The Medieval Christmas at the time of the Knights Templar was twelve days of feasting and drinking that displayed lingering pagan influences that the Catholic church hadn’t been entirely able to root out. Like it or not, a medieval serf couldn’t resist unrestrained feasting, drinking, and merrymaking!
The pagan Winter Solstice versus the medieval Christmas
Christmas fell on the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year – while the Annunciation (when Mary began the supernatural process of her virgin birth) fell nine months before at the Spring Equinox. These key moments in the seasons were hugely important to rural societies and had been marked with religious rituals for millennia. The Catholic church simply put a Christian gloss on pre-Christian practices.
And that wasn’t an overnight process. Christian missionaries to Britain and other parts of the Roman Empire struggled with how to tackle pagan beliefs and rituals. Should they be suppressed or somehow incorporated? The Winter Solstice posed a particular problem with its strongly entrenched festivals like Saturnalia where masters and slaves swapped places for a day.
Introducing the Birth of Jesus
It was decided under Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD that Christmas, the birth date of Christ, would be on 25 December. No mention of such a date occurs in the gospels. So why this date?
The church in Rome was locked in a centuries long effort to snuff out the Greco-Roman pantheon of Gods and the festivals that surrounded their worship. Saturnalia was a long December holiday in the pagan Roman calendar marked by riotous conduct, gift giving, no-holds-barred partying, and role reversal between slaves and masters.
The church viewed this with disapproving dismay. Especially as many of its congregants were joining in the fun. It was clear that Saturnalia had to be replaced with something more church-friendly. But that didn’t happen overnight. Year after year, bishops groaned in horror as the garish spectacle of Saturnalia continued unabated. Even when the Roman Empire was allegedly Christian.
There are accounts as late as the 500s and 600s AD of people parading around town centres wearing masks of Saturn and Janus and other Gods. In Celtic Europe, late December saw partygoers still toasting the deer-headed deity Cernunnos way into the Christian era. Jesus Christ was nowhere in sight.
Rival religious cults to early Christianity included worship of the Persian God, Mithras and the cult of the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus). Both viewed the solstice as a day when the sun was reborn. A solar nativity if you want. In some eastern religions, the Sun was characterised as a heavenly Goddess. To the disgust of the church, many Christians participated in rituals alongside their neighbours and friends celebrating the return of the Sun.
Clearly something had to be done. And if you couldn’t beat the pagans – well, the church just had to somehow absorb the festival. The rebirth of the Sun became the birth of Christ. As one 19th century writer on religion put it:
“Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals.”
Christianising the Twelve Days of feasting
In the run up to the Winter Solstice, animals were traditionally slaughtered and salted during the “blood month” of November as rural people knuckled down for the long, cold winter. Then over the solstice period, pagan folk celebrated the gradual return of the light that would eventually nourish their fields in the Spring. In different ways they propitiated the Gods with offerings, singing, and dancing.
Then along came Christianity.
Singing was viewed with a degree of suspicion. And there may have been good reason for that. Wassailing was a forerunner of carols and involved lots of jolly musical carousing while passing round a large bowl brimming with an alcoholic beverage. Most controversially for the church, the wassails were sung directly to the apple trees urging them towards a good harvest in the year ahead.
How pagan can you get?
Gift giving was frowned on by the church. It was pushed into the Epiphany to evoke the Three Kings giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. There was also the giving of alms to the poor on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas Day, that we now call Boxing Day. But the bishops and priests still felt uneasy.
For the church, gifts were too close to the pagan practice at Saturnalia with wax dolls given to children – which some scholars believe was a grim echo of child sacrifice to the Gods. But to ban parents giving presents to their own children in the name of Jesus was a sure-fire way to have people barrelling back to paganism. So, the church turned a blind eye.
Ditto leaving gifts out for female deities at the solstice, which evolved into leaving something for Santa Claus. And then there’s that jovial, bearded figure who was blended with the Christian saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop from the eastern Roman Empire who had absolutely nothing to do with reindeer, elves, and saying “yo, ho, ho!”.
All the seasonal feasting and drinking was very obviously a hangover from Nordic pagan practice that endured into the medieval Christmas. This was combined with the raucous pre-Christian activity of Mumming. Villagers would dress up in curious costumes that might resemble animals and crash into people’s homes causing as much terror as amusement. All very Wicker Man – if you remember that movie. And Mumming got so out of hand that Henry VIII effectively banned it.
In conclusion, the medieval Christmas was a kind of unwritten contract between the church and people. You can carry on with your festivities but you do it in the name of the Nativity with all the required religious observances. And that worked for a few centuries.
Until the Puritans came along.
While Henry VIII took exception to the criminality surrounding Mumming – Puritans in the 17th century decided that the medieval Christmas tolerated and fostered by the Roman Catholic church was nothing more than paganism masquerading as Christianity. So, they banned it.
The logic was hard to beat. There was simply nothing in the bible to justify it. Where in scripture did it state that Jesus was born at the Winter Solstice and his birth demanded an orgy or feasting and general mayhem? Answer: nowhere. Because the medieval Christmas was pagan to the core with a veneer of Christianity.
In June 1647, under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament called time on Christmas. Very soon though, Cromwell’s politicians were complaining that they were being kept awake by Christmas parties in adjoining lodgings. The ban turned out to be totally unenforceable and now with more of a secular veneer, we continue to celebrate the pagan Winter Solstice.