Updated: Nov 23
Throughout the Middle Ages, Roman and early Christian practices often were incorporated into European folk traditions. There was no better example of this than with the end-of-year celebrations called Yuletide.
In the north, the supporters of the Pagan gods Woden and Thor set huge bonfires to battle the evil of winter's darkness. In central Europe, the common folk believed that, at the death of the old sun, witches and demons would emerge to destroy the fertility of the new year, but they could be appeased with presents and offerings. In Britain, Druids paying homage to the victory of the evergreens over winter’s dark.
Happily, most Christian missionaries who encountered such rituals followed the advice of Gregory the Great who, in 597 AD, wrote that Christians should not try to destroy pagan customs but instead, should adopt them “to the praise of God.” Soon, both Christian and pagan traditions became indelibly merged in the seasonal event of the winter solstice, so much so that it became difficult to tell them apart.
Throughout the early part of the first millennium, the Germanic peoples celebrated Christmas with wild revelry and feasting. In their halls, beer flowed copiously and hogs were set to roasting. Wassail bowls of beer or ale were common, as was the ceremonial boar's head with an apple placed in its mouth, harkening back to the Norse God Frey, whose symbol was the boar.
Legend even 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.
Christmas was an important day in the Arthurian cycle of legends, for at the wizard Merlin's request, the leaders of the kingdom gathered to await a sign about the future of the realm. The sign appeared as the magical sword embedded in the anvil, which Arthur alone was able to remove on Christmas Day, a sign that he would lead the nation to a glorious future.
But these early holiday revels were soon to be overshadowed.
The Lords of Misrule
Christmas in the later Middle Ages was celebrated by both the high and low born, with rituals ranging from elaborate masses to the pious pageants of townsfolk. It was an age of 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.
Exotic foods were eaten and fantastic gifts were exchanged amongst the nobility during the yuletide season. For instance, at Christmastime in England of 1252, Henry Ill 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, on which the lower clergy nominated a mock Bishop of Fools who performed 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, whoever 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, minstreling, and the performance of 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. Minstrels performed for coins in public spaces or in the great halls of kings, and their acts contained a variety of singing, acting, and juggling.
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 the 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 Misserule. 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.
A Renaissance Christmas
In Henry Vlll'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, wer 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.
The masked ball soon became an elegant addition to the wassailing of Christmas, and was derived from Italian Renaissance traditions.
English dramatist Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones teamed up during the reign of James I to produce elaborate allegorical spectacles, complete with flying fairies, waterworks, and light shows. At the end of the masque, performers would "glean out the Queen [and King], the bride, and the greatest of all the ladies," and lead them in a dance.
Soon all the lords of the realm were hiring their own "makers of Interludes" to compose the yearly Christmas entertainment at their great estates, in emulation of the Court.
In the France of Francis I (1494-1547), the king and his retinue also staged riotous Twelfth Night ceremonies. In 1521, he attended a féte des Rois, where a festival king had already been chosen by the bean.
Francis decided to challenge 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 that 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.
In Shakespeare's England, many of the great medieval Christmas ceremonies and practices were incorporated into the pageantry of the court. 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.
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 increase in expenditure on pageants that occurred during her reign.
But by 1541, the Protestant 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, 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 country people. A 16th-century citizen of Strasbourg wrote, "At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlors, 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 practices.
The Puritans, however, were alarmed by all this extravagance, which had a suspiciously pagan feel. One noted,
"In Christmas tyme, there is nothing else used but cardes, dice, tables, maskyng, mumming, bowling, and such like fooleries."
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."
Although the Puritans had no tolerance for what they considered to be the pagan tradition of Christmas, after the Restoration, the powerful traditions that had taken centuries to form would once again resurface in lavish style.
This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #20, written by staff author Duke Shadow.