Celebrating Christmas Holidays in the Middle Ages

van der Weyden's medieval painting of the Adoration of Christ

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When the holiday season engulfs us—and as we are subjected to a barrage of sentiment and commercialism (which are often indistinguishable from one another)—simpler days seem so much more attractive, and many of us tend to look to the past. Many of the customs we observe, traditions we practice, and foods we eat today originated in the middle ages. You may already incorporate some of these festivities in your holiday, or perhaps you might like to start a new tradition with a very old one. As you celebrate these customs, remember that they started with a medieval Christmas.

"A Christmas Carol" and a flood of nostalgia for the Victorian era gives us a fairly good idea of what a nineteenth century Christmas was like. But the concept of observing Christ's birthday goes back much farther than the nineteenth century. In fact, the origin of the English word "Christmas" is found in the Old English Cristes Maesse ("mass of Christ"), and winter solstice festivities date back to ancient times in all corners of the world. So what was it like to celebrate Christmas in the Middle Ages?

Early Medieval Christmas Observances

Determining exactly what Christmas was like depends not only on where it was observed, but when. In late antiquity, Christmas was a quiet and solemn occasion, marked by a special mass and calling for prayer and reflection. Until the fourth century, no fixed date had been formally set by the Church—in some places it was observed in April or May, in others in January and even in November. It was Pope Julius I who officially fixed the date at December 25th, and why exactly he chose the date is still not clear. Although it is possible that it was a deliberate Christianization of a pagan holiday, many other factors seem to have come into play.

Epiphany or Twelfth Night

More commonly (and enthusiastically) celebrated was the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 6. This is another holiday whose origins are sometimes lost in the festivities of the moment. It is generally believed that Epiphany marked the visit of the Magi and their bestowal of gifts on the Christ child, but it is more likely that the holiday originally celebrated Christ's baptism instead. Nevertheless, Epiphany was much more popular and festive than Christmas in the early middle ages and was a time for the bestowal of gifts in the tradition of the three Wise Men—a custom that survives to this day.

Later Medieval Christmas Observances

In time, Christmas grew in popularity—and as it did so, many of the Pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice became associated with Christmas as well. New customs particular to the Christian holiday also arose. December 24th and 25th became a time for feasting and socializing as well as a time for prayer.