And now, part two of Sara Breshears’ “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.”
The Party Gets Rolling
As previously mentioned, in early Christianity, Christmas was not widely celebrated and was overshadowed by Epiphany or the visit of the Magi, which was celebrated on January 6th. By the High Middle Ages, with Christmas becoming more prominent thanks in part to the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas in 800 CE and William the Conqueror in 1066, Christmas was the first in a long list of religious holidays that were celebrated.
Like Saturnalia, Christmas in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was a party, filled with drinking, overeating, and merrymaking!
In England, Christmas kicked off a long continuous party that culminated in Twelfth Night celebrations, on January 5th. Leading up to the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrations was Advent, which was twenty-four days of fasting and prayer. This was done by most families to save money and food for to be used the celebrations.
The Catholic Church at the time had strict rules about celebrating during the Twelve Days of Christmas and decreed that only the minimal amount of work could take place during the celebrations. So, Advent was used to prep the farm and household for the festivities and so no rules would be broken.
During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was chosen to oversee the celebrations, particularly the Feast of Fools. In England, sometimes the Lord or King of Misrule was chosen by finding a pea in the Twelfth Night cake, not unlike King Cake today.
In France and in Switzerland a boy would be chosen to be ‘Bishop for a Day,’ much like the Saturnalias Princeps, and would be dressed in bishop’s clothes and could give light-hearted orders though out the day.
Gifts were usually given on New Year’s Day. On New Year’s Day 1532, Henry VIII of England accepted a set of Pyrean Boar Spears from Anne Boleyn, while he gave her hangings of cloth of gold, silver, and crimson satin. Reportedly, he rejected the gold cup his then-wife Catherine of Aragon had sent him as a gift. How rude!
The traditional meal during Christmas was the Yule Boar or pig for most people, since they were safer to acquire than a boar, which were quite large and could easily kill a man. Turkey was not introduced from the New World until 1532 and Henry VIII again is the first known English king to eat the bird at Christmas, since at the time, they would have been a new and rare delicacy.
Chroniclers of the courts of Europe record magnificent feasts being held, games being played, and drunken debauchery! While most peasants couldn’t afford to spend the whole day partying, they too had their fun!
Homes would be decorated with holly and ivy and large Yule logs, big enough to burn over the course of twelve days were selected and dragged home covered in ribbons to be put on the hearth. Christmas crowns were wooden structures built, covered in holly, ivy, and of course mistletoe, and hung in homes to add a bit of decoration.
In Germany, in the 16th century these were called ‘kissing bough.’ Made out of evergreens like holly and bay leaves and a touch of mistletoe (of course), these were suspended from a ceiling and required any unaware couple to share a kiss before being freed.
The Party Ends…Temporarily
As you can see, up till the 17th century, the whole Christmas season was a never-ending party, with pageants, masques and diners, gambling and sporting, and gift-giving!
However, in 1647, Puritans banned Christmas in England, condemning it as ‘trappings of popery’ and a Catholic invention. Basically, they didn’t like people having too much fun! Once the Parliamentary forces executed King Charles I in 1649 there wasn’t really anyone to argue with them.
Three years earlier in 1640, the Parliament of Scotland abolished the observance of Christmas and it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was once again a Scottish holiday!
Pro-Christmas riots occurred in several cities and with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 the ban was lifted, but there were many among the clergy who did not approve of any celebration of the holiday and so resumption of the celebrations were not widely common.
Early pilgrims in Colonial America (who left England not because of religious persecution but because they believed the Anglican church was not strict enough) continued this intense dislike of Christmas and showed it, by working on Christmas day!
After the American Revolution, Christmas was not widely celebrated in the United States because it was seen as being ‘too British’.
It wasn’t until the Victorians and the publishing of Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, that Christmas was again widely celebrated in the United Kingdom and the United States.
This sparked the revival of many of the old traditions along with the emergence of some new ones such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees, though the festivities were markedly, more ‘family friendly’ than in centuries previous! Caroling, Christmas trees, Yule logs, evergreens, gifts, and games all made a comeback and then some!
The history of Christmas, and the festivals and celebrations that influence our modern Christmas, is fascinating and I only mentioned three of many different holidays that were celebrated throughout Europe and the ancient world!
That all these different pagan traditions were shared and changed and shaped into something new, is amazing and I am glad we still have them.