Christmas in the Middle Ages with Sir Justyn (Part 2)

The ladies at Lions and Lilies are currently much engaged with the production of a Christmas gift for their loyal readers so would like to thank Sir Justyn for his chivalrous gift of a three part Christmas blog, which we will be posting in the next week prior to Christmas.

Have you ever wondered where some of our Christmas traditions originated, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe? Many people believe they are a modern inclusion but the Romans used all three plants in a midwinter festival called Saturnalia, a celebration and feast day in honour of the Roman deity Saturn, during which participants made merry with abundant food and drink, exchanged gifts and enjoyed a carnival atmosphere. Saturn, being an agricultural god, was associated with evergreens as they represented hope and renewed life. Though the Christian church of the Middle Ages frowned upon the use of the plants because of their connection to pagan rituals, they continued to adorn the homes of commonfolk at Yuletide.

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However certain conditions needed to be met if one was to decorate with holly, ivy or mistletoe.  They could not be taken inside before Christmas Eve or removed before Twelfth Night. In some parts of medieval Europe they had to be burned when disposing of them and yet in other places this was considered to be bad luck and instead they had to be left outdoors to wither and rot. It was also believed that pixies and sprites lived within them, but were restrained from creating havoc by the power of Christ during Christmas, however this protection would disappear after the Twelfth Night and the creatures could escape and cause all manner of mischief.

This was period in history when modern faith and ancient superstition collided and eventually merged into modern traditions. Even today many people believe it is bad luck to set up a tree too early and just as it is to leave it up after Twelfth Night!

But what did these evergreens symbolise?

Holly brought good luck to the home and protected it from lightning, witches, goblins and other evil spirits.

Ivy was not usually used inside because of a common association with death. It was believed that if you had ivy growing outside it was a sign of a good future but if it died or did not prosper it was a sign of impending doom.  Symbolically, Ivy was used to decorate the outside of a home to remind people that while things were joyous and good inside, the threat of death and misfortune was ever present.

Ivy Tower

Old superstitions held that mistletoe was the most dangerous of the three evergreens because it could be used in magic and was associated with paganism. Mistletoe had a place not just in Roman mythology but also in Celtic and Norse traditions, with ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ a Viking belief propagated by them as they spread across Europe in the Dark Ages.  The plant was forbidden anywhere within church walls, except, strangely enough in the cathedral of the City of York, ‘The York Minster’, where every year a large bunch of mistletoe was placed upon the altar. Perhaps the most popular aspect of mistletoe was the licence it gave people to flirt and kiss under it during celebration which incidentally might be the very reason the church disapproved of it.

Christmas trees were also a little different in the Middle Ages. The evergreen fir tree was considered the ‘Christmas’ tree and common legend has it that the first fir grew from a pagan oak destroyed by a Saint, sometimes thought to be St Wilfrid and other times St Bonafice. The Christmas fir remained outside and was decorated as a part of a communal celebration.

The medieval equivalent of the modern concept of a Christmas tree was called the ‘kissing bough,’ which was essentially a ball of greenery of winter plants (remember, no ivy inside!) decorated with apples, candles, berries and a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the bottom centre. It was then hung from the middle of the room.

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As readers have likely already noted, saints played a big part in the lives of medieval people and, of course, Christmas was no exception. The most famous saint whose feast day falls in December is St Nicholas the Gift Giver, renowned for his efforts in helping the less fortunate. But held in higher importance was St Martin, whose feast day on 11th November heralded the commencement of the Christmas season. This occasion was not just a holiday but a time that marked the start of preparations for December festivities. St Thomas was recognised on 21st December and coincided with Winter Solstice, St Stephen’s day was December 26th and was celebrated with mumming plays, sword dances and observations of ancient superstitions such as the bleeding of work animals. Other Christmas saints included St Thomas Becket, St Lucy, St John the Evangelist and St Francis of Assisi and for each saint there was another feast and celebration. The 28th of December cannot be overlooked – called Holy Innocents Day, commemorating the slaughter of all boys under the age of two during the reign of King Herod after he heard of the birth of Jesus, however, quite understandably, this was not a joyous occasion but rather a solemn one. It was believed that anything new that started on this day was doomed to utter failure and all work or agreements of any kind were avoided on this occasion.

Justin Webb a.k.a. Sir Justyn is a professional medieval performer, educator, medieval combat instructor and author, internationally renowned for public speaking and displays. He has performed, taught and spoken not only in Australia but also in England and France. He is also the leading member of Eslite d’ Corps, a high quality 14thC Living History group. You can learn more about Sir Justyn at www.sirjustyn.com and on his Facebook page.

Sir Justyn

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