At this festive time of the year, I have been wandering around the internet looking for ideas as to how this season may have been celebrated in the seventh century. As you might expect, evidence is in short supply, but legends abound.
As usual, our best evidence comes from Bede, who provides us with a copy of a letter from Pope Gregory (c.601), outlining how to adapt pagan festivals to Christian usage. There is no specific mention of Christmas, but there appears to be a consensus that the Anglo-Saxons ‘sacrifice[d] beasts to the Devil’ at Yuletide. Pope Gregory pronounced that: ‘They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy.’ (Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 1:30, Leo Sherley-Price translation.) In a different work (De temporum ratione) Bede also alludes to ‘Modranicht,’ the Mothers’ Night, which was apparently 24 December.
It is fairly certain that the early Christians deliberately set out to superimpose Christmas on earlier mid-winter pagan festivals, but everything else is speculation. For instance, just the briefest comparison of recent Christmas/New Year traditions in Wales with recent Christmas/New Year traditions in England indicates some of the variety that has accrued to the festivals over the centuries. Trying to guess the nature of the antecedents to these rituals/traditions would seem to require crystal balls of a particularly sophisticated variety.
So, in Wales, Nadolig celebrations within the last couple of centuries have included the traditions of Plygain, Mari Lwyd and Calennig, plus hunting the wren and holming, where young men chased young women around the villages, beating them with holly, on Boxing Day.
Plygain is a tradition of singing from the early hours of Christmas morning. The format varied from area to area and over time, but the custom should perhaps be envisaged as a glorified carol service, beginning well before dawn on Christmas morning, and run by the carol singers themselves, rather than a priest. http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/277 Mari Lwyd is a tradition of going from house to house with the skull of a horse on a pole and engaging in rhyming or singing contests with the occupants of each house. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd It may well have pagan antecedents and some believe that the Grey Mare (Mari Lwyd) is associated with the goddess Rhiannon. Calennig is possibly the oldest tradition, deriving from the Roman mid-winter festival. By the nineteenth century, the tradition involved children going from door to door on the first day of the year, carrying symbols of food to come, such as apples and ears of grain. Cardiff council has brought the tradition into the twenty-first century with Calennig celebrations that include ice-skating and live music. http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/faq/calennig/
In England, carol singing remains a tradition and in my childhood, small groups of children used to go from door to door in the days before Christmas, singing and hoping for sixpences, or at the very least, mince pies. Wassailing, whether or not accompanied by carol singing, had pretty much died out by the middle of the twentieth century, but was sort of the adult version, involving lots of alcohol, mixed in wassail bowls and drunk from wassail cups, and by all accounts could be a kind of pub crawl without the pubs. According to Wikipedia (who knows everything), wassailing had something to do with trying to induce a good apple harvest to make cider and this may be older than the Christmas tradition of going from house to house, drinking what was usually hot punch of some kind.
Turkeys, as is well known, only made their way onto English Christmas tables from the United States, while Christmas trees came to England from Germany with Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert. However, yule logs, holly and ivy for decoration and ham or roast pork to eat are all far older traditions.
So what are these mid-winter festivities really all about and what can we surmise about their seventh-century antecedents? Well, it seems to me that there are two key elements. The first is the turning of the year, the passing of the shortest day, when everyone in northerly climes looked forward to longer days, warmer weather, and new food growing once more. The second key element is even more directly about food. This was above all else a time of year for feasting, for having enough, or even more than enough, to eat and drink.
It is hard to remember in this era of affluence throughout most of the English-speaking world that for most of human existence most people have faced more or less uncertainty about where their next meal was coming from. My strong suspicion is that in the early seventh century, what most people looked forward to at this time of year was a full belly. Even members of elite groups, who usually had enough to eat, would have looked forward to special foods, luxury foods that they were not able to enjoy every day.
So, and this is speculation, the sacrifice of animals (as Pope Gregory put it: ‘… they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy’), would have provided an abundance of meat. Even the poor, whose regular diet was a pottage of vegetables and grains, could surely have looked forward to meat at Christmas. Whatever the religious elements of the mid-winter festivals, food, lots of food, is a crucial part of the celebrations. Perhaps what we have lost over the years is not so much the spiritual nature of this festival but the sense of how special it is to have more than enough to eat. There are still plenty of people in the world who do not have that pleasure.