From pagan Yule to carols and cribs
Jasmine Jones uncovers the history of Christmas as we know it.
Our contemporary Christmas celebrations are often considered to be a Victorian invention, but the truth is that the shape of the feast was formed far earlier than the reign of Victoria and Albert. The Middle Ages, sweeping from roughly 650 to 1550 AD, developed the diversity and dynamism of Christian devotional life. As in the Church today, the celebration of Christmas – the nativity of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be God incarnate – was of immense importance in the liturgical year.
Nevertheless, throughout the medieval period, there were nuances in how the Saviour’s birth was theologically understood. The variety of extant religious writing, particularly in Old and Middle English, indicates the many ways Christians expressed their love for, and understanding of, this central mystery of the faith.
The Anglo-Saxon era, in which Old English was the vernacular language, spanned roughly from 650 to the Norman Conquest in 1066. After the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury and the Roman mission in 597, there followed a period of intellectual conversion in which pagan Germanic beliefs were gradually supplanted by Christian ones.
As had been decided by Pope Julius I in the fourth century, Christmas replaced ‘Yule’, a neo-pagan festival associated with fertility which was conventionally celebrated on 25 December. This transition also occurred in England, as noted by the eighth-century monk Bede. The earliest extant historical evidence indicates that the period of Advent – the four weeks of preparation prior to Christmas Day – was one of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, much like Lent, and in significant contrast to the 21st century trend of self-indulgence and festivity.
In order to ‘domesticate’ the newness of Christianity, making it comprehensible to the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Old English religious literature typically transposed tropes of Germanic heroic warrior culture onto Christian theology.
This syncretism mirrors that which was undertaken by the Early Church Fathers, who articulated Christian theology through the pre-Christian classical philosophical concepts of Plato and Aristotle. Synthesising the old familiar and the new unfamiliar belief systems rendered the latter more culturally relatable and easily absorbed.
In Anglo-Saxon devotional culture, Christ was commonly conceptualised as a victorious, heroic warrior, inspired by the biblical miles Christi (‘soldier of Christ’) tradition, and influenced by the Germanic glorification of the military hero. The Incarnation was therefore interpreted as the earthly initiation of Christ’s cosmic battle with Satan, won by Christ for the salvation of all souls. In contrast to the poignant intimacy of later medieval practice, the early medieval devotional focus was on the eternal majesty of Christ’s redemption of mankind on a universal plain.
The Old English poem Christ II, probably composed by the poet Cynewulf, was written between 775 and 850 AD. Scholars have also referred to the text by the title Ascension, as the poem draws extensively on St Gregory the Great’s 29th Homily on the Gospels which meditates on the Ascension of Jesus. Christ II provides a penetrating insight into the Anglo-Saxon appreciation of the Incarnation, as Christ’s first descent from Heaven, anticipating his eventual ascent to Heaven.
The poem was possibly composed for recital in a monastic community in which Latin literacy had declined, and where there was thus a need for doctrinal edification in the vernacular. Equally, the poem could have provided catechetical reading for lay people.
Christ II opens with the narrative voice declaring his desire to educate the audience in ‘gæst-gerynum’ (‘spiritual mysteries’), employing their ‘mod-cræfte’ (‘skill of the mind’) and ‘sefan snyttro’ (‘wisdom of heart’).
The Anglo-Saxons were especially fond of the literary tradition of riddles, in which the intellect would be exercised in deciphering the object or biblical person enigmatically described within a few lines of verse.
Christ II emulates this riddling tradition in its preoccupation with the paradoxes of the faith, which the audience is implicitly encouraged to contemplate, disentangle, and appreciate.
The poem juxtaposes Christ’s arrival in the world as a humble baby requiring Mary’s protection with his later authority as ‘þeoden þrymfæst’ (‘mighty lord’) and ‘brega mæra’ (‘illustrious ruler’), whose disciples form his ‘þegna gedryht’ (a ‘band of thanes’) around him, his ‘comitatus’, or body, of warriors .
Christ is depicted as the only-begotten Son of God coming to earth to do battle for our salvation before returning triumphant to Heaven: ‘the saviour of souls, God’s own child, wants now to seek the gift-throne of souls after the battle-play’. Christ opens the gates of Heaven as the ‘hælu-bearn’ (‘salvation-child’) and ‘þurh his hyder-cyme hals eft forgeaf’ (‘through his coming-hither gave redemption again’).
The advent of Christ at Christmas, then, is inseparable from the advent of Christ on the Last Day, and to enable the audience to receive a favourable judgement when Christ returns, the narrative voice stresses the importance of not neglecting the ‘gæstes wlite’ (‘the state of the soul’) in advance of the Parousia, i.e. Christ’s return in glory. It is by remembering Christ’s eternal presence in the world by means of grace that the reader is prompted to prepare for the end of time.
This theme of grace permeates the poem: although the arrival of Christ into the world is celebrated only once a year liturgically, grace pervades daily life and is perpetually accessible in the scriptures, sacraments and sanctity of human souls. Christ II is thus a theologically rich poem, displaying medieval devotion to Christmas as thoroughly incarnational – that is, centred on God’s entrance into human flesh – demanding a meditative and moral response in the faithful.
Shifting away from the Germanic influences on Anglo-Saxon devotional culture – particularly the portrayal of Christ’s heroism as an invincible warrior – post-Conquest devotional culture saw the influx of affective piety. This later-medieval European spirituality was pioneered by Cistercian monks such as St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Ælred of Rievaulx, and it reoriented veneration towards Christ in his humanity. Individual Christians were motivated to identify personally with the emotional experience of God-made-man, immersing themselves in the narrative of Christ’s earthly life.
Whilst much of the affective piety tradition centred on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ during Holy Week and Easter, when the vivid envisaging of Christ’s suffering could cultivate the Christian’s desire for moral reform, a similar sensitivity was stimulated by the Christmastide contemplation of Christ’s vulnerability as a baby in the manger. Especially resonant in medieval theology were the words of St Augustine of Hippo in one of his homilies on the Nativity – that ‘God became man so man could become God’.
The newly-founded mendicant orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, further contributed to the later-medieval affective piety tradition. St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the latter, is credited with the invention of the crèche, the Nativity crib scene.
St Francis is believed to have prepared the first known scene of figures comprising a manger, hay and animals over which the Christmas Mass was said in 1223 in the little village of Greccio, north of Rome.
The saint’s invention encouraged visual devotion to the humanity of Christ as epitomised by his humility in the nativity scene.
In this way, the affective piety tradition prioritised the ‘spiritual senses’ as the means of meditating on, and ultimately, imitating, the life of Christ: through the eyes of the mind the soul could become increasingly conformed to the image of God in which it was made.
Towards the latter part of the Middle Ages, particularly from the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastic practice of meditatio – defined by the Carthusian Guigo II as ‘the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth’ – was popularised by the rise of ‘vernacular theology’, resulting in an increasingly widespread desire amongst the laity (particularly the aristocratic laity) to emulate the regular and reverent prayer routine of those in cloistered life.
Books of Hours, which contained the daily office of prayers recited at set times by monks and nuns, became a popular possession of men and women who sought a similar solidarity with Christ in secular life. Historian Eamon Duffy has noted ‘the centrality of the liturgy in lay religious consciousness’. One late-medieval lyric poem witnesses to the literary influence of the affective piety tradition in celebrating Christmas:
Jesu, swete sone dere,
On porful bed list thou here,
And that me greveth sore;
For thi cradle is ase a bere,
Oxe and asse beth thi fere–
Weepe ich mai tharfore.
Jesu, swete, beo not wroth
Thou ich nabbe clout ne cloth
The on for to folde,
The on for to folde ne to wrappe,
For ich nabbe clout ne lappe–
Bote ley thou thi fet to my pappe
And wite the from the colde.
(Jesus, sweet son dear,
On a wretched bed you lie here,
And that grieves me sorely;
For your cradle is as a byre,
Ox and ass are your companions–
I may weep therefore.
Jesus, sweet, be not angry
Though I do not have a rag nor cloth
To embrace you in,
To embrace you in nor to wrap,
For I do not have cloth nor fold of a garment–
But lay your feet on my breast,
And guard yourself from the cold).
Typical of the affective piety tradition is the personal relationship with Christ evoked by the narrative voice’s direct address to the newborn Christ as ‘Jesu, swete’. Weeping at the spiritual sight of Christ in the cattle-shed and expressing the impulse to reach into the scene and bundle up the baby evoke an intense interior identification with Christ and an imitation of his humility.
Unlike the word’s contemporary currency, a ‘carol’ was not a literary form specific to Christmas, but was rather a type of lyric, usually with a refrain, conventionally associated with convivial celebrations of any feast days or theological themes in the Church.
Carols were often dedicated to the Trinity, the saints, the Eucharist, Judgement Day and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example.
Carols had a primarily paraliturgical function, and were possibly developed from the Latin antiphons or processional hymns of the liturgy. Although a public performance of the carol is likely – probably accompanied by folk customs and a ‘dance’, as was the original significance of the word – it is also possible that carols formed resources for private prayer or domestic devotion, sometimes serving as lullabies to help soothe small, sleepy souls to snooze.
Despite their popularity, carols and lyrics nonetheless remained theologically complex, providing ample material on which to meditate. One such lyric encapsulates this sophisticated spirituality:
The yates of Parais
Thoruth Eve weren iloken;
And thoruth oure swete ladi
Ayein hui beoth nouthe open.
(‘The gates of Paradise
Through Eve were locked;
And through Our sweet Lady
Again they be now open’).
And another, well-known carol:
Adam lay ibowndyn, bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter thowt he not to long.
And al was for an appil, an appil that he tok,
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn in here book.
Ne hadde the appil take ben, the appil take ben,
Ne hadde never our Lady a ben hevene qwen.
Blyssid be the tyme that appil take was,
Therfore we mown syngyn ‘Deo gracias!’
(‘Adam lay bound, bound in a bond,
Four thousand winters thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerks find written in their book.
Had the apple not been taken, the apple taken been,
Never would Our Lady have been Heaven’s queen.
Blessed be the time that the apple taken was,
Therefore we may sing ‘Thanks be to God!’)
Both the lyric and the carol indicate that Christ’s nativity was inextricably linked with Christ’s saving significance as the ‘New Adam’ and Mary’s role as the ‘New Eve’, illuminating the Incarnation as the means of man’s redemption. Christmas was therefore much more than a nostalgic celebration of Christ’s birth, but it fundamentally formed a time of thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins, the fulfilment of the prophecies and the climax of the Six Ages – Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to the advent of Christ, and the current age, awaiting the Second Coming.
Similarly to Lent, Advent, the liturgical period of preparation for Christmas, was characterised by sobriety and penance, fasting and almsgiving, and the examination of one’s conscience in preparation for the anticipated advent of Christ on Judgement Day. As accentuated by the readings from Isaiah and the Gospels during Advent, the faithful must ‘stay awake’ by remaining vigilant in their moral and devotional lives.
Whereas in our contemporary, consumerist and largely atheistic Western culture, Christmas Day is perceived somewhat as an ‘anti-climax’, with weeks of shopping and cooking culminating in a transient 24 hours, the Middle Ages honoured Christmastide as a broader liturgical period.
Christmas extended from the Nativity of Christ through to the Epiphany and beyond into Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, on 2 February.
From the late 10th century at least, Candlemas was celebrated with a candlelit procession of adults and children, recalling the procession believed to be made by Mary and Joseph. Each layperson offered to the priest a blessed candle. The Paschal candle, used at Easter for the blessing of baptismal water, was also illuminated at the Candlemas liturgy. As they still do today, the readings and homilies of Candlemas typically speak of light, renewal, life and God’s mercy, emphasising the might of God as paradoxically manifest in the fragility of the infant. The presentation of new life to the old-aged Simeon, the devout man of the Temple, is representative of the promise of heavenly eternity being offered to the withering, sinful world.
Just as Christ II stressed Christ’s eternity on earth through grace, the laity bore home a blessed candle from the Candlemas liturgy, lighting the candle as a reminder of Christ’s continual consolation during times of tribulation. Liturgy facilitated the spiritual communion with God sought by medieval (and present-day) Christians through a re-enactment of the events of Christ’s life, which are internalised through external actions.
At a time of year when, as noted by C. S. Lewis, Christmas is threatened by ‘Exmas’ – the celebration of a secular society who ‘not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps’ – it is by remembering the devotional life of our medieval ancestors that the true sentiment of the season can be renewed in our hearts.
Regardless of our personal religious beliefs, the Christian values of gratitude, humility, temperance, charity, prayerfulness and hope, so central to the devotional life of the Middle Ages, can restore peace to the present-day soul, directing us away from distractions of the ephemeral and towards the delights of what is eternal.
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