Probably a lot of you know that many of our Christmas traditions hearken back a long way, pre-dating Christianity. Many of those come from the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who in the dreary dark of mid-winter, were celebrating as well, but for different reasons.
Under the present-day Gregorian calendar, the Solstice falls on December 21st. But back in the 7th century, if people used calendars at all (mainly the monks, who had to keep track of important religious festivals and dates) it would fall on December 25th. The pagan Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t really care what the calendar date was, they were following the movements of the sun and moon (and other celestial bodies) throughout the year, and on the Solstice dates (one in summer, one in winter) the Sun stopped moving one way across the sky and began to move the other. In the northern hemisphere, the midwinter Solstice (from the Latin, meaning “sun standing”) indicated the day with the shortest hours of daylight in the year.
The end to the creeping darkness and cold of winter and the return of longer days and more warmth was a great reason to celebrate. The winter solstice indicated the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon New Year, and was called Mother’s Night, as the celebrations entered around the rebirth of Mother Earth from the grip of winter. As Bede says,
They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.
The name for this special season that encompassed our December and January was Yuletide (Yule-time) from the Saxon word géola. The ceremonies that Bede referred to would have involved feasting (boar, not turkey!), drinking and sacrifices to the gods, probably the Saxon fertility gods Freyja and Freyr. These ceremonies would be ongoing throughout the season, with activities before and after the Solstice.
For example, the Yule log was a huge block of wood that was laid on the hearth on the eve of Solstice and kept burning through the next twelve days of Yuletide (from which our twelve days of Christmas comes from), probably as a symbol of the returning sun and heat. It was never allowed to burn up completely, some of it was saved to light the next year’s Yule log. The unburnt portion was kept in the house in order to ward off various misfortunes such as chilblains, toothaches, and the like, and the ashes used in various potions and charms.
There is so much we don’t know about these practices. The Anglo-Saxons did not write their history and customs down, it was an oral culture, so we only have bits and pieces of what their lives were like. Some of it has survived in poetry such as Beowulf, some of it comes from other’s observations of their culture, such as the writings of Bede or the Roman occupiers of Britain before him.
The early Christians were quite masterful at adapting existing cultural celebrations to their own faith. Many of these pagan celebrations were deeply rooted in the culture and the early church leaders saw the wisdom of keeping the trappings of the celebration while using it to teach the pagans the truths of Christianity.
This midwinter celebration of Solstice, the festivals that marked the return of the light, dovetailed nicely with the Christian teachings of the coming of Christ as a baby. “The light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it,” John writes in his Gospel (John 1:5), and this theme of the Light of God coming to earth was a natural fit to overlay the pagan Saxon season of Yuletide.
After all, it is not known the exact date of the birth of Jesus. If the shepherds were out in the fields, it was likely not mid-winter. Nor would a Roman emperor compel his subjects to register for an already unpopular census (for taxing purposes) in the middle of winter.
But the pagan Romans also celebrated a solstice festival, and it soon became custom to celebrate Christ’s birth this day as the culture moved from a pagan one to a Christian one. The Christian missionaries to Britain carried this custom with them, and saw the Yuletide celebrations as ones they could use to teach the Anglo-Saxons about the birth of Christ as well.
The Celts in Britain had other religious and cultural practices that they incorporated into their Christmas season. Holly and ivy were evergreen, they were thought to keep evil spirits at bay and were gathered to place in people’s houses during the dark days of winter. Mistletoe was gathered by the Druids on the day of Solstice, it was also thought to have magical properties, and became another plant that adorned the houses of the Celtic Christians. Evergreen trees were decorated with the symbols of stars and other celestial objects, and gifts (offerings) were given to the gods; the precursor of our Christmas tree.
Yule logs and Christmas trees also hint back to the reverence for trees in both Saxon and Celtic beliefs. There are so many ties to the past once you start looking!
Although both the Roman and Celtic churches in Britain celebrated Christmas, it was not the most important day of the church year. That honour fell to Easter. But at Christmas there were still some special services and prayers. Advent, which we celebrate in the month before Christmas, was a longer observance in the 7th century. They celebrated it for forty days before Christmas, to mirror the forty days of Lent.
Some of words of our favourite Christmas carols date back to the 6th century. They are based on the “O Antiphons” which the Church would use in their daily prayers and celebrations of the Eucharist. The O Antiphons were a repeated line of Scripture which highlighted one of the names of Christ, and served as a summary of the important parts of the day’s readings and prayers. They were based on the prophetic proclamations of the coming Messiah found in the book of Isaiah. These were traditionally added to the liturgy in the seven days before Christmas. In order, the O Antiphons are the O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, and O Emmanuel.
The verses of the carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel, each represent one of the Antiphons. Nowadays we don’t normally sing all the verses, of which there are either 5 or 7, depending on what version you use, but if you do you would see the Antiphons represented in each verse.
I find it fascinating to see the mix of both our pagan Anglo-Saxon and Christian heritages in our celebrations of Christmas. Whether we are feasting with friends, kissing under the mistletoe, giving gifts to each other, decorating our tree, singing carols or contemplating the coming Light in the midst of darkness, there are glimpses of all these rich traditions in the Christmas that is so familiar to us today.
Featured image from mountpeasantgranary.net