Old Christmas Traditions - ancient history

Old Christmas Traditions

Some traditions and their origins.

"The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend...Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor; better food than usual is put upon the table."

The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow....

People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides. ...

The highroads and footpaths are covered with whole processions of laden men and beasts.... It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment.

And here are a few of the "laws" laid down by the Priest of Cronus to cover the Saturnalia.

Old Christmas Traditions

All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight. Let none follow their avocations saving cooks and bakers.

All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another. Anger, resentment, threats, is contrary to law.

No discourse shall be either composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity.

The fact that such passages might apply to so many Christmases in the last 1,000 years makes it rather obvious that the Church Fathers were ultimately successful in regrouping the excitements of the Roman mid-winter about the Mass of Christ, Jesus, becoming the "Unconquered Son" and December 25 emerging as a major feast-day of the Church in old Christmas traditions.

From the fifth to the tenth centuries Christ's Mass marked the start of the ecclesiastical year. By 529 it was a civic holiday, the Emperor Justinian prohibiting work or public business. In 567, the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season, and established the duty of Advent-fasting in preparation. In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day. Thus a receptacle was being prepared into which all sorts of pagan rites and mid-winter customs could be received as Catholicism moved northwards.

Out on the far reaches of the old Empire, peoples like the Teutons and Celts had their own winter rituals. One of the most important came in mid-November when the pastures were snowed over making it difficult for the cattle to find feed. A great slaughter, feast, and revel was held, summer ended, yule"Yule Bucks" of straw are sold in Sweden for the feast of Julmond. Even the animals are not forgotten; they receive a special feed in their stalls. All creatures, say the Swedes, should have cause for joy at Christmas.

And the New Year welcomed in. Another was Julmond, ten to twelve days in December when wheat was worshiped, cakes and bread baked, and houses decorated in an effort to gain favor with the field gods. Particular honor was paid to one's ancestors from whom rights to the pastures derived, a thanksgiving still echoed by the Ukrainian custom of referring to a sheaf of wheat as "the forefather."

Such "pagans" lived close to the soil. Their health and survival depended on the fertility of the crops, the animals, and the women. Although there were a number of times in the agricultural year which were crucial, by far the most critical was "after the snows" when the sun weakens, all green has vanished, and man can but hope that "the hound of spring" is truly at "winter's traces."

This was the time when sympathetic magic and ritual were called upon to guarantee the return of "light" and growth, when scapegoats were slain or expelled to purge barrenness and evil from the land, when the boar, symbol of regeneration, was sacrificed and consumed.

A yule log might be brought in, wished upon, and lighted from the remains of last year's log. A doll, representing the means by which man conquers death, might be placed under the table near the harvest, later to be carried from door to door by women who "carol," hailing the image as both the indicator of feminine power and the rebirth of the sun.

Riddles were posed and properly answered, assuring a proper "answer" to the riddle of the season. Liquor was important, for liquor is made from the crops, appears out of ferment as if by magic, has the power to transform, stimulate, and subdue man. Customs of such questionable efficacy as getting cattle drunk or pouring apple-wine on the roots of apple trees to increase yield developed. General inebriation, with resultant gluttony and orgiastic behavior -- activities to make the tables and the women groan -- were fostered. Sex, death, and rebirth were danced or mimed. Anything that related to fertility, to transformation, to "evergreen" took on significance.

Of course, such conduct wasn't always confined to the mid of winter. Throughout the year, during plowing and seeding, when the first shoots, the first fruits, appeared, the interrelationships of the fertility of crops and animals and women were stressed. Seeds were planted by bouncing them off the buttocks of a wife who had proved a "good breeder"; harvested grain was thrown at the womb of the bride as she wed.

Here and there the conquering Romans joined such ceremonies with their own festivals. However, it wasn't until Christianity came to the tribes that the significant changes were wrought. Then, as had been done with the Saturnalia and the Kalends, the Church Fathers refocused the pagan rites onto the various holy days; at "summer's end" selecting whatever day was most appropriate to the "first snows" of the region gaining conversion.

As E. K. Chambers wrote in The Medieval Stage, "The winter feast is spread over all the winter half of the year from All Souls Day to Twelfth night...." -- on St. Martin's Day, November 11; St. Nicholas' Day, December 6; St. Stephen's Day, December 26; New Year's Day; Old Christmas Day, January 6. And the "parceling out" was facile: in the case of December 25, the thanksgiving, the celebration of regeneration, the presence of the symbolic doll lending themselves to the story of God's "Unconquered Son" quite as if it had all been written, verily, in the Beginning.

There's little point in trying to summarize centuries of adjustments in custom and calendar as they affect thousands of persons in dozens of lands. Christianity came to Ireland at the end of the fifth century; to England, Switzerland, and Austria during the seventh; to Germany during the eighth; to the Slavic lands, Hungary, and Scandinavia in the ninth and tenth. By 1100, for all practical purposes, Europe was converted. Just about any conceivable combination of pagan and Christian ritual developed somewhere about Christmas during these years. Just about any reaction to these combinations developed somewhere also. The documents of the Middle Ages are fat with decrees against the abuses of Christmas merriment and the accompanying desecration of its religious purposes, with wailings that the Church Fathers are too strict, with indications that people at large are doing just what they have always done and paying little attention to the debates of the moralists. Sometimes things were so bad that the Church found it necessary to associate ritualism with the Devil himself, making Satan, as it were, the presiding "saint" and labeling the "Saturnalia" involved a communion of witches, Black Mass.

Old Christmas Traditions

With the Reformation of the sixteenth century, there came a sharp de-emphasis on Christmas in many lands. After all, Christ-mass, with its major place in the Popish calendar, with its traditional celebration of three Eucharists, with its stress on liturgy and ceremony, was a natural target for many followers of Luther and Calvin. Without going into the casuistry involved, we can realize that while Christ-tide was important to such thinkers, Christ-mass was detestable. In the words of William Prynne, that testy Puritan whose ears were amputated by Charles I, Our Christmas lords of Misrule, together with dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-players, and such other Christmas disorders, now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them. Yet it has already been stressed that one can't snuff out ritual as though it were a candle, no matter how testy one is.

Old Christmas Traditions

Obviously, many peoples in many lands, even in nations that had become utterly Protestant, went right on with their yule logs, holly, and crèches. But as true religious, and so political, sanction was apt to be lacking, it was not uncommon for the spiritual to give way to the corporal, to nothing but appetite, revel, and debauchery. The result was that in Renaissance Europe three clusters of Christmas celebration bloomed: the medieval, Roman Catholic Christ-mass, which was both spiritual and festive; the Protestant Christ-tide, which was simply spiritual, even severe; and the "neo-pagan" Yuletide, which was quite merry and quite unconcerned with the birth of mankind's Saviour.

Old Christmas Traditions

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