Christianity gradually made it way across Europe, brining Christmas with it. The holiday came to England, for example, via St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who reportedly baptized more than 10,000 English people on December 25, 598. Acting under the direction of Pope Gregory I, Augustine was also instrumental in bringing the celebration of Christmas to the area.
At the end of the sixth century, the pope instructed Augustine to make over the midwinter Yule festival into Christmas observances, emphasizing the importance of condoning any customs from the festival that could be found to contain Christian significance. It was a well-tested strategy, and it worked.
In ninth-century England, Alfred the Great declared that the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany should be reserved for seasonal festivities, thus formalizing observation of the twelve days of Christmas in England.
Alfred was serious about celebrating: As par of his declaration, he made working during this period illegal. He followed his own rules, and at great cost. In 878, he refused to go to war during the twelve days of Christmas. His failure to do so is said to have caused England to lose the Battle of Chippenham to the Danes.
Christmas arrived in Germany in 813, via the Synod of Mainz, and was brought to Norway in the mid-900s by King Hakon the Good. By the end of the ninth century, Christmas was observed all over Europe with trees, lights, gifts, and feasts. The items that had held significance for the old religions were either tossed aside or altered to fit within a Christian context. Over the centuries, the holiday was increasingly reformed to contain fewer of the old pagan elements.
While Christmas today is thought of as a time of joy and peace, Christmas is medieval England after 1066 instead achieved heights of extravagance and rowdiness. Celebrating the season for the full twelve days was no problem: People would attend church in masks and costumes as on Halloween, and churchgoers would sing off-color songs and even roll dice on the alter.
Christmas during this period was a time for some good-natured ribbing of the church’s solemnity. A touch of comedy was added to the sermons, which were so serious during the rest of the year. The festivities weren’t entirely irreverent, however; There was also devout caroling and Nativity plays, although in the latter Herod was often portrayed in a comic vein.
The king and court has a grand time trying to outdo each other with outrageous abundance. Henry III had 600 oxen killed and prepared for a single feast – and that was just the main course. Merchants and other higher ups paid their respects to thee king by giving him gifts and cash, and there were guidelines for gift giving based on one’s social position. Henry once closed merchants until they paid their proper dues, although in 1248 he seemed to regain a bit of his Christmas spirit when he established a custom of giving food to the needy for the holidays.
Gambling was also a big part of the festivities around the court; stories of royalty using loaded dice to insure against losing seem to capture the spirit of the age. Buy royal excess at Christmas surely reached its height in 1377. In that year, Richard II has a Christmas feast for more than 10,000 people. Records don’t indicate whether the 2,000 employed at the feast enjoyed the holiday.
The fourteenth century also saw the beginning of widespread caroling. Carols had been used in Roman churches as early as the second century, but they came to England much later, by way of France. In the Middle-Ages, they were used in conjunction with Nativity plays to convey the Christmas story to those who could not read. By the 1500s the mummers, a traveling band of costumed carousers somewhat like street actors, were out and about.
In 1533, Henry VIII made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, taking on the power of regulating religious holidays, including Christmas. He then proceeded to rival Henry III in yuletide extravagance.
Under his rule, Christmas became a very big deal indeed, both socially and ecclesiastically, and Christmas celebrations were filled with dancing, plays, general carousing, and of course, food. This tradition was carried on by his daughter, Elizabeth I, and upon the accession of James I in 1603, by the Stuarts.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)
There are some who believe that King Arthur celebrated the first English Christmas in 521 with his Knights of the Round Table, without the input of either Augustine or Gregory. Given the legends surrounding King Arthur, however, this remains the territory or myth, rather than fact.
Fortunately, for historians and carol lovers alike, a young man named Richard Hill kept a written record of, among other things, the popular English carols of the time. Spanning the years 1500-1536, Hill’s diary was extremely valuable in helping to keep alive such secular songs as “The Boar’s Head Carol.” The song lyrics are below.
The boar’s head in hand bring I, (Or: The boar’s head in hand bear I,)
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry (Or: And I pray you, my masters, merry be)
Quot estis in convivio (Translation: As many as are in the feast)
Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino (Translation: Giving praises to the Lord)
The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. (Translation: Let us serve with a song)
Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginesi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of Queen’s [College, Oxford])