Over the next few weeks I intend to give some of my thoughts about Christmas, from an historian’s point of view. The history behind how we celebrate Christmas is strange, complex and perhaps surprising. For example whilst the Christmas tree first appeared in Britain in the nineteenth century, there were very good reasons why it could not have appeared before, indeed it would have been virtually impossible for anyone to have decorated a Christmas tree in England before 1750 – but that will come later as …
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the churches preparation for Christmas. So as it is the beginning I would like to consider two things that get trotted out every year (usually by people who don’t like Christmas and want to find an excuse for not liking it).
The first is that Christmas is now much too commercial, is just an excuse for eating, drinking and spending too much. Well, it always has been. I cannot find a period when Christmas was celebrated that didn’t involve feasting and drinking. Indeed it was the festivities associated with the season that offended the Puritans when they banned the celebration of Christmas in the 1650’s, the fact that someone might be feasting when they thought they should be fasting was anathema to them. Similarly when the great revival of Christmas began in the early nineteenth century it was the secular aspect of feasting and generally having a good time that was revived first, and condemned since who wants to overeat in mid-winter!
A Tudor Christmas
So feasting and parties have always been associated with Christmas, and this brings me onto my second – that Christmas was a pagan festival that was stolen by Christians. This is usually said, either by those people who don’t like Christmas, or by atheists who think that the acceptance of this statement will either belittle or disprove Christianity.
In one respect the statement is absolutely right, there was a pre-existing mid-winter festival that the celebration of Christmas was fitted on to. But this was the Catholic churches policy, summed up in the letter from Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus, who was going to join Augustine’s mission to the English.
Since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on another feast of the church, celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.
And more than that, it is pretty clear that the concept of adapting aspects of an older religion to a new one has been going on for millennia, probably since religion first ‘came down from the gods’ as a classical author once put it. The Romans were famous for it, when they found a shrine to a god they didn’t know they did a quick check to see what that god did, then said, ‘Yes, we call that god Mars or Venus.’ Hence the great temple in Bath was dedicated to Sulis-Minerva, a combination of the local British goddess Sulis, who was identified with the classical Minerva.
So that when St Augustin came to Kent he would have found the Saxons lifting their mead-horns to Thor or Woden, at their Yule feasts. A few hundred years earlier their ancestors would have been celebrating Saturnalia and before that, I have no doubt, feasting and drinking to whichever god or goddess was worshipped at mid-winter by the Iron Age inhabitants of Cantium. And so on backwards into the distant past, one thing we archaeologists can agree on about ancient religion (and there is very little we can agree on) is that it changed over time. The rituals changed and almost certainly the deities changed, but I suspect that the tradition of feasting at important religious festivals has always existed and, probably, the mid-winter feast has been celebrated as long as people have been settled in Britain.
So eat and drink in honour of your deity, and my your god bless you.