Monday, December 5, 2016

Presents and Politics for a Medieval Christmas

We are now discussing how politics influenced Christmas celebration during the medieval and renaissance era. To understand this, you must realize there were two major forms of influence upon the countries in Europe; the Church and the Monarchy.

I mentioned in a previous post about the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.  Saturn was a Roman god who ruled over mankind when it was in a state of innocence. On the days of this festival, which ran from the Julian calendar of December 17 to the 23, businesses would be closed, as with government offices. This was also a time when many slaves were treated to a dinner served by their masters. December 19 was designated as a day of gift giving.

This act of role reversal continued in medieval times; there was the “Lord of Misrule”.  One person was chosen by lot to plan and rule over the celebration, the medieval lords then would implement this plan, and serve those below him.

This was also done in the church. Boys would elect one child, who then for a day would rule as Bishop. This was more than a ceremonial position; this boy often presided over services.

The tradition of reversal of roles has maintained in some aspects of society. In many countries, the military often have the senior officers serve the enlisted men at their Christmas dinner.

The date chosen in which to celebrate the birth of Jesus itself may have been a form of persuasion. Christmas is held near winter’s solstice (December 21).  Jesus was celebrated as the light of the world, so being born near the shortest day of the year makes sense; for after that birth, the hours of sunlight increased each day.

Even though, Christmas was a time of celebration, the church made sure it was also a time of religious obedience and devotion. Merriment was sometimes looked down upon by the church, this included singing of carols. To counter act that no singing would occur inside the church, at Christmas people went out into the streets to sing.  This was the beginning of what the Christmas tradition of carolers.

We must remember there was an attitude at this time that rulers reigned because of God. The almighty placed them in power, and to think otherwise was not only treason, it was also blasphemous.

In 1066 A.D. William the Conqueror, succeeded in overtaking England. He had his coronation on Christmas Day.  This was a very use of propaganda, for the day people celebrated the birth of Jesus as the king of the world, so on this day William would begin his reign as the king of England. Being coroneted on Christmas Day was a tradition which continued for hundreds of years.

Many kings were so conceited and convinced of their deity endorsement, that at Christmas they allowed the “laying of hands” upon them. This was where commoners could touch the king.  Having been chosen by God to be king, his power of healing would flow through the monarch to his subjects.

If you have trouble contemplating that royalty really believed they were chosen by God to rule, consider their crowns.  Most monarchs wore a version of a radiant crown (or solar crown).  This is characteristic of light rays coming from it, think of the crown on the Statue of Liberty. Compare that to religious paintings of the renaissance, where God’s light is beaming from the heads of saints.
Statue of Liberty compared to art by Pietro Lorenzetti- Assisi Basilica {published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US

During Christmas, the monarchs in Europe celebrated in their courts. Festivals and feasts were held during this time. Even then, the king’s presence as supreme monarch was always presented. Many of these monarch’s threw elaborate parties, some of which the costs were so high they bankrupt the kingdom.

To make sure that they displayed an air of royalty, they had custom made clothes just for this one occasion. Elaborate gowns made of silver and gold thread gowns and jackets were worn by them; and it was also expected their guests would be adorned elaborately.  This was a fine line the guests had to walk, for they had to be dressed sharply; but pity a guest who may have been dressed too fine, and outshined their king or queen.

Next Time: We continue our celebration of a Medieval Christmas.

W.A. Rusho is an amateur historian, professional wrestler and author. Contact him at his website or by email.


  1. Hi William. Having recently visited a few medieval villages and castles in Europe, I have developed a greater interest in this era. Thx for sharing more about the traditions of Medieval Christmas with us.

  2. Enlightening as always William. It never ceases to amaze me the way the history and traditions we take for granted have evolved over the years. Thanks!

  3. How traditions and holidays evolve over time is always fascinating, and how medieval Christmases played out is no exception. As always, thanks for increasing my knowledge base.

  4. You have so much knowledge to share and an obvious keen interest in anything remotely medieval. It is important that we know even just a little about our history, it helps us understand why we live as we do today. The past always influences the future whether in a good or bad light.

  5. William thank you for sharing!
    Was never aware of the influence.
    Looking for the further information you will be sharing next time.

  6. Have you ever wondered if you would have been happier living in the Middle Ages? What would be the pros and cons? Personally would prefer a later era if I had to move back in time. The 1500s and being Catherine de Medici would be a better option as far as I'm concerned.

    1. Like all times, it depends on who you are. I would definitely not be a peasant during the middle ages. I would not mind living there, but it would have to be before the plague. Things changed during and after the plague, some good, some bad.

  7. I don't think it so outlandish that leader's thought they were chosen by God. Even if you look at U.S. politics today, there are people in power who feel they are answering to God and in a way chosen by God to bring his light to the masses. It is interesting to see how things existed in history, and how we still have remnants of the past in our traditions today.

  8. I always wondered about the kings as deities. It doesn't roll for me, but this helps a bit with understanding where it comes from. I also didn't know about why they chose the 25th to celebrate Christ's birth, but that makes sense to me. Always enlightening.