Many people reminisce about having a good old fashioned Christmas. They long for simpler times when Christmas was less commercialized; although I do agree with this, you really do not want to go back to a Christmas they had in medieval times.
Of course during the middle ages in Europe, you wanted to be a Christian. Anyone else, who worshiped a different religion, was persecuted.
After Christians took over Spain, the Muslim community was given a choice; basically be killed, or forcibly exiled from the country, or be converted. Others, that stayed in Europe, such as the Jews, were persecuted.
The Jewish community also suffered extreme hardships during the middle ages. Rumors were prevalent throughout Europe that the Jews were engaging in “Blood Libel”. Blood Libel was an accusation that the Jews were kidnapping children and use their blood during Jewish holidays. As crazy as this story may seem, the Catholic Church actually canonized many of the so called victims of these blood libels. The Jews were also blamed for wells going dry, to even the plague.
So let us now get back to the celebration of a Medieval Christmas.
We must first examine why Christmas is on December 25th, . The exact date of Jesus’s birth is lost in history, so why do we celebrate it when we do?
Pagans in Europe celebrated the winter solstice (December 20-23, this date can change), by feasting and other celebrations. Feeding farm animals could be difficult to calculate over the winter. If you ran out of grain during the winter, your entire livestock could starve to death. Feasting in December made perfect sense to remove extra or unwanted animals. Christians were trying to compete with their pagan neighbors. Celebrating the savior’s birth near the solstice may have originated in an effort to convert others to Christianity.
Many celebrated Christmas on January 7th; however, these people were using the old Julian calendar. When this calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar the date was changed to December 25. Many Orthodox Christian churches still celebrate January 7th. In this effort to consolidate the holidays to the Gregorian calendar that the Council of Tours established the Christmastide, or Twelvetide, or commonly referred to as the 12 days of Christmas. To be honest, the time for celebrating Christmas gets really confusing based on different regions and sects of Christianity.
The word Christmas comes from the English word “Cristemasse”, first recorded in 1038. The word Christmas was not commonly used until William the Conqueror was crowned king of England on December 25, 1066. This inauguration celebration got a little crazy; because so many people were cheering, the guards thought there was a riot so they began attacking the crowd and burning down nearby houses.
Today, we are all used to seeing the nativity consisting of a manger with the wooden crib inside. This decoration started with Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223, which used the crib to describe the story of the birth of Jesus. The animals in the manger were later added, even though there is no mention of them in the bible.
If you were poor, Christmas was not that great of a day. Christmas was considered to be a “quarter day”, this was the day the poor paid the lords for their rent.
December 28th would also have been a day which terrified children during the Middle Ages. This day is recognized by many during the middle ages as “Childermass Day” or “Innocents Day”. This was the day that King Herod had ordered all children less than 2 years of age to be murdered. To make sure they would remember this story, children were beaten on this day.
Speaking of children at Christmas, refer back to my post last year about the Krampus. I will also have an updated post about his story next week.
We all enjoy Christmas carols during this time of year (or tired of them because that is all you hear on the radio). During a period in the medieval ages the Catholic Church would not allow carols to be sung in church, so people began singing them from door to door.
In my sequel to “Legend of the Mystic Knights” I added several of these historical facts above. There was another historical tidbit I wanted to add to this novel; during the middle ages, at Christmas time, it was normal for the rich to give small amounts of money to the poor. They put the coin in a small clay pot, which had a slit in the top. These pots were known as pyggy’s (Pygg is an orange colored clay commonly used during the Middle Ages), over the years the name changed to piggy and we changed the pots to resemble pigs and now we have piggy banks.
Let us now look at the Christmas tree. This is a tradition which is credited to the Germans (even though using fir trees date back to the early Vikings and Romans). The Christmas tree is often associated with Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans who worshipped an oak tree. Saint Boniface cut down the oak tree and replaced it with an evergreen, thinking the triangle shape of the tree would teach them about the trinity.
Many medieval people celebrated “Adam and Eve Day”, which is December 24th. This day has often celebrated with a play which told the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. They would take a tree into the center of a town (representing the tree of life), and decorate it with apples to signify the forbidden fruit. Sometime later it was tradition for the tree to be taken into homes, and later the apples were replaced by shiny red balls.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther was said to be the first to add lighted candles to an evergreen tree. This tradition continued throughout the centuries, even though it did result in many homes being burnt to the ground, until the candles were replaced by electric lights.
Speaking of Christmas trees, it often makes me wonder how we accepted the Christmas tree especially after I read Jeremiah 10:1-4 in the Bible (King James Version).
“Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”
I hope you enjoyed our little trip to a Christmas time in the medieval age. Remember, most of our celebrations, we have today are based on old traditions; even though we may have forgotten what the original traditions represented.
At this time of year, we should always remember those who have less than us, those who cannot celebrate the holiday. If you are contemplating in giving to those less fortunate, remember the last line from the carol Good King Wenceslas: “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”
Next Week: The Krampus visits your house. (I’m serious, he is coming to your house, and I don’t know what you can do to stop him)