A Medieval Christmas
With all the traditions we have for Christmas and how old many are, it’s easy to imagine things have always been as they are now. Obviously, it isn’t the case or this post would be over by this point and not very interesting. While some traditions are fairly timeless and go back to, or very near, the first Christian celebrations, being dropped back into the “Dark” or Middle ages would yield countless examples of customs that have gone the way of the dodo. I’ll be breaking from my normal format a bit here, an essay type creature would just be by necessity longer and convey few or no benefits, but just a bit of background on the holiday first.
Christmas wasn’t always called Christmas. The usage of that word only dates back about 1000 years (“only”, I know). It should be obvious to most people that the source of this word is Christ Mass, or alternately Christian Mass. Prior to the rise of Christmas, it was known by a lot of other names, none of which are very interesting, surprising or unusual. Christmas also didn’t always take place on December 25th, not until about 400 AD did the church finally settle on the 25th. Many other traditions have come into widespread practice only in the last few hundred years.
Caroling: The first Christmas Hymns trace back to around 400 AD or so, but only later, closer to the 10th and 11th centuries, do we start to see things sufficiently similar to what we would recognize as carols. Originally these were sung in churches but at some point the church banned them, accounts vary on when this happened. However, the why is pretty clear from period accounts. The word “carol” probably come from either French or Latin words meaning “circular dancing”, those possible source words escape me at the moment, and I’m far to lazy to look them up, but if the spirit compels you, they should be pretty easy to find. Dancing. That seems to be the reason for the churches ban. Not because they frowned on dancing, but because dancing is a huge distraction from the point of being in church, that would be for services, not a sock hop. Once carolers were driven out of the churches, house visiting “wassailing” gained a place at Christmas.
Boy Bishop: Saint Nicholas, as you may or may not know, is the patron saint of children. Obviously that lends some sense to how the man got himself into the holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, and why many Christmas traditions focus on children. (He is also the patron saint of thieves, maybe that’s why so many homes are robbed of their presents, and maybe why this slick operator sneaks in through the chimney in the dead of night, but who knows.) The boy bishop was elected on Saint Nicks feast day, the 6th of December, and his reign continued until the 28th, which is Holy Innocents day for you lapsed Catholics and various other heathens. The real bishop would symbolically give up his duties to the young man picked. There were no half measures taken either. The boy would get a snazzy clothing makeover consisting of bishops robes, crosier and henchmen dressed as clergy to attend him. Not a bad deal. With the sole exception of Masses, the boy ran the show. You can find a bit more info here.
Childermass: Of course if you read about the boy bishop, the day on which his reign of terror ended you know is Holy Innocents day or Childermass. In some places the custom was to beat the bajesus out of children to remind them of what happened after Christs birth. That would be Herods infanticide, at least according to the Bible. This particular custom was not really all that widespread or at least not well documented, but all the same certainly a tradition that we wouldn’t recognize if sent back.
Christmas Trees: This one comes, as you might expect, from Germany. In the 15th century churches would often times have an evergreen tree brought in. A little later on, guildhalls started having trees, usually decorated with sweets, nuts and sometimes fruit for children to enjoy. It was far later on in the 19th century when the needly things made their way into homes in a widespread way. Prior to the 1400’s there is really just no documentation of such a practice. It’s true than in many areas pagans religions sometimes brought in evergreen boughs or in some cases a whole tree, but its association with Christmas comes much later. It’s not thought that this was very widespread after the spread of Christianity. It’s a significant enough break that the custom may have arisen somewhat of its own accord.
Christmas Presents!!!!!!!!: Contrary to popular belief, gift giving was banned at times in the Christian world (as it relates to Christmas, not in general). The reasoning behind that is due to a Roman holiday that took place around the same time, including the custom of gift giving. Thus the church banned the practice, on account of it’s pagan nature. Later on, however, gift giving emerged as a custom not for Christmas Day, but on St. Nicholas’s feast day, the 6th of December. As often happens, things merge together and this instance is no exception. Another possible reason for gift giving coming back into vogue is that Jesus got presents from the Magi, although that wasn’t on the day of his birth, just the same, if Jesus can do it, so can we all.
Santa Claus: You probably know that Santa Claus is just one of his many names. Santa Claus is simply an example of what the English language does best, sneak up behind other languages, beat them down and steal all their stuff. In this case the one that got mugged was German, Santa Claus is simply an anglicization of the German for Saint Nicholas. Most people also know that Santa has only recently gotten off the Atkins Diet and fattened up properly. Interesting factoid, Santa isn’t Saint Nick everywhere. In the East, Santa is another guy named Basil. Whoever you think the model for Santa is, it still remains that he has not always been fat and he sure as hell never messed with reindeer. I’ll stick to Saint Nick her though. The real man was a bishop and his bishopric consisted of a portion of Greece called Myra. Numerous miracles and legends surround the real man, but he came to be known more for secret gift giving rather than his talent for casting out demons, a practice we now call “voting them out of office” rather than exorcism.
VACATION!!!!: Christmas vacation from work or school isn’t something that came about because of labor unions or benevolent governments. Indeed, if you read my post on medieval workers you know that workers enjoyed far more days off back in the day than anyone does today. The period around Christmas was no exception. There were a great number of feast days at this point in the year and with the days so short not much work could be done anyway. Getting on to the vacation part, the end of December has been a cheery time in the Christian world for a very long time. The cheeriness even predates Jesus. For as long as the earth has been around, the winter solstice has been as well. For people, short days, long nights and cold weather lead to sadness, so when the days start getting longer, people tend to celebrate, that celebratory spirit that was already there carried over into Christmas quite naturally. Especially in the higher latitudes of northern Europe, the phrase “idle hands are the devils tools” had its beginnings here, and it’s true. Everyone is well aware that with no work to do, limited entertainment and cold, short dark days, people need to stay occupied to keep out of trouble.
To wrap it up, while Christmas is clearly a religious holiday and has been for at least 1600 years, there have always been secular aspects to it. Even in the middle ages it was not uncommon for Jews to take part in some of the hubbub surrounding Christmas. I suppose, he is their most famous Jew, but it clearly wasn’t that, it’s far more likely that people simply needed a celebration to keep from sinking into depression. That party animal Jesus was in a position to oblige. It has also changed a great deal over time, losing old customs, gaining new ones. It is also very regional, even today, a thousand years ago it was even more so with wild variation from place to place.