Nativity from Golden altar in Stadil, Denmark

How to Plan a Medieval Christmas

A quick list for a perfect Medieval Christmas is hand when everybody stresses and everything threatens to crash

Sol Invictus on a Leaf Disk
Sol Invictus on a Leaf Disk

Very early on Christmas was considered an important feast. However, it was not before the 4th century the date, the 25th of December, began to be universally accepted. In fact it took until ca. 575 AD before the Byzantine emperor imposed the new date (and the Armenians still celebrate Christmas around Epiphany).

One reason behind the chosen date (codified by the Pope in 336 AD) was of course that the feast was meant to mirror and supersede at least three pagan festivities: the celebration of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), the birthday of Mithra and the festival of Saturnalia celebrating the winter solstice. Especially this Roman feast was characterised by public sacrifices and banquets, private festivities and not least gift-giving, which the church obviously want to highjack. It seems evident that this is exactly what happened; all was introduced whole-sale into the Christmas traditions of later times. As such they have been arduously elaborated upon since then witnessing to a remarkable continuity through at least 1600 years.

Here is a quick-list for the last-minute organizers of some of the most important traditions and their ancient or medieval roots:

Bread

Panettone
Italian Panettone

It is Gregory the Great (590 – 604 AD) who is responsible for the first inkling of one of the most central elements of our Christmas: the celebration of bread. In a proper allegorical fashion, Gregory pointed out in his famous Christmas sernmon that Christ was born in Bethlehem because this means/ is the “city of bread” – “For the name Bethlehem – Βηθλεέμ – signifies the House of Bread, and this is the birthplace of Him Who said: I am the living Bread, which came down from heaven (John 6:51)”. From here he goes on to point our this is the reason why the new-born child was laid to rest in a manger, where “His flesh, like pure wheat, may draw him to the faithful.” (Gregory the Great’s homily on Luke 2:1 -14 for Christmas.)

At least since this idea was circulated, Christmas bread became an important part of any Christmas tradition whether in the form of taking part in the celebration of a Christmas Mass or just covering the table with breads, cakes and cookies of all sorts as well as serving puddings of all persuasions. Not forgetting the obligatory offering to the birds in the garden…

Medieval Christmas feasts

Rice Pudding
Rice Pudding

However, the focus on plain bread was probably very early on, superseded by the tradition of feasting on any delicacies characteristic of the locality or region – creamy porridge or puddings cooked with almond-milk and complimented by luscious fat fish like carps or eels or perhaps just dried cod were obligatory feast-food on Christmas Eve – the last day of fasting before the celebrations were kicked off at lunch-time next day; here any kind of fattened animals might be served either in the form of salted and smoked hams and joints or fresh roasts of geese, ducks, venison or even a roasted Yule-boar – whatever was available and affordable.Even the poor might enjoy a feast, when the lord donated the offal also called “umble” to his dependents, out of which they made “umble pies”.

Holly and Fir

christmas treeWhether in the form of a Christmas tree or just branches of holly, fir or other evergreens, decorating the church and the home with the tree of Paradise aka the cross belongs to the core of any Christmas celebration. Usually the tradition is said to stem from the doings of St. Boniface, who was apostle to the Germans. In his vitae written by Willibald the story dated to around AD 723 – 4  goes something like this:

“Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept entirely the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things. With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere [Geismar], while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter [Jove or Thor]. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree a wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle. (Translation from: Robinson, George W. (trans.) The Life of Saint Boniface by Willibald. Harvard University Press 1916)

berthold furtmeir-paradiesbaum
Berthold Furtmeir

To what extent this myth contributed to the tradition of heaving trees into the homes of people is rather obscure. However, the tradition of decorating trees in public spaces with candles and paper-roses or decorating churches with greenery outfitted with candles is well known from the later middle ages (Hutton 1996: 6 ff).  This tradition probably grew out of the tradition to mount “mystery plays” or “miracle plays” around Christmas time. Some plays enacted the story of Saint Nicholas, but more prevalent were the so-called Adam and Eve plays typically staged on their feast- day, the 24th of December (Jesus born on the night of the 25th being “The New Adam”. In these plays trees naturally played a prominent role… Even today the Christmas tree is often called a “Paradisbaum” in German. However, it is probably just a question of which sources have been preserved, which locates the “invention” of the Christmas tree in Germany in the beginning of the 16th century. Such “mystery plays” were staged all over Europe at that time.

Gifts

fjenneslev church -three wise men -
The three magi offering gifts
mural in Fjenneslev Church

Already around 400 a bishop in Cappadocia – Asterius of Amasea – complained about the gift-giving at the New Years festival of the Calends:

“Oh, the absurdity of it! All stalk about open-mouthed, hoping to receive something from one another. Those who have given are dejected; those who have received a gift do not retain it, for the present is handed on from one to another, and he who received it from an inferior gives it to a superior. The money of this festival is as unstable as the ball of boys at play, for it is passed quickly on from me to my neighbor. It is but a new form of bribery and servility, having inevitably linked with it the element of necessity. For the more eminent and respectable man shames one into giving. A person of lower rank asks outright, and it all moves by degrees toward the pockets of the most eminent men… This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive in return gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.” (Asterius of Amasea: Sermons (1904) pp. 111-129)

jul_julebuk
Traditional Christmas Goat used for mumming

Even if we do not buy into this ancient characterization of the dismal and widespread use of gift-giving as a veiled system of donations (where valuables flitter up and down in a ranked society), we still live in a world marked by it, as witnessed by concepts like the 13th month salary, other Christmas bonuses or gifts as well as Christmas feasts organized by any and all companies, organisations or institutions. No wonder “gift-wrapping” was once rightfully claimed the most valuable human invention ever.

What to give? Well, the proper inspiration should of course be had from the three wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – jewels, perfume and fragrant creams.

Entertainments galore

greccio-mural-church-cripped
Murial from the monastery at Greccio

Or maybe just a spectacular gift of an experience out of the ordinary – some tickets to a concert, an outfit to the youngsters who are keen on play-acting as knights and damsels in distress or maybe just an invitation to the local spa.

Christmas was always a time for fun and games – some liturgical as the Christmas-sermon organized in Greccio in 1223 where Baby-Jesus came alive through the machinations of the saint; or the caroling, where children would walk from door to door singing Christmas in. Other forms of entertainment were perhaps rather more worldly as Yule Mumming, performing minstrels, card-playing, gaming, dice-playing inter-village football (and other jousts). Take your pick…

READ MORE:

The Rise and Fall of Merry England. The Ritual year 1400 – 1700.
By Ronald Hutton
OxfordUniversity Press 1996

The Origins of Christmas
Bt Joseph A. Kelley
Liturgical Press 2004

Christmas: A Candid History
Bruce David Forbes
University of California 2007.

Christmas Traditions in Scandinavia
By Iørn Piø
In: Custom, Culture and Community in the Later Middle Ages: A Symposium
Odense University Press 1994

 Die Geschichte der deutschen Weihnacht
By Alexander Tille
Leipzig 1893

Chrismas and Epiphany. Christian Reflection.
A Series in Faith and Ethics.
Baylor University 2011

FEATURED PHOTO:

The featured image is from the Golden Altar in the Church of Stadil in Denmark. © frankix / 123RF Stock Photo – Read more about the altar here

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