As the holiday season engulfs us -- and as we are subjected to a barrage of sentiment and commercialism (which are often indistinguishable from one another) -- simpler days seem so much more attractive, and many of us tend to look to the past. Thanks to Charles Dickens and a flood of nostalgia for the nineteenth century, we have a fairly good idea of what a Victorian Christmas was like. But the concept of observing Christ's birthday goes back much farther than the nineteenth century -- in fact, the origin of the English word "Christmas" is found in the Old English Cristes Maesse (Mass of Christ). So what was it like to celebrate Christmas in the Middle Ages?
Just exactly what Christmas was like depends not only on where it was observed, but when. In late antiquity, Christmas was a quiet and solemn occasion, marked by a special mass and calling for prayer and reflection. Until the fourth century, no fixed date had been formally set by the Church -- in some places it was observed in April or May, in others in January and even in November. It was Pope Julius I who officially fixed the date at December 25th, and why exactly he chose the date is still not clear. Although it is possible that it was a deliberate Christianization of a pagan holiday, many other factors seem to have come into play. (For an examination of the date's origin, see the article on Christmas at the Catholic Encyclopedia.)
More commonly (and enthusiastically) celebrated was the Epiphany. This is another holiday whose origins are sometimes lost in the festivities of the moment. It is generally believed that Epiphany marked the visit of the Magi and their bestowal of gifts on the Christ child, but it is more likely that the holiday originally celebrated Christ's baptism, instead. Nevertheless Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was much more popular and festive than Christmas in the early middle ages, and was a time for the bestowal of gifts in the tradition of the three Wise Men -- a custom that survives to this day.
In time, Christmas grew in popularity -- and as it did so, many of the Pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice became associated with Christmas as well. New customs particular to the Christian holiday also arose. The Yuletide became a time for feasting and socializing as well as a time for prayer.
Many of the customs we observe today originated in the middle ages. To learn which traditions were practiced (and which foods were eaten) then, please visit my Medieval Christmas Traditions page. You may already incorporate some of these festivities in your holiday, or perhaps you might like to start a new tradition with a very old one. As you celebrate these customs, remember: They started with a medieval Christmas.
Guide's note: This feature originally appeared in December, 1997, and was updated in December, 2007.