Tuesday, November 9, 2010


   The sound of happiness, sincere appreciation and the presence of family make the Christmas holiday one of the most festive occasions of the year.  Such festivities were also present during medieval times.  The spirit of the holiday was the closeness of family, serfs, lords and their workers and the communal sharing and preparing of the holiday meal.
   The celebration of Christmas and the concept of Christ's birthday goes back much farther than the 19th century.  Originally a pagan festival celebrated during the Mid-Winter Solstice, Christmas, was eventually adopted by the Christians, thus being passed on through the generations.  In Medieval times a 12 day festival, held from December 25th to January 6th, opened the New Year with all of the contemporary fixings such as plays, processions, and the spreading of good cheer.  The actual gift giving took place on January 6th with the honoring of St. Nicholas, patron son of saints.

   The Druids and the Vikings used the Yule log during the 12 day feast to represent the coming of the New Year.  After it was blessed, it was burned for the entire celebration.  However, before being burned it was carved in the sins of the past year.  Burning it symbolically cleansed the people and brought about good fortune.
   The sending of Christmas cards, carol singing, decorating houses and trees, and the lighting of candles are all symbols of an ancient tradition.  The tradition was full of merriment and feasting and represented little of what it has become today.

   The Christmas tree is a very ancient tradition with origins in the ancient Germanic history of Europe.  Germanic tribes celebrated Lichfest and Tannenbaum on December 21st, the shortest day of the year.  Tannenbaum represented the festival of lighting the trees and Lichfest was celebrated as the festival of light.
   The Christmas tree did not become popular in the western world until the 18th and 19th centuries.  The tradition of holiday caroling also has its roots in medieval history.  Caroling was initially a pagan custom looked down upon by the church.  It wasn't until 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the singing of carols into the formal worship of the church.  In medieval tradition, wandering minstrels and waits that guarded the old walled cities would pass their time by going from home to home singing carols, In return, they received food and drink.

medieval carols

medieval carols

   The Epiphany, which marked the visit of the Magi to the Christ child and the bestowing of gifts upon him is where we get our physical gift giving tradition from.  Although the gifts were bestowed at birth, history dictates that it is much more likely that the holiday was celebrated at the baptism of Christ.  The holiday season was not always representative of the stress of gift buying and family hopping.  In medieval times the gifts were simple and families were all gathered in one central location.  The season was about prosperity and change for the better in the coming year.  In many ways, cultural marketing of this season, along with many others has served to dull the meaning of the season.

Medieval Nativity form the 1400's

   "Let those who have no light in themselves light candles! Let those over whom hell fire is hanging, fix to their doors laurels doomed presently to burn.  You are the light of the world, you are the tree evergreen...make not your own house a temple".  The Great Roman Tertullian.
   Hanging a Christmas stocking is a tradition that has been followed since times immemorial.  This tradition has an interesting history behind it.  Though there are no written records of the origin of Christmas stocking, there are quite some popular stories that have passed through generations till date.  Though there have been some modifications in many such stories, one of the most popular legend that talks about the history of Christmas is given in the following lines.

Medieval Santa

   Many centuries back, there lived a poor man in a village who had three beautiful daughters.  His wife had passed away due to some illness and he had spent all his money to cure his wife.  Thus, he was left with no money to get his daughters married.  The three daughter were very kind and strong and this is what worried their father even more.  He was concerned what would happen to them after his death.
   It so happened that once, St. Nicholas was passing through the village when he over heard the discussion of some villagers who were talking about the pitiable condition of the three girls.  St. Nicholas wanted to help the poor father but he knew that the old man won't accept money just like that.  He decided to help in a secret way.  He waited till it was night and stealthily came into their house through the chimney.  He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl.  As he was looking for a place to keep those three bags, he noticed the stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying.  He put each bag in each stocking and then went away.  When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they were thrilled to find the bags of gold coins.  He happily married off his daughters one after the other and they also remained happy for the rest of their lives.  The word about St. Nicholas being so generous spread throughout the village and then all over the land.  Since then, it has been a tradition to hang a stocking on Christmas in the hope that St. Nicholas would bring a present.


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