The Medieval Origins of Christmas

It is common held belief that Christmas as we know it today started in the Victorian times. The husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, became famed for bringing over fir trees from his native Germany to England, and thus started the tradition of having decorated Christmas trees in the home. Queen Victoria went step further by placing presents underneath it. Gatherings of people would sing Christmas carols at home round the piano, or out in the streets moving from door to door.

Unknown to many, the Christmas ways and traditions that we use to celebrate did not start in the Victorian period, but actually date back to the medieval era.

According to Historic UK, the word “Christmas” is derived from an “amalgamation of the Old English expression” of “Christes Maesse”, which means “Festival of Christ” that honours the birth of Christ. The actual date of the birth of Christ was hotly disputed during the Antiquity period, as the birthday was never mentioned in the Bible. Nevertheless, by the 3rd century, Pope Julius 1 chose December 25, which fell the old Roman “Saturnalia” festival. The same festival also occurred at the same time as the traditional ancient pagan festival of the “Winter Solstice”. For centuries, early Europeans celebrated the winter seasons, as celebrated the worst of winter being over, and the spring coming forth. I believe it was fitting to place Christmas around the same period. However, there has been criticism that the early Christians were trying to replace the pagan holidays, which in effect did happen by the mid-medieval era.

Initially, the medieval people did not actually celebrate Christmas, because Epiphany on the 6th January, also known as “Three Kings Day”, was far more popular, because was the day that is believed that the Three Kings found Christ and gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I believe that this where the current idea of gift giving comes from. Medieval Christmas was meant to be was a serious time for quiet prayer, reflection, and an important mass.

Eventually, fun celebrations did come into it when churchgoers got started carolling, which literally meant: “to sing and dance in a circle”. Subsequently, the church banned them from services, and sent them outside, which led to door-to-door singing instead. This was also called “wassailing”, but during the medieval period, carolling was done all year round. “Ding Dong Merrily On High” was, in fact, just a musical dance in a circle, and is one of the many carols that date back to the medieval period, including “Adam Lay Ybounden”, “Gaudete”, and ‘The Holly and the Ivy”.

Because of abundance of holly and ivy, the medieval people decorated their homes with these, as well as evergreen. Christmas trees did not come into homes by German Christians, with apples as ornaments and candles as lights, until the very end of the medieval period. Throughout winter, evergreen held a special meaning, as it was believed that it would help to keep away evil spirits, ghosts and illness. According to English comedy sketch show Horrible Histories, evergreen was “used as part of an ancient tradition that involved superstition”. Living medieval museums, such as Barley Hall in York, England, still demonstrate how a home in the medieval times with such decorations would have looked like.

When we look at our evergreen fir, sing carols, or even look at the date, we should remember the medieval origins of these Christmas ways and traditions. Much of it would not be here if it was not for our medieval ancestors. Even the food was different with the “humble pie” which was made from the offals of an animal called “umbles”. Mince pies were actually made with mincemeat, fruit and spices. It was not until the Victorian times that the mincemeat was omitted.

So, the next time you sing “Holly and the Ivy”, think back to the medieval times when carolling was banned, Christmas trees actually just evergreen figs, and mince pies were actually made of mince.

Deary, Terry. "Horrible Histories Horrible Christmas!" BBC iPlayer. Horrible Histories, 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
History.com staff. “History of Christmas.” History.com, 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2014 <http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas>
Johnson, Ben. “A Medieval Christmas.” Historic UK. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Medieval-Christmas/
Unknown. "Medieval Christmas." HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_xmas.htm>
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