In the spirit of the holidays, I thought you might enjoy some fun facts about the origins of our current Christmas traditions, many of which go back to medieval times.
The word Christmas is from the old English term, Cristes Maesse, which means Christ’s Mass because the day itself was marked by three masses. The words, Cristes Maesse, were modified over the centuries and in the 16th or 17th century, the word Christmas first appeared.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25 of the year 336.
The actual date of Jesus’ birth was not recorded in the gospels or any other early Christian writings. Although the holiday itself was intended as a celebration of his birth, there seem to be different thoughts as to why the celebration is held on December 25.
Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the winter solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
The Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centered on the Winter Solstice and were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
Christmas plays or “disguisings” which depicted biblical stories were popular. The majority of the population was illiterate and the Church used these plays to educate the masses about the stories in the bible. Over time the plays became elaborate rituals in and of themselves. 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.
Turkey was not introduced until after the Americas were discovered in the 15th century. In medieval times the most common dinner choice was the Christmas goose, but roast swan, pheasant and peacocks were also popular.
If you really wanted to make an impression on your guests, a wild boar would be sacrificed, apparently there was nothing more impressive than a boar’s head presented on a silver platter with an apple stuffed in its mouth. If you could not afford a Yule boar, a pie in the shape of a pig was a common alternative.
The wealthy spared no expense for their grand Christmas feasts. In 1213, just one order for England’s King John’s Christmas feast included: 24 hogshead of wine; 200 head of pork; 1,000 hens; 500 lbs of wax; 50 lbs of pepper; 2 lbs of saffron; 100 lbs of almonds and, of course, the 10,000 salt eels.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolize the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. These pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
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.
The tradition of Christmas carols goes back to the 13th century and the reason that they go door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carolers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Wassail comes from an Anglo-Saxon greeting waes-hael which means “be in good health”. The word became synonymous with the hot mulled apple cider distributed during Yuletide. The drink was made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar.
Carolers would take their wassail bowl door-to-door, offering a drink and song in exchange for gifts (and yes, sometimes they did receive actual figgy pudding).
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Christmas has traditionally been seen as a time of reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today.
I can’t end this post before sharing some of the more unusual medieval traditions that I discovered.
Yule Mumming from Scandinavia
From Christmas Eve until the Twelfth Night, young men in northern parts of Europe would go about in the middle of the night scaring people in the streets or in their farms. They would be wearing frightening masks and would be “disguised according to the old fashion of the devil.” The young yule mummers would try to scare people by pretending to act like ghosts, trolls or other strange creatures. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Yule Goat began to appear and would make children shake and quiver and strike them with a kind of “panic fear.”
Soule in France
A popular Christmas past-time in medieval France was the game of soule, which would happen once a year between neighboring villages. The game had many regional variations but was based on a very simple principle: two opposing teams would compete for possession of a large block of wood or a moss-filled leather ball, called the eteuf or pelote.
It was propelled by being punched with the fist, kicked, or struck with curved sticks. In the course of these encounters with dozens of participants involved, all blows were allowed, which explained the large number of resulting injuries and even fatalities. Does that sound a bit like football to anyone other than me?
There is so much more that I would love to share but this already longer than it should be, so I’ll finish it up with the Christmas trolls from Iceland, which may very well be where Santa’s elves originated from or, possibly, the elf on the shelf.
In medieval Iceland, during the Christmas period, daylight would last only 4 to 5 hours, making for long, cold nights. It was also a time of danger, when evil creatures would wander the land. Icelandic sagas relate tales of strange events that happened during the Yule festival.
One farmer invited his neighbors to his Christmas feast, only to have several ghosts arrive, who would shake the mud off their clothes and spray the other guests with it and those who tried to stop them would fall sick and die.
By the later Middle Ages the stories and beliefs about Huldufólk (hidden people) were very common, and elves began to be associated with Christmas, they were said to be able to take over a person’s house and would hold wild parties, which I assume explains the messes they would find the next morning.
Whatever traditions that you and yours share, I wish you all a happy and healthy Christmas. Thanks for joining me and I’ll see you next year.