If intersted in reprinting any of these articles, or in having a new article written, please contact the author.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nothing Burns Like Pine, Boy

An Irreverent Look at ‘Christmas’ Customs from approx. 600 – 1600 CE

Todd Fischer, written for an SCA journal in 2002.

It Begins

So. It’s freezing. There’s snow on the ground. You’re about to face the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. It’s a time of darkness and cold. What are you going to do?

Set things on fire of course.

Yes, ‘tis true. The roots of Christmas stretch all the way back to Roman, pagan and Celtic traditions that involved a lot of burning. The Norse had a celebration they called jul (or Yule) which lasted thirteen days. They would take a jul log and set the thing aflame for twelve days (remember that number, its important). A piece of the log would be kept for a year, and used to set the next log on fire. Another fun pastime for the Norse was to take a wooden wheel—the jul wheel, that symbolized the year—and, you guessed it, put it to the torch.

The Romans had their own week long winter festival called Saturnalia and the 25th of December was the birth date of the Roman wonder-child Mithras. (There are in fact many similarities between the story of the birth of Mithras and the birth of Christ.)

When the Christians came to Europe they found a number of indigenous peoples rather unwilling to give up their holidays for a new belief system. (Burning things is fun.) Now, them Christians was crafty. They said, “You can keep your customs. It just so happens we have a holiday that takes place on the very same day as yours, and the customs you have, why, we have them too!”

Decking the Hall

Now the Christians looked around and saw that the Norse and Romans and pagans had done some decorating in and out of their halls. Most noticeable was the veneration and decoration of pine trees. The Romans thought that evergreens represented the return on spring, and the Norse hung fir boughs for luck. “Ah ha!” said the Christians. “Those trees never die, just like we will never die but go to Heaven.” So they kept the tree around and over time began to decorate it with apples. In the sixteenth century the Germans would put paper flowers in their tree, walk it through town and then they burned it. Everyone kept their trees outside until the Victorians, perhaps irritated at having to go outside in the soot and snow to see the dang things, just had them brought inside.

Holly and ivy were also hanging everywhere. The holly was kept, as the red berries were thought to represent Christ’s blood upon putting on the crown of thorns, but the ivy was pitched. It was too strongly associated with the Roman god Bacchus for the Christians liking, at least until the later middle ages when people thought it could protect them from the plague and witches.


The celebrations that were the roots of Christmas spanned a great period of time, over which different foods were customarily eaten. Below is a sampling of some of the foodstuffs devoured during the solstice season.

Boar’s Head. For the Norse and other Scandinavian peoples the winter solstice was the midpoint of their winter. To celebrate the fact that they had survived thus far they held a feast in honour of Baldur, their sun god. One of the animals sacred to Baldur was the boar, so of course the Norse killed them and ate them. This custom would carry over into the Christian era (and will be talked about when I finally get to that twelve days of Christmas stuff).

Peacock. The more wealthy members of society would not just dine on goose, but peacock as well. The bird would be plucked, cooked and then have all its feathers put back on (it was ‘redressed’).

Principal pudding. A dish afflicted upon poor monks, this pudding was made from 6 pounds of currants, 270 to 300 eggs, a large amount of breadcrumbs and 18 pounds of suet. No wonder they liked to fast.

Mince pies. These pies, made of minced or shredded meat were baked in oblong shapes to represent Christ’s manger. Three spices were always used as seasoning to represent the gifts of Magi—cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. It was thought lucky to eat one on each of the twelve days of Christmas (its that number again, we’ll get into that later).

Goose and turkey. The main course of a medieval Christmas feast was often goose, though around 1520 turkeys are brought to Europe from the Americas and supplant their cousin as the fare of choice.

Humble pie. This tasty sounding dish was a favourite of the servants and lower classes of Medieval Europe. While the rich ate all the tasty bits of a deer, they tossed the brain, heart, liver and other ‘humbles’ to the poor who did what seemed only natural—they baked it in a pie.

Frumenty. A spicy wheat based dessert that was the ancestor of our modern pudding.

Mead and beer. The Norse drank it, and so did the Medieval monks when they invited locals to the monastery for a meal of bread, broth and meat.

Wowee! A long ship! That’s mine!

Many people think that the giving of gifts at Christmas is in honour of the gifts the Magi gave to Christ. Partially true, but not completely true. You see, once again the Christians adopted an existing winter custom. For the Norse gave gifts at Yule. Generally, a great lord would open his hall and everyone nearby would come to enjoy his hospitality. Each guest would give the host a gift, and he would often give a small one to each guest as they left. The host would also give gifts to the winners of any games or contests that took place.

This practice carried over into the later medieval period with guests bringing gifts for their hosts. Presents were often also given to churches and monasteries.

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping…well, with one eye anyway

Santa Claus, that jolly old elf, is in actuality another remnant of the Norse tradition. For the old man dressed in furs with his sled pulled by reindeer bears a remarkable resemblance to Odin. Odin had a long white beard. Odin wore furs. Odin had a sled pulled by fire-breathing goats. Okay, that’s a bit different but really, how commercially appealing is a fire breathing goat?

Enter the Turkish Knight

So what did folks actually do when celebrating Christmas? Visiting was popular. Households would open their doors tot heir neighbours and friends. Some people would put on masks and costumes and go from door to door performing short plays. (The Turkish Knight is a traditional mummer character.) The holiday season was a time of role reversal and men would dress like women and a Lord of Misrule would be appointed. Young boys were made bishops for the duration and lords gave their servants gifts (usually new clothes).

People would also carol dance, where a song leader would sing a verse of a song and the dancers around him would sing back the chorus. People put on plays, played instruments, enjoyed games such as chess, merrills and cards and generally carried on. The Norse would go skiing or skating. And fight. Them Norse liked to fight, though during jul all fights were to the first blood only (upon pain of banishment).

Those twelve days I keep referring to

Christmas celebrations were a weeklong affair that began on December 26 and ended on February 6.

Boxing Day. This day took its name from the habit of masters giving their servants their gift in a box (though I have also heard that it was from the poor boxes in churches being emptied and its contents handed out). It is also known as St. Stephen’s Day, who was a rather unlucky saint. When captured by soldiers in Scandinavia, and about to escape, a wren gave him away. In Sweden he was killed by brigands and had his body tied to his horse, which galloped home. This is also the day when most mummer’s plays are performed.

Mother Night. This day is in honour of Mother Holle, also called Mother Christmas and Frau Gode. Mother Holle was a kindly woman who would ride in a sleigh pulled by dogs delivering gifts. The Christians tried to demonize her and said she stole the souls of unbaptized children. Her reputation was too strong and she lives still in some Christmas celebrations today. The Saxons called this night Modranicht.

Holy Innocent’s Day. A day in memoriam of the children killed by Herod in his attempts to slay Christ. It was thought to be an unlucky day, and that any task begun on it was doomed to remain incomplete. It was on this day that the boy-bishops were appointed. An interesting aspect of this day was the beatings. Yes, parents beat their children, husband and wife beat each other and servants beat their masters. However, these beatings were often only symbolic and done using an evergreen branch.

The Feast of Fools. A day of mad revelry, led by the Lord of Misrule. It was a time of dancing, more role reversal, bawdy humour and nighttime runs through the streets.

Bringing in the Boar. Though boars became almost extinct in England by 1185, the tradition of parading with a boar or boar’s head continued in ritual fashion at many universities. This harkens back to the Norse (remember them?) and their killing of Baldur’s favourite animal. The god Frey was a fan of boars too, and even rode one named Gulli-burstin through the sky.

New Year’s Eve. It is thought that this is the day that Druids would cut their mistletoe, and that practice may have given the day its Scottish name Hogmanay. Mummers were active on this day, and it was a time of cleaning, of finishing unfinished work and of preparing to face the new year (at least it was for those in the later medieval period).

New Year’s Day. A day to say, “Hey, we made it through another year!” The Saxons would go wassailing trees to drive away evil spirits. To do this they would make a brew of cider or fruit with beer or ale as its base. They would sprinkle this at the base of the trees (and likely imbibe a lot of it at the same time). Not content with trees, the wassailers would travel from abode to abode and wish folks good heath (which is what wassail means) and be given alms for their troubles. (Getting tipsy and being given money for it. Good deal.) Many peoples also tried their hand at divination on this day, to see what the coming year held for them.

Snow Day. My source has not much to say about this day other than that it is a time to reflect on snow. Probably while drinking, playing dice and singing bawdy songs.

Evergreen Day. A day to contemplate evergreens? Pass the wassail pot, will ya.

St. Distaff’s Day. Not much a holiday for the women of the middle ages, it was on this day that they had to go back to work. The men folk didn’t have to for another four days and they thought it fun to try and burn the flax and hemp their ladies were trying to spin. (Burning again.) The women thanked the men for their fine jape by throwing buckets of water on them.

Eve of Epiphany. This day is for the contemplation of the Magi and their gifts. There’s a lot of contemplation, isn’t there?

Twelfth Night. The last day of Christmas, by its end all of the decorations should be taken down and—as you can likely guess—burned. This day was a grand day of feasting and partying. (Though if the women went back to work two days earlier, I wonder what they thought about this. I hope they got to take part in the festivities because I bet they had to clean up afterward.)

Medieval Celebrations in the Current Middle Ages

In the SCA you have likely been to a 12th Night which is presided over by a King and a Queen of Fools, and you’re local chapter has likely held a wassail (or Christmas party). This year why not try to incorporate more medieval practices into your SCA, and even your mundane, Christmas celebrations. Make some wassail brew, maybe some frumenty (but give the principal pudding a wide berth) or some small gifts you can hand out to your friend as twelfth night gifts. You could put on a mummer’s play, sing some period carols or decorate your tree with more traditional items (like apples). Just be careful with the matches, ok?


Bring A Torch - Christmas Traditions Of The Middle Ages, Sir Guillaume de la Belgique

Christmas in the Middle Ages, Catherine Salton

Julfest, Garfield Matson

Medieval Christmas Traditions

On Christmas in the Middle Ages, Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

The Winter Solstice, John Matthews (Quest Books: Wheaton, IL, 1998)

No comments:

Post a Comment