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Christmas in the Middle Ages

by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

Christmas as we know it is largely a Victorian development. Such traditions as the Christmas tree and Santa Claus or Father Christmas are relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. Yet we can recognize in the Christmas of the late medieval period the ancestor of our own celebration. Most of the customs I will discuss are from England, but some were common throughout Europe.

Until the late Middle Ages, the celebration of Christmas Day ranked fairly low among the major festivals of the Christian world. Twelfth Night celebrations far surpassed the rather solemn, low key observance of the birth of Christ, while more festive Yule celebrations (originally a pagan observance) persisted into the Christian era. However, beginning with the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century, a trend can be discerned away from the importance of local saints and towards emphasis on the major figures of the Church, especially on the Holy Family. The fourteenth and fifteenth century cycle plays, presented in English towns by local guilds on or about Corpus Christi day (a movable feast sometime between May 21 and June 24) were one result of this trend. These plays focusing on the life of Christ sometimes included elaborate stagings of the nativity. Thus began the first widespread popularization of the Christmas story in England. The first Christmas carols were also connected to the performance of these plays. We don't normally think of Christmas as a midsummer tradition, but this, indeed, was its roots.

Slowly, the emphasis on the nativity in the cycle plays lead to a rise in interest in Christmas itself. Yule became synonymous with Christmas, and customs such the Yule log and decorating with evergreens, despite their non-Christian origins, became associated with this holiday as well. Holly, ivy, laurel, and other evergreens were often used thenceforth as metaphors for the infant Christ; even the mistletoe, whose pagan associations are the clearest, continued to be incorporated into the celebrations. In the 16th century, garlands of evergreens were sometimes placed around wire hoops; three of these would then be placed together to form a sort of ball, which was then hung. Alas, despite the scene in The Lion in Winter featuring a huge decorated evergreen, Christmas trees were a much-later addition. Christmas gifts, however, were common well before the 15th century, when in England legislation had to be passed limiting them. However, gift-giving did not as yet concentrate on Christmas Day, but occurred throughout the holiday season.

The Christmas season was particularly marked by good cheer. Households stood open and ready to welcome neighbors and visitors. A popular custom was mumming, in which revelers put on masks or the clothes of the opposite sex and, accompanied by minstrels and musicians, traveled from house to house. Another custom (practiced particularly in the universities) was the appointment of a Lord of Misrule, who, dressed in gaudy or outrageous clothing, presided over the holiday merriment with the pomp due an actual monarch. The Lord of Misrule sometimes led revelers on wild nighttime processions through town, which of course angered the resident church leaders. However, churchmen had their own form of this custom--the appointment as a young boy as bishop for the holiday season. As you may have noticed, the holiday season was well-known for role reversal; in fact, the custom of lords serving their servants for a day was quite common. Lords usually chose this time to bestow gifts upon their servants; a common present was a new suit of clothes. The Christmas season in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was, as it is today, a welcome escape from everyday cares.

Ashton, John. _A Righte Merrie Christmasse _. (New York, 1968)

Brand, John. _Popular Antiquities of Great Britain_. (London, 1853.)

The author also thanks Prof. E.R. Rose for his enlightening information.



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