Medieval Christmas

Medieval man fused existing elements of pagan midwinter rites with the developing theology of Christmas in an appeal to the senses of both sacred and lay.

As the European winter deepens the course of the sun gets nearer the southern horizon until it seems to stand still for a few days, before slowly rising again to usher in the spring. Ancient peoples were of course aware of this phenomenon and the Romans, from their words for 'sun' and 'stand still', called it solstitium, source of our word 'solstice'. By the Julian calendar, the system of months and days we still use (first devised in 46 BC on orders from Julius Caesar), the winter solstice was originally dated December 25th.

All religions and philosophies draw on analogy; so much so that some medieval philosophers, inspired by Plato, saw the whole universe as a vast web of analogies, of hidden likenesses between one thing and another, likenesses capable (they said) of leading the gross human mind from the visible to the invisible, preparing it for the deepest truths of religion. The number of such analogies must be infinite. But the most obvious of all remains that between the sun and God; or rather, one sort of God: one who is, like the sun, a universal source and sustainer of life, and without whom all is blackness and cold. The analogy is so plain that, like the solstice, it was generally noticed by ancient peoples, and the worship of the sun as God is consequently a commonplace of ancient religion. In the Roman world the main form of it was the cult of the 'Unconquered Sun', a keystone of Mithraism, in its turn a leading contender for the devotion of Roman subjects in the late third century AD. In 274 – and when else than on December 25th? – an Emperor declared Sol invictus principal patron of the Empire.

Mithraism did not, in the event, become the imperial religion. After much uncertainty, victory would go to its main rival, Christianity. But around the year 300 this rival still had to be diplomatic. 1t was then that the church decided to create a feast for Christ's birth (Latin: nativitas). (No such feast is included in lists of feasts from the third century, and the new feast is first recorded in a document of 336.) Neither St Luke nor anyone else had recorded the real date; and it was known that emperors – was not Christ, too, an emperor? – could celebrate their birthdays on dates arbitrarily chosen. Thus it was, most modern scholars agree, that December 25th became the date of Christmas: it was symbolically suitable, and represented the strategic 'high ground' of the pagan calendar.

The timing of the birth of Christmas points to the reason for it. As Christianity took over the Empire it needed urgently to define its own doctrines. Above all it must decide who Christ was. Was he a very good man? Or God? The official definition came gradually. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 the mysterious doctrine was officially agreed that Christ was both, man and God. Opposition nevertheless persisted, pointing to an ambiguity: Christ might have become God, for instance at his baptism. So at Ephesus in 431 another council said Jesus was God from birth. Both doctrines had consequences for Christ's nativitas. If the hero of the Gospels was actually God his earthly history became all-important, from start to finish. And as for the start, Ephesus firmly placed this at his birth. Ephesus also confirmed a particular view of Jesus' mother. The foetus she was carrying was not just any infant, it was God himself. This woman, the Ephesus decision implied, had actually had the privilege of carrying God inside herself. The title of Mary as 'Mother of God (theotokos); as distinct from merely 'Mother of Christ' became a hallmark of orthodoxy during the fifth century, It cannot be an accident that these events were contemporary with the origin and spread of the Feast of the Nativity. It is first mentioned (in 336) just after Nicaea. The first eyewitness account of its celebration is from around 400, at Bethlehem, and in the presence of a crib. The first crib outside Bethlehem is recorded in Rome between 432 and 440, soon after Ephesus, and in a church destined to be the first of many in the western church dedicated to Mary, Santa Maria Maggiore.

A glance back at the story so far will show, then, that Christmas originated from the joining of two elements, an old and a new: an ancient recognition of the solstice and of its importance; and the peculiarly Christian doctrine that God had become man. These two elements, old and new, form constant factors in the history of the feast from then on, everything else – from Christmas trees to cribs and carols – being in some way a derivation from them, and from their interaction.

Because the near-disappearance of the sun had been, since times preceding record, a known fact of life – there had been midwinter rites and celebrations since long before Mithraism, let alone Christianity. Of these celebrations three in particular bear on the history of Christmas. One was the Saturnalia, a primitive Roman winter celebration for Saturn, whose name (related to the verb sero, satum: I sow (seed)) proclaims his original area of concern. The Saturnalia predated the Julian calendar but finished up, in that calendar, as a series of days in late December.

The second of the three was the Kalends, a new feast organised to serve the Empire's administrative needs: high officials, appointed for a year, were to take office on the same day, fixed on the Kalends (or first day) of January. The third feast to influence Christmas was more shadowy: chiefly because its home was outside the Empire's northern boundary, and we depend on later, Christian sources for descriptions of it. But Yule (or Geol in Old English, Jol in Old Norse) must have existed, if only because the Finnish word for 'feast' represents a borrowing from Norse at an epoch long pre-Christian. And Yule is the best explanation for a fact already remarked on in thirteenth-century France: that although religious considerations would make Easter the main feast of the Christian year, northern Europe – and the more so the further north you go – gives that status to Christmas. The length and inclemency of northern winters would not by themselves account for that.

When, therefore, in the early fourth century, Christmas occupied the strategic date of December 25th, it found the neighbouring ground thickly inhabited. Now it is an observed fact that a dominant feast tends to attract features from the less dominant. Kalends had by the fourth century done that to the Saturnalia. Christmas now proceeded to do it to both, adding Yule to its gravitational field when, in the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great's church began in earnest to advance its frontiers among the Germanic peoples. Since all three ancient feasts shared some features; and since all contributed, directly or indirectly, to the character of Christmas, it is not always easy to tell which Christmas practices, whether social or magical/symbolic, came from which predecessor. But a few resemblances leap to the eye.

On the social side, all three ancient celebrations involved banquets, and an attendant spirit of social harmony. At the Saturnalia, for instance, no punishments or fighting were allowed, and superiors served inferiors (a custom preserved in the modern British Army on Christmas Day). The giving of presents at the midwinter feast almost certainly began as a magical more than as merely a social custom. Saturnalia presents included wax dolls, given to children. A charming custom, no doubt, by times of record, but with a macabre past: even contemporaries thought this probably a vestige of human sacrifice, of children, to aid the sowing. A more probable ancestor of the Christmas present, the strena of Kalends, had an only slightly less sinister background. By times of historical record the strena, or New Year Gift, was an earnest of good luck for the year, and consisted of figs, honey, pastry or (most often) coins. But again, contemporary anthropologists saw the strena as successor to the gift of a may bough, made to a new ruler for his year of office at an epoch when New Year was in the spring. Readers of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough will know the sanguinary and that awaited the ruler at the completion of his year.

On the magical or symbolic side, again, some features were common to all three feasts. All sought to encourage the return of the sun of vegetation. All featured tapers; and Yule, in the well-forested north, also had its log, whose virtues were still well- known in the medieval period. As for vegetation, the decoration of buildings with evergreen was common to all three feasts, laurel predominating in the south, conifers in the north, – these including a Yule tree, which we shall meet again. Yule probably inherited a regard for that maverick evergreen, mistletoe, from the druidic religion, whose rites in that regard are described at length by Pliny in the first century an. Finally, the ritual baking of special cakes and pies was probably present in the Saturnalia and certainly in Yule, in which one sort of pie was fashioned to resemble a boar, a beast itself often eaten – perhaps originally sacrificed – at the feast.

Of these early midwinter celebrations I have mentioned only those features whose traces are recognisable in or near their Christian successor. Other features died away (for reasons to be suggested), leaving their sparse remains as a banquet only for historians of religion. In Celtic areas of the Roman Empire, for instance, Kalends included male-female transvestism and dancing with animal- masks reminiscent of the Celtic 'horned god' known to archaeology. (Transvestism at 'Yeull' would still be troubling the Aberdeen Kirk in 1618.) Again, in Germanic and some Celtic areas at kalends a meal would be left out at night for female deities. Scandinavian sources say the same for Yule, while Bede's assertion that the Angles called the main night of Yule Modraniht ('Night of the Mothers') may refer to the same hungry ladies.

What of the new element, or 'Christmas' proper. The word 'Christmas' is from the Middle English for 'Christ's Mass', and the early history of the feast, granted its scriptural and doctrinal background, is largely a matter of the Mass and the adjacent liturgy. Christmas was long peculiar in having three Masses (it still does, but so now does Easter): at midnight, dawn or cockcrow, and in the day. The Mass most characteristic of Christmas is the one at midnight. It was believed that Christ was born, not merely on the darkest date of winter, but at the darkest moment. The choice had symbolic value, but also drew force from words in the book of Wisdom (18:14):

While gentle silence held all things and night was half-way through its course, the omnipotent word leapt from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.

We know that midnight Mass was celebrated in Bethlehem around 400 AD (from the eyewitness account), probably followed by a dawn Mass at Jerusalem; and that, partly by imitation, the threefold pattern was fixed in Rome by the middle of the fifth century. From Rome it spread gradually to the western church as a whole.

Already, by the fifth century, Christmas had begun to affect the calendar on either side of it. Advent existed by 500, though at first under the name'. of 'the Quadragesima (forty days') of St Martin' – as a period of either penance or joy (no-one was, or is, sure which: puritanical Gaul preferred the first, Saturnalian Rome the second). The feast of St Nicholas, which tell in Advent, had a lively medieval career of its own, but little to with Christmas until the Reformation when Protestants, pruning down Catholic saints' days, wanted to keep Nicholas, so attached him to Christmas, thus preparing him for his future role as Santa Claus. Saints Stephen, John the Evangelist and the Innocents (Herod's child victims), as 'companions of Christ', were installed in the three days after Christmas by the late fifth century, while the irrepressible kalends, January 1st, was assigned after much hesitation to the circumcision, representing Christ's subjection to Iaw (a law originally with ascetic connotations). The task of ending the Christmas season was shared untidily by Epiphany and Candlemas. How the Magi of Epiphany came into possession of January 6th (the Egyptian winter solstice and hence the earliest eastern date for Christmas); how they became kings, then three kings, with their own names, characters and colours – one was black, according to a legend at least as old as the eighth century; and how their supposed relics ended up in Cologne in 1167; all this makes a long and complicated story of its own. As for Candlemas, Bede himself recognised it as the replacement of a pagan ceremony, now assigned in the Christmas cycle to the ‘Purification of the Virgin Mary' – an event signifying the submission of Mary to Jewish law (a law in this case related to old taboos about women who had given birth).

These, then, are the two elements, old and new, inherited by medieval Christmas from the ancient world. The story of the medieval feast is that of their mutual effect. The effects were not equal, however let us look first at the old element. The first of all its features was the banquet. Chroniclers are always telling us where a king or magnate 'celebrated Christmas'. Although such literary men were usually above discussing food, the gap they leave is supplied once account-books come on the scene. We know, for instance, of a royal Christmas feast in 1377, under Richard II, where twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. Humbler Christmas dinners are more elusive, but the Yule boar – either the actual animal or a pie in its shape – remained a centre-piece of it, not to be ousted until the turkey arrived from Mexico in 1531. Lesser birds and game are however mentioned in recipes, in big quantities. It is true that medieval Europeans sometimes starved to death. But when they ate they ate in a measure which did not escape satire. Advent in England was meant to be a time of penance. The fifteenth-century carol-writer James Ryman, a Franciscan friar, knew it at its most severe:

We ete no puddynges ne no sowce, But stynking fisshe not worthe a lowce.

But penance was too clean an idea always to subdue the robuster traditions of midwinter feasting, and an anonymous fourteenth-century narrative poem describes a knight's Advent meal in quite different terms. It included 'several soups or stews, two helpings of each', then 'various sorts of fish: baked in bread; grilled; boiled; stewed and spiced; and all with sauce'. After this the waiters offered him wine to help him enjoy his 'penance' more easily.

The story this little satire comes in is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain is in fact all about Christmas and its season, and was probably composed to be read out then. Folklorists have indeed read in its strange tale traces of sun- and fertility-ceremonies appropriate to midwinter (why, for instance, is Gawain's counterpart green?) Whatever the truth of that, the mere fact of the poem, and its own allusions to festivity, are a reminder that the Christmas feast meant more than food. Friends met with goodwill, and danced and sang. At New Year (when we are told 'Nowel was proclaimed anew') they gave presents: the yeresgive, whose mention both in Sir Gawain and the contemporary Piers Plowman indicates that the Roman strena had not yet metamorphosed into the Christmas present. Meanwhile, a real Christmas in the fifteenth century can be glimpsed in a letter from one Paston to another on Christmas Eve 1459. A close friend (Sir John Fastolf) had just died. John Paston got his wife Margaret to ask a neighbour, who had been widowed the previous Christmas, what effect her loss had had on her celebrations. He neighbour answered.

...there were no disguisings, nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, and no loud sports, but playing at the tables (board-games) and chess, and cards, which sports she gave her folks leave to play, and none other.

Finally comes the question of evergreens. Referring to pre-Tudor times the Tudor antiquary John Stow said 'every man's house and also his parish church was decked with holme, ivie, bayes, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green'. There is every reason to think these practices both common and old. The matter of the tree is more complex. Late medieval Germany knewa Christmas 'pyramid', a construction of ever- greens with a star on top; and a Christmas Eve play of Adam and Eve used a fir as 'paradise tree', hung with apples. A copper-engraving by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1509 shows that by then something like a Christmas tree had emerged from these antecedents; and further examples from sixteenth-century Alsace show the fashion established. A simple evergreen tree had nevertheless featured in medieval Christmas, as also in 'Yule' before it. This for example is how Stow continues the passage just quoted. He had read in an account of 1444 of:

...a standard of tree being set up in the midst of the pavement (in Cornhill, London) fast in the ground, nailed full of holme and ivie, for disport of Christmas to the people.

We only have to reflect on the vicissitudes since 1444 and on the fact that many customs even of our own grandparents' day have vanished without trace, to be struck by the pertinacity of these old midwinter customs, some lasting thousands of years. In one respect, therefore, if history implies development, medieval Christmas had none; at least no history distinct from that of the practices it drew on – like pastry- making, board-games, lutes or literature. But what of the new, specifically Christian element in Christmas? At first glance it seems subject to the same inertia. The liturgy, after all, its core, was locked into place by about 600 AD. It scarcely changed – unless we count as change such details as the revival, by late-medieval German Emperors, of the Roman practice by which the Emperor himself read out the midnight Gospel, 'There went out a decree from Caesar'. A closer look, however, belies this. Throughout the Middle Ages the Christian Christmas was on the march, in two ways: negative and positive.

The negative one was in its confrontation with its pagan rivals. The confrontation involved a twofold strategy: outright hostility, and adaptation. If these seem mutually inconsistent it is partly because 'the medieval church' was not monolithic. Bishops were more puritanical, and more zealous, at some times or places than at others. From the more puritanical phases of the church it would be easy to assemble invectives against pagan midwinter practices, singly or en bloc, passed by councils, or proclaimed by single bishops. Perhaps the most revealing of such texts is one in the latter category, a letter of St Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz, to Pope Zachary, in 742. To understand the letter it must be remembered that Boniface was English-born, a monk and a missionary. He had learned his Christianity in a church converted, only a century before his birth, by similar monk-missionaries. Theirs was a learned Christianity, and it was a learned, purist religion that Boniface had brought to his German converts. The latter duly went to Rome, as pilgrims to the tombs of the apostles. Come January 1st what did they see? Boniface's indignant protest gives the answer. They see (he wrote) 'singing and dancing in the streets in pagan style; heathen acclamations and sacrilegious songs; banquets by day and night', and, most reprehensible of all, 'the wearing and selling by women of philacteries and ligatures', and the refusal of householders to 'lend iron or anything useful'. Pope Zachary replied that he and other popes had been condemning these things for centuries. He would try again. When in 1788, Goethe watched the Roman Carnival the ghost of Saturnalia had taken due revenge on these northern puritans. Its grotesque caricatures included a Quaker.

This was confrontation. On the other hand there was adaptation. Readers of Bede's Ecclesiastical History need no introduction to the letter from Gregory the Great to St Augustine of Canterbury (I, c.20) in which the Pope, here a Roman to the core, told his English missionary to adapt, rather than uproot, pagan institutions. Medieval church history is from one angle a long commentary on this principle; nor did Christmas escape it. The very date of the feast, after all, implied a symbolic adaptation of the old Sol invictus. Other pagan accoutrements of midwinter, based as many were on what Frazer called 'sympathetic magic' (magic invoking analogy), lent themselves naturally to allegorical interpretation. Thus evergreen signified eternity; tapers, the coming light of Christ, and so on. Pagan dances needed tougher treatment, as we shall see. Even banquets were not hard to accommodate in a religion whose agape, and hence whose 'holy communion' itself, were historically related to them. As for presents, the magi, in making the customary strenae to a new ruler (gold for the king, as Henry III of England more than once reminded his subjects at New Year), finished up as providing the scriptural model for Christmas presents.

There was indeed hardly any basic pagan idea which could not somehow be transformed, and fitted into Christianity. A good example can be seen in the first surviving evidence of Norwegian Christmas prayers, from the early twelfth century. Differing benefits are sought from Christ arid from the Virgin: from Christ, general 'favour'; from the Virgin 'that fertility may increase'. Martin Nilsson, the Swedish historian read this peculiarity as a vestige of an earlier petition to pagan deities, to Odin, the old patron of Yule, and to those 'Mothers' of Bede, as fertility goddesses. Frejya could well have been among them. What we know of Frejya's fertility symbolism strikes us as crude. The Christian transformation rendered it obsolete. For Mary gave birth without help from human seed; and to whom? God himself. The idea of fertility could be taken no further.

Christian Christmas was on the march, then, in a negative way, as churchmen variously execrated, amputated, tolerated, allegorised, adapted and incorporated existing pagan customs. But in the last resort the initiative did not lie with paganism. It lay with the idea at the centre of the new Christmas, the Incarnation, itself incarnate in the infant in the stable. In late medieval pictures of the nativity, the infant appears like a point of light, inexaustibly pulsing out its beams to all available corners. A look at the corners will show that this is how the Christmas liturgy functioned. It consisted of words, objects, images, acts and song; in each of these it can be found expanding.

The prescribed words of the liturgy left a 'slot' for a sermon. A look at surviving Christmas sermons reveals a constant process of exploration and discovery, by preachers, of new implications in Christmas themes. The three Masses, for instance, were linked up with other threefold schemes. A fourteenth-century bishop of Rochester links them with three ages of human history. A more influential scheme linked them to three meanings of the nativity. These were: the eternal generation of the World from the Father (midnight: the Angel's Mass); the historic birth of Jesus (dawn: the Shepherds' Mass); the birth of Jesus in the hearts of men (eventually linked to the day Mass, the 'Mass of the Divine Word'). Both the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the tangle of legend that grew round the Christmas story, were explored. In the course of the explorations we at times almost hear the preacher's voice. Thus Chaucer's contemporary, John Myrc, offered his own explanation of why God chose to appear, not as a full-grown man, but as a child. It was to win the love of mankind:

For whyll a chyld ys yeong and wythout synne, hit ys more amyable than hit ys aftyr, when he comyth to man-state.

Even in the world of words, then, the liturgy carried the principle of its own growth. But the liturgy also involved objects. The main object engendered by the Christmas liturgy was the crib. We have seen, from a glimpse at both Bethlehem and Rome – and other glimpses would confirm it – that St Francis of Assisi did not invent the crib, at Greccio in 1223, as a hasty reading of Thomas of Celano's Life (I, c.30) has sometimes suggested. But it is right to associate Francis and his movement with the crib. Not only were Franciscans evangelical in the sense of trying to spread the Gospel message to all ranks of society, especially illiterates. Their founder was the main exponent of a tendency, linked to that sort of 'evangelism', and widespread in the church of the thirteenth century ( the century when the pope became 'vicar of Christ') to focus religious thought on the second person of the Trinity. This Franciscan 'Christocentrism' was bound to give momentum to the religious appreciation of Christmas, of which the use of cribs was a part. We know it did, both from devotional literature and from the survival of actual cribs from the fifteenth century.

The same Franciscan influence is visible, mixed with others, in a more sophisticated area of the liturgy's visual imagery, pictures. Throughout the middle ages illuminations and altar pieces tease out, like the sermons, ever-deeper implications in the simple manger scene, its figures and attitudes serving as their silent language. Byzantine tradition, reminiscent of pre-Christian images of the birth of Bacchus, put the Nativity in a cave, thus completing the symbolism of darkness and providing (probably) a model for the grotto at Bethlehem. Western artists, especially after Giotto, preferred a shed, in which each variation of detail betrays some nuance in interpretation. One of the most eloquent, based on a ninth-century text but developing from the thirteenth onwards, depicts the manager in the shape of an altar, holding its 'Body of Christ'. More significant still is a cluster of images, originating in St. Bernard's guidance for monks' meditations in the twelfth century, and gathering force through Franciscan and other mystics in the thirteenth, which sees the Nativity as an event simultaneously both more human and more divine. Jesus comes from his manger and lies on straw on the ground (humus: the root of the word humilis, humble). His Mother comes out of her bed and kneels in adoration of her own son.

The climax came after l380 with the circulation of the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden. Whether or not because she had passed her long widowhood in Rome (where the new motifs were to be seen) Bridget gave, in one of her visions, a detailed description of Jesus' birth. Just before it the Virgin had doffed her shoes, mantle and veil, letting her golden hair fall loose. Straight afterwards she prayerfully worshipped her own child, whose body emitted such divine light that that of a candle held by Joseph was 'annihilated'. These details produce a small artistic revolution, visible in Nativity pictures in the fifteenth century and later.

Pictures, like the crib, extended the liturgy's visual imagery. Liturgical objects, liturgical acts were developed in another field, one given more scholarly attention than any other aspect of medieval Christmas plays. Whether the old masked mummery (which we know could be illegally performed in monasteries in sixth- century Gaul) had any part in the origin of liturgical plays must remain conjecture. What is sure is that the liturgy itself had by the early twelfth century given birth to quasi-dramatic scenes – soprano 'angels' singing from above the screen, and so on. Easter led this proto-dramatic development, but Christmas came next. With the growth of urban populations, and the spread of education, plays extended their range over the whole ecclesiastical year, and at the same time jumped over the church wall into the town square. Among the late-medieval 'Mystery Plays' thus created, the Christmas cycle (Epiphany prominent within it) kept its place of honour. Late fourteenth- century England had a particularly rich tradition. In it, bare biblical episodes were expanded by clerical authors displaying both theology and dramatic talent, into whole plays. Thus the two 'Shepherds' Plays' from Wakefield. written in the early fifteenth century, turn eleven verses of St Luke's Gospel into fifty pages of drama: English weather, shepherds' poverty, quarrels and high rents, all (in appropriate South Yorkshire dialect) depict a winter of discontent into which the 'lytyll tyn mop' (little tiny baby) brings a happy ending.

And finally, the sounds. The most conspicuously medieval feature of modern Christmas is the carol. 'Carol' originally denoted a kind of dance with words. A deduction from the recorded words of early English carols reveals what kind of dance it was: a leader sang a verse, and a ring of dancers the 'burden' or chorus. The carol-dance belonged among pre- Christian customs. By the later Middle Ages, the dances were often lewd in character. A biographer of Thomas Becket, writing in 1497, held it a merit in the young saint that he had avoided 'karolles and songes dissolute'; and the odd surviving text of pagan carols justifies that structure. The metamorphosis of the carol was the work, once again, of inspired pastoral clerics, making free use of Latin liturgical verse. Thirteenth-century Italian Franciscans like Jacopone da Todi were pioneers in this sphere too. Their new genre of vernacular religious song inspired their northern neighbours. Fourteenth-century German Dominicans, in particular, fed their well-known mystical genius into the new genre. Under these mendicant influences there began, in the same century (probably first in Ireland) the tradition of carol-writing in English which has never stopped. Traces of the pre-Christian carol- dancers survive in early English carols: The holly and the ivy, for instance, once represented male and female principle, in early fertility beliefs. Such ideas, torn from their pre-Christian context, now became mere decorations to a purely Christian genre. Authors used not only the Christmas story and lore, and appropriate populate musical traditions like the lullaby, but Latin hymns, a genre with its own debt, centuries before, to popular song, Among, their acknowledgements to hymns are their 'macaronic' lines, where Latin is dovetailed with vernacular. This quatrain from a fifteenth-century re-working of a twelfth-century Latin chant is typical:

An angell of counsell now ys bore Off a mayde, as Y sayd betore,
To saw [save] all that was forlore.
Sol de stella.

Sol de stella: the sun (Christ) from a star (Mary'). The old symbolism persists, at the centre of its infinite web of analogy. If we review the diverse elements of Christmas, old and new, we see a single theme running throughout. A threat is overcome. Death and pitch blackness are at the very door but are somehow, magically or miraculously, defeated. The threat is an indispensable part of it. What, after all, could evergreen symbolise unless most leaves died in winter'? Or candles, if winter nights were not cold and dark? The old feast, let us not forget, was not merely that of Sol, but of Sol invictus: the epithet 'unconquered' bequeaths its defiance to the entire optimism of Christmas. But of course it is spelt out best where one would expect it to be, in the Gospel for the day Mass, Cristes Messe, (from John 1:5): 'And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not'.

Further Reading:

  • C.W. Smith. 'Christmas and its Cycle', New Catholic Encyclopaedia (New York, 1967), III, 655-60.
  • E.K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage (Oxford, 1903).
  • R.L. Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977).
  • P. Happe, ed., English Mystery Plays (Penguinm 1975).
  • C.A. Miles, Christams in Ritual and Tradition (London, 1912).
  • E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (Princetown University Press, 1964).

Alexander Murray is Fellow of University College, Oxford, and author of Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1986).  

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