Over the centuries, the holiday season has been celebrated with pageantry, plays, music, and feasts, following the pagan traditions of this special time of year.
Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Christmas traditions emerged from Roman and early Christian practices to join the rich patterns of European folk and court cultures. Although some early Christian leaders were wary of incorporating these traditions into the serious business of the Church, in practice, most Christians overlapped church holidays with existing pagan customs.
In the north, Christian missionaries found supporters of the gods Woden and Thor setting huge bonﬁres to battle what was believed to be the evil of winter’s darkness. In central Europe, it was believed that at the death of the old sun, witches and demons emerged to destroy the fertility of the new year, but they could be appeased with presents and offerings. In Britain, they witnessed Druids paying homage to the victory of the evergreens over winter’s darkness.
Happily, most missionaries followed the advice of Gregory the Great who, in 597 AD, wrote that Christians should not try to destroy pagan customs, but adapt them “to the praise of God.” As a result, to this day many of these pagan rites soon became indelibly merged in the seasonal event of the winter solstice.
Early Holiday Revels
Throughout the early part of the first millennium, the Germanic peoples celebrated Christmas with wild revelry and feasting. At their hall tables beer flowed copiously and hogs were set to roasting. Drinking from a wassail bowl of beer or ale was common, as was feasting on a ceremonial boar’s head with an apple placed in its mouth, harking back to the Norse God Frey, who ruled over herds and whose symbol was the boar.
During the holiday season, life was a boisterous melee of singing, hunting, gambling, feasting, and drinking. Legend states that King Arthur and his men spent the Christmas season much like the rough Germans. A later chronicle describes their revels:
At this time [521 AD] the great Monarch Arthur, with his Clergy, his Nobility, and Soldiers, kept Christmas in York, and spent the latter end of December in Mirth, Jollity, Drinking, and Vices… Gifts are sent mutually from one to another, frequent invitations pass betwixt friends, and domestick offenders are not punished. Our Countrymen call this Jule-Tide, substituting the name of Julius Caesar for that of Saturn. The Vulgar are persuaded that the Nativity of Christ is then celebrated, but mistakenly; for ‘tis plain they imitate the Lasciviousness of Bacchanalians rather than the memory of Christ then, as they say, born.
Although Christmas was an important day, later traditions proved that these early holiday revels would soon be overshadowed by more lavish celebrations.
The Lords of Misrule
Christmas during the later Middle Ages was celebrated by both high and low born, with rituals ranging from elaborate masses to the pious town pageants. It was an age of vivid secular pageantry, as well as high piety, where the traditions of the Church joined hands with fantastic pantomimes and garish processions, songfests and unruly revels.
During the yuletide season, exotic foods were eaten and gifts were exchanged among the nobility. For instance, at Christmastime in England of 1252, Henry III ordered 600 oxen to be slaughtered and served with salmon pie and roasted peacock, then washed down with barrels of wine. In 1415, Henry V honored Christmas with a “glutton mass celebration” lasting ﬁve days.
In France, the traditional day of winter revelry was Epiphany (January 6), an early rival for the date of Christ's birth. For the French, it was the occasion of the Feast of Fools, during which the lower clergy nominated a mock Bishop of Fools to perform a spoof mass, as well as “abominations and buffooneries.” The French Epiphany also included a cake of Kings, which contained in its belly a single bean. According to tradition. whomever found the bean became the ruler of the day, chose a consort, and directed the dancing. Apparently begun by monks in the 13th century, this custom soon became widespread throughout France.
Other popular medieval Yuletide traditions included mumming, singing, and performing miracle and mystery plays. By the mid-1100s, costumed mummers began appearing in the English court, where they staged festive pantomimes and dressed as animals and fantastic creatures while minstrels acted, sang, and juggled for coins in public spaces or in the royal great halls.
One of the most important figures of these festivities was the Lord of Misrule. Related to other topsy-turvy ﬁgures such as the Boy Bishop and the Mock King, the Lord of Misrule presided over this period of disorder. There were many ways of picking a king of this kind; some were chosen by selecting a card, some by ﬁnding the bean in the cake, and others by popular vote. The elected king would select a “court” of followers who would do his bidding and adopt silly names and titles.
A contemporary record describes one of these Christmas ﬁgures:
All the wilde heades of the parishe cenventynge together, chuse them a grand Capitaine of mischeef whom they innoble with the title of my Lorde of Misrule. This kyng anoynted, chuseth a hundred lustie guttes like to hymself. And as though they were not baudie enough, they bedecke themselves with scarffes, ribons, and laces, and have their hobbie horses, together with baudie pipers, and thunderyng drommers. to strike up the Deville’s Daunce.
Twelfth Night and Masked Balls
In Henry VIII’s England, Christmas continued the lavish festivals of the Middle Ages, and even took strides to outshine all that had gone before.
A court historian wrote of Henry’s Twelfth Night festival:
At night, the King with XI others, were disguised after the manner of Italie, called a maske, a thing not seen before in England. Maskers came in disguised in silke, bearing staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce.
Derived from Italian Renaissance traditions, the masked ball soon became an elegant addition to the holiday tradition of wassailing. It became such an important part of the holiday festivities that by the reign of James I, English dramatist Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones teamed up to produce elaborate spectacles, complete with ﬂying fairies, waterworks, and light shows. In emulation of the Court, all the nobles and lords of the realm were hiring their own “maker of Interludes” to compose the yearly Christmas entertainment at their great estates.
In France, Francis I (1494-1547) and his retinue also staged riotous Twelfth Night ceremonies. In 1521, the King attended a féte des Rois, where a festival king had already been chosen by the bean. As part of the ceremony, Francis challenged the authority of this king, and the two sides held a mock battle in which the arms consisted of a “prodigious quantity of snowballs, eggs, and apples.” Someone grabbed a burning piece of wood from the defender’s castle and threw it out the window, knocking the true King on the head. Francis, however, would not allow any investigation into the incident, saying he had taken on the rules of the revels, and would play by them. (The King received a permanent scar from the episode, and later grew a beard to cover his Twelfth Night trophy.)
Queen Elizabeth, like her father Henry VIII, loved rough and boisterous entertainments and in 1569, she formed an acting company called Children of the Revels, to perform the latest plays and shows. The Inns of Court, or law schools, also staged festivities, such as the Inner Temple’s “Grand Christmas,” where the first English Tragedy Gorboduc was played. The Queen’s other favorite pastimes during the holiday season were playing cards, dicing, gambling, and dancing. She even kept her own Master of Revels, Sir Thomas Cawarden, who was responsible for overseeing the huge expenditure on pageants during her reign.
By 1541, the Reformation had begun to make inroads into the frivolity of courtly culture. The pious Nativity plays and religious dramas of the season seemed superstitious and foolish to these zealously pious folk so, in the increasingly policed Elizabethan state, the popular traditions of feasting and revelry began to take on dangerous social overtones.
But in Germany, many Christmas practices still thrived. Though Martin Luther was the Reformation’s leader, he was by no means a puritan and was deeply immersed in the folk traditions and superstitions of the simple country people. A 16th-century citizen of Strasbourg wrote, “At Christmas, they set up ﬁr trees in the parlor and hang upon them roses cut from many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt-sugar, and sweets.” Clearly, much of our modern Christmas tree decorations derive from these roots.
The Puritans, though, were alarmed by all this extravagance, which to them had a suspiciously pagan feel. So when the Puritans came into power during the English Civil War, they shut down the playhouses and turned Christmas feasting into a long fast. People ran through the streets shouting, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” And when others tried to decorate the streets with greenery, the Lord Mayor had all the branches burned that year. Parliament declared that on Christmas, “no observance shall be had, nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof.”
But after the Restoration, the powerful traditions that had taken centuries to form would soon resurface in lavish style.
This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #20, and was reworked for Mystorical.