The history of Christmas part 2: A medieval ‘Christes Maesse’

In the 4th Century AD the Christian Church chose December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth.

Inside the church the day was all about quiet prayer and reflection. Three church services would be held to celebrate mass, one at midnight, dawn and another during the day.

Outside the church people celebrated as they had always done at this time of year, with songs, Carols were sung in the streets, and singers would walk from house to house. In houses there were banquets, the winter evergreen boughs of holly, ivy, yew and rosemary were cut and brought inside to decorate houses, and gifts were exchanged in accordance with the Roman tradition, usually at the New Year.

The first published mention of Christmas appears in an English Saxon book written in 1038, ‘Christes Maesse’.

In 1066 following the Norman invasion of Britain, William the Conqueror chose Christmas day to be crowned king in Westminster Abbey in London. The celebrations and cheers within the Westminster Abbey at the moment he was crowned were so loud his guards outside thought he was being attacked and stormed in only to cause a riot that spread into the streets and resulted in a mob setting houses around Westminster Abbey alight.

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The history of Christmas Part 1: The Roman Saturnalia festival

I thought I’d share a few history facts about Christmas in lead up to the big day this week …

Most people know that the Christian Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth aligns purposefully with the old pagan winter solstice festival recognising the shortest day of the year in the United Kingdom. If you don’t know, though, the pagan period of feasting and celebration was rebranded by the early church because people were unlikely to welcome being told to stop the pattern of celebrating at this time of year.

Less people know about the Roman festival that also occurred in December and also influenced our experience of Christmas today. The Roman festival of Saturnalia was on December 17 of the Julian Calendar, not the Georgian Calendar that we use to count years today. This festival was brought to Britain in 43BC when the Romans invaded, and as Roman life became the way of British life over the years, so their traditions and deities merged with the pagan deities already celebrated.

Saturnalia celebrated the Roman deity Saturn. As we all know, the Romans knew how to throw a party. In towns Saturnalia celebrations began with a sacrifice in the Forum, an area for gathering that was the heart of the Roman town. The day would include feasting and even gift-giving, long parties, games, gambling and a carnival atmosphere. This would have merged with pagan celebrations in British traditions and formed the habits of celebration that went on to be adopted by the Christian church.

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