'Nativity of Christ', medieval illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)
Image Credit: Herrad of Landsberg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas became one of the most important religious festivals in medieval Christendom, second only to Easter. Much of what we associate with Christmas today has its origins in the Middle Ages, including the name. We can also trace the date and some familiar elements like the crib scene to their early roots too.
Why is it called Christmas?
Christmas is a slightly shortened version of Christ’s mass. It appears in various forms through the medieval period, combining Christos from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, meaning messiah, or anointed, and the Latin Missa, the celebration of the Eucharist. ‘Xmas’ is another further abbreviation of the word, which is often frowned upon and discouraged, and you can find online style guides that will advise you not to use Xmas as it’s too informal, but it does appear in middle English texts. What we recognise as the letter X is in fact the Greek letter chi and it’s used as an abbreviation of the Greek Christos, which begins with the letter chi.
Anglo-Saxons referred to the period as midwinter and sometimes as nativity. Old English contains references to Yule, a word and a celebration that has Viking and Scandinavian heritage, which covered December and January and eventually became associated with Christmas by the late 14th century. The old French word Noel derived from the Latin natalis, meaning birth, was beginning to enter use in English too.
So, whether it’s Christmas, Xmas, Noel, the Nativity or Yule, the name you use for this period is derived from the Middle Ages.
‘Old Christmas’, riding a yule goat
Image Credit: Robert Seymour (1798 – 1836), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Why 25 December?
Why Christmas is celebrated on the 25 December. Nowhere in the Bible are we offered a date for the birth of Christ. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew describe Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but they don’t provide a date for the moment. So how did the early church settle on the 25 December? At the beginning of the third century, Clement of Alexandria explained the prevailing uncertainty around Christ’s date of birth.
Some, he noted, had worked out the year as being the 28th year of Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC, although Herod’s death before the year zero means that that can’t be correct. Clement added that some thought the actual date was 20 May, while others were suggesting 20 or 21 April. These dates were originally based on an Egyptian calendar. The first record of a Christmas celebration comes on 25 December in the year 336 in Rome. The reason that the date 25 December was settled on is easy to understand.
After the implementation of the Julian calendar in 46 BC, the winter solstice had been set at the 25 December. Solstice derives from the Latin word solstitium, combining sun and stand still. Christ was already being associated with light, the sun, and an end to perpetual darkness, so layering his birthday over a moment in which Rome already celebrated the end of shortening days and what might be considered a rebirth of the sun just made sense. The use of the date was carefully designed to smooth Christianity’s acceptance by the Roman Empire.
‘Saturnalia’ by Antoine Callet
Image Credit: Themadchopper, Antoine-François Callet, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mithraism was a growing religion in the late third century and focused on the idea of the unconquered sun. By absorbing this date as a focus for its celebrations, Christianity avoided setting aside the festivals of its rivals while associating Christ with renewal and the arrival of light. The effort to meld existing celebrations into Christianity followed a very Roman tradition of incorporating rather than destroying the important dates and celebrations of conquered regions and peoples. It is symptomatic of Christianity’s birth within the Roman Empire.
Other festivals were carefully absorbed too. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration of Saturn, the God of agriculture and his relationship to the growing of crops, was spread over several days from 17-23 December. Calends was traditionally set for the 1st of January and was the date on which the Empire’s officials took their offices. Beyond the Empire’s bounds.
Yule was also a significant celebration. Its Norse roots are poorly documented, but its influence can be seen in Christianity’s medieval geography. Easter was usually considered the most significant Christian festival. But the farther north in Europe a traveller might go, the more importance was being attached to Christmas, in part because of its relation to the period of Yule.
Norway is thought to be the birthplace of the tradition of the Yule log. It would usually be lit using the remains of last year’s Yule log, speaking to ideas of cyclical continuity. In some traditions, it was a whole tree slowly fed into the fire over the 12 days of Christmas, with the rest of the tree hanging out into the room, which seems terrifyingly dangerous. Whatever was left after the 12 days was safely stored to start next year’s fire. The Yule log is the explanation for so many puddings that either share the name or the cylindrical shape.
As recently as 1923, H.J. Rose noted the Yorkshire tradition of the Yule log in the last generation. ‘The Yule log was still burned and a piece of it saved to light next year’s fire on Christmas morning. Something green, a leaf or the like was brought into the house before anything was taken out.’ In an age of central heating, Christmas imagery still lingers on the open fire warming the family.
The Nativity Scene
The nativity scene was developed through the Middle Ages as the church tried to get to grips with its own doctrine on Christ at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and at Ephesus in 431. The Church struggled to settle the nature of Christ, whether he was God or man, or a bit of both. Nicaea had declared that he was both, but the ambiguity was unsatisfactory and was removed at Ephesus when it was settled that Jesus had been God from birth.
These debates all helped to focus attention on the moment of Christ’s birth, as well as establishing Mary as the Mother of God, as distinct from the mother of Christ. It’s perhaps no surprise that the first recorded celebration of the Feast of the Nativity arrived in 336. In 400, an eyewitness account recorded a celebration of the date with an accompanying crib. By the 430’s in the immediate aftermath of Ephesus, a crib is recorded in Rome as part of the celebrations.
The ox, the ass, and the infant Jesus in one of the earliest depictions of the nativity, (Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus, 4th century)
Image Credit: G.dallorto, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s sometimes claimed that Saint Francis of Assisi invented the crib scene first, creating one at Gremio in 1223, but that can’t be correct, because we know they’d been part of Christmas celebrations for nearly 900 years by then. The idea and the spectacle continued to develop to include the shepherds, the Magi and so on. The Crib is first recorded in the same year that Emperor Constantine reconquered Dacia for the Roman Empire and is still a mainstay of Christmas today.
After all this initial excitement around the celebration of Christmas, it seemed to wane in importance for several centuries. The beginning of its revival appears to have been in the year 800, when Charles, the Great, better known as Charlemagne, was crowned emperor of the Carolingian Empire on the 25 of December. The re-emergence of Christmas as an important celebration is therefore something we owe to the medieval world, along with it’s name and many of its core traditions.