. Whoever found the bean was crowned king.
Midwinter celebrations were held in cottages and castles alike. Peasants might have their mummers plays, with tales of St.George and the Turkish Warrior, to keep them entertained while they caroused. Courts had better-known playwrights to produce masques and plays for Twelfth Night.
“A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain:
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.”