Published: 30-07-2012, 12:19

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Adapting Pagan Customs

Christmas in Medieval Europe

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Christmas Season

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Entertainments

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Christmas Feasts in Medieval Europe

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Famous English Christmas Feasts

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Creating Christian Customs

Christmas in Medieval Europe: Surviving Medieval Customs

Many researchers believe that medieval Christmas celebrations absorbed a number of pre-existing pagan customs. Church policy itself may have had something to do with this. In the early Middle Ages missionaries found many recent converts unwilling to give up elements of their former celebrations. In the year 601 Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter to St. Augustine, missionary to Britain, advising him on how to deal with this problem. The letter reveals that missionaries were often encouraged to suggest a Christian significance to old pagan customs, rather than try to abolish them. Pope Gregory reasoned that:

... because they [the Anglo-Saxons] are wont to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in the place of this, so that on the day of the dedication of the churches, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are placed there, they may make for themselves tabernacles of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance; so that while some outward joys are retained for them, they may more readily respond to inward joys. For from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly impossible to cut off everything at once, because he who strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps [Miles, 1990,179].

Indeed, the ancient custom of decking homes with GREENERY may have infiltrated medieval Christmas celebrations in just this manner. According to some writers, the roots of this custom lie in the Roman practice of celebrating their midwinter festivals by decorating homes and temples with greenery. Moreover, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia by electing a mock king to preside over the customary feasts. Many mock kings sprouted up during the medieval Christmas season, perhaps as echoes of this ancient custom. They included the Bishop of Fools, who presided over the KING OF THE BEAN, the LORD OF MISRULE, and the BOY BISHOP. The old pagan beliefs of the north may also have contributed a few items to medieval Christmas lore. Some writers suspect that Berchta, the female spirit that haunted the Twelve Days of Christmas in German-speaking lands, may have evolved from an old Germanic goddess. They attribute the same origin to the band of spirits known as the WILD HUNT. Finally, medieval Germans honored Christmas by burning a YULE LOG, another custom that may date back to ancient times.