In the northern hemisphere, winter can be long, dark and bleak. In ancient times this could mean starvation. The land froze and any remaining crops, edible roots and herbs disappeared under the snow. Farm animals were brought under cover, or killed and their meat preserved by smoke. Chickens stopped laying. Wild animals were harder to hunt, as they either migrated south or slunk deeper into the thicker parts of the forest. Sometimes hungry wolves crept from undercover and attacked vulnerable folk living in outlying huts. In those past centuries, poverty increased in winter, the sun barely rose, and older folk died of hypothermia. It was a season to fear.
And so, the human spirit being what it is, from the earliest times it became the custom, then tradition, and finally the accepted religious practise, to congregate and celebrate during mid-winter, so lifting the hearts of an otherwise suffering people. A mid-winter feast could help save lives as well as encourage hope until spring came again.
In early Nordic and Celtic civilisations, this celebration was known as Yule, and it is surprising how many of the customs which originated then, have been carried forward even to today. The ancient worship of the tree, and in particular the evergreen which still carried its greenery amongst other trees which stood bare and stark – although finally brought to England as a Christmas festivity by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Arthur – has its origins in Nordic times. Other Christmas customs date to the same period and pagan religion – decorations of ivy, holly and mistletoes for instance.
Christianity took the hint. It was easier to convert the pagans to the new religion if some of the most popular old practices were brought along with it. Besides, no date of birth for the infant Jesus is offered in the Bible, and therefore adopting Yule as Christ’s birth came as a sensible adaptation.
The Christian church brought new power to the seasonal festivities. Feasting and drinking continued of course, including the wassail cup – another pagan custom brought over into the Christmas tradition. This drink, taken from a huge wooden bowl and shared amongst all present, became a medieval delight. It can still be made today and the recipe is simple enough. Cider, or a combination of cider and ale, should be well spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, juice and zest of a lemon or two, and some spoonful’s of honey. Chopped apples are sometimes added. This is simmered for some time and served very warm. Medieval recipes were never exact so adaptations are freely permitted, but few would still wish to share the same drinking bowl amongst the entire party.
Although there are now conflicting opinions worldwide concerning Christmas, most of us set out to enjoy the season in our own way. Some of us are more religiously inclined – others less. However, its origins are now accepted as specifically Christian and many complain that we are now too materialistic and concentrate our celebrations around eating, drinking and gift-giving instead of the nativity. But drunken self-indulgence was actually the original basis of the period, still occasionally known as ‘Yuletide’.
Christianity has of course, refined and brought glorious additions and although medieval celebrations were firmly based around the mid-winter traditions of feast and pleasure, the church was central and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was a great event. The season started on December 6th and continued officially until January 6th. Present giving – which at first took place on 12th Night, known as Epiphany, symbolised the arrival of the three kings and the precious gifts they brought to the infant Jesus. Travelling actors set up in town squares and re-enacted the story of the Nativity. Carols and songs of praise were a great part of these plays, and were carried over into the homes of the people who heard them. Mummings, religious and comedy plays were also very much the practise during the medieval Christmas, and all theatre blossomed as a result.
Food, of course, played a major part, and the principal meal on Christmas Day itself was traditionally, although only for those who could afford it or were permitted to hunt it, wild boar roasted on the spit and served whole with or without the proverbial lemon in its mouth. Mince pies were made with real meat which had been minced (hence the name, surprise, surprise!) and cakes, puddings and a hundred other delicacies were indulged on this most lavish day of the year. The medieval royal court gathered and celebrated in extraordinary style, courtesy of the king, but the ordinary folk gathered as well, meeting with friends and neighbours, and even the poor, the priests, nuns, and the beggars of Bedlam were expected to eat and drink and be merry.
The first day of the official Christian season of Christmas was St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). St. Nicholas was traditionally the saint who brought rewards to those who deserved them (although something quite different to the undeserving!). Father Christmas, based on the original saint, is a principally American adaptation – but also just another example of how nothing related to Christmas is new.
So whether the festivities marked the worship of the tree and nature, the need to break the bleak subsistence of mid-winter, or celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – it has been Christmas time we have celebrated since the earliest times.