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Home School Life Journal
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales
painting by Katie Bergenholtz

Christmas Traditions from The Middle Ages

In recent years that have been some confusions about the twelve days of Christmas, many thinking that they are the twelve days leading up to Christmas day, when actually in the Middle Ages Christmas was a festival that began on Christmas day and lasted until Twelfth Night (January 5). The next day was epiphany which celebrated the visit of the magi by the giving of gifts and marked the end of the Christmas season. The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
Advent was celebrated, however. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours). Around the 12th century, the Twelve Days of Christmas began incorporating the traditions of the holidays in the many areas which had been Christianized.

Yule Log, Ivy, Holly, Mistletoe and the Christmas Tree
Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were taken from Druid tradition, Christians adding that the berries, which are white in the fall turned red as a symbol Christ's blood when he was made to wear the crown of thorns. Ivy was associated with the Roman god Bacchus and was not allowed by the Church as decoration until later in the middle ages, when a superstition that it could help recognize witches and protect against plague arose.

In the Middle Ages, the Church would decorate trees with apples on Christmas Eve, which they called "Adam and Eve Day." However, the trees remained outdoors.

Yule Boar The ever-present threat of hunger was triumphantly overcome with a feast, and all manner of food would be served at Christmas. Wassail comes from the Old English words waes hael, which means "be well," "be hale," or "good health." A strong, hot drink (usually a mixture of ale, honey, and spices) would be put in a large bowl, and the host would lift it and greet his companions with "waes hael," to which they would reply "drinc hael," which meant "drink and be well." Mince Pies, so called because they contained shredded or minced meat, were baked in oblong casings to represent Jesus' crib, and it was important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. During the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. Early references from the Vadstel monestery show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in the year 1444. Candy canes didn't come until a little later. Part of the Christmas celebration at the Cologne Cathedral were pageants of living creches. In about 1670 the choirmaster there had sticks of candy bent into the shape of a shepherd’s crook and passed them out to children who attended the ceremonies. This became a popular tradition, and eventually the practice of passing out the sugar canes at living creche ceremonies spread throughout Europe.

In the Middle Ages nativity and mystery plays, the father of our Christmas pageants were presented in churches, but caroling did not become a part of the Christmas tradition until the late Middle Ages. Caroling was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus.

Santa Claus
In the 1200s, December sixth began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France. By end of the 1400s, St Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary. There were more than 2000 chapels and monasteries named after him.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for the well written reminder of these facts about Christmas. I was trying to remember some of these facts just about a week or so ago, and said I needed to look them up. Now I have them all in one nice place.

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  2. Nice! I agree with Debbie. I can always count on getting brushed on my history here. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Thanks for this post, I love to learn more about ancient items.
    You can read about Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands on my blog: www.oranjebehang.nl (go to entry around dec. 5th)

    Do you know the tradition of writing down your dreams (the dreams you dream at night) during the twelve days of christmas? They are supposedly to give a peek in the events for next year...

    I hope your Christmas days may be merry!

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