Inventing the English Christmas

by Dr Anne Lawrence-Mathers

Did the Anglo-Saxons have a midwinter festival before the coming of Christianity and Christmas? Most of what is documented comes from the work of the Venerable Bede (c672-735). His references to pagan practices suggest distaste for what he perceived as ‘primitive’ behaviour. Bede records that there was a month called Blodmonath (Bloodmonth) which equated to November. The name came from the fact that this was the time of year at which the pagans slaughtered their cattle, first dedicating them to the gods and making sacrifices. Bede says that the Old English word for month, monath, came from the word for Moon, since the pagan calendar was a lunar one (unlike the Roman and Christian solar calendar). He also says that the Winter season, according to the Anglo-Saxons, began after the Autumn Equinox, at the first Full Moon in what is now October. Winter’s first festival was thus the sacrificial feasting celebrated in Blodmonath.

Rather contradictorily, Bede goes on to say that the pagan year began on a date fixed by the solar calendar. This was the Winter Solstice, on 25 December, which gives him the opportunity to point out that this same day is now when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. Bede calls the festival which marked this pagan New Year Modranecht or Mothers’ Night. He emphasises that it involved ‘heathen ceremonies’ which went on all through the night, and drops hints about the name.

A-S Christmas 1

Christian Motherhood, depicted by an Anglo-Saxon artist for the bishop of Winchester, British Library Ms Add. 49598 f.15v.

The month in which the festival fell was a very long one, spanning both December and January in the Roman/Christian calendar. Strikingly, this month was called Giuli, a name linked to Yule. The familiar ideas of bringing a Yule log into the home, to burn throughout this time, and of having branches of evergreen foliage at key points in the house, now associated with Christmas, were linked to Yule. The medieval descriptions of Christmas feasts involving the whole, cooked heads of animals – especially boars- and of dancers dressing up in animal-head costumes, correspond with images linked both to the animal slaughter of Blodmonath and to the feasting of Yule. All this suggests a considerable input from pagan practices into Christmas, since the early Christian Church had not treated Christmas as a major feast like Easter, but more cautiously as a commemoration of Christ’s incarnation.

However, an early pilgrim account describes a midnight mass held in Bethlehem at the feast of Epiphany, to celebrate the coming of the Magi, which was followed by a procession, beginning at dawn, to Jerusalem. This combination was incorporated into Christmas celebrations in Rome during the 5th century, and a special ‘crib chapel’ in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was created for the purpose. Readings and prayers emphasised Christ as the ‘rising sun’, a theme closely related to the night of the solstice. These nocturnal and early-morning services were followed by a full Mass, whose texts and music focused on the significance of Christ as a newborn baby. The earliest descriptions of church services for the season from Anglo-Saxon England continue the emphasis on Christ as bringer of light and hope into human and winter darkness. The timing was enforced by royal instructions in the 10th century, and major churches had to take care that the morning Mass was said at dawn.

A-S Christmas 2

A service in the Anglo-Saxon cathedral at Winchester, British Library Ms Add. 49598 f.118v.

However, just as the ‘Yule’ month of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was an extra-long one, so the Christian rituals of the re-styled midwinter and New Year period constituted a long set of celebrations. They reached a second peak at Epiphany, in early January, and came to their conclusion only in early February, with Candlemas. This also was a transformation of a ritual which was originally pagan, according to Bede; but this one had begun in ancient Rome, not in Anglo-Saxon England. Its emphasis was on a time of cleansing, before the communal return to ordinary life; and this centred, as in the pagan custom, on a communal procession through the darkness, with each person carrying a lit candle through the dark streets and into the church.

A-S Christmas 3

The Magi and their Gifts, depicted for the bishop of Winchester, British Library Ms Add. 49598 f.24v.

Descriptions of the secular side of the Christmas feast are almost non-existent. In Anglo-Saxon literature generally, food is of much less significance than drink, and descriptions of feasts emphasise the shared conviviality, the warmth (literal and emotional) and the large quantity of alcoholic drinks consumed. The emphasis is also on the importance of the feast in rituals of male bonding, with women providing a decorative and supportive presence – before retiring early. This makes Bede’s description of Mothers’ Night something very different from a standard feast.

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