Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ye Olde Christmas Traditions

by Steven A. McKay


Christmas isn't a new invention – it's been around for quite a while, in one form or another, as you're probably aware! Many of our favourite traditions are relatively recent additions though, such as the red-suited, white-bearded Santa with his elves, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Slade with their annoying yet brilliantly catchy song.

Of course, winter has always been a time for people to celebrate, as the old year gives way to the new and we look forward to what the future will bring us. Medieval folk shared many of our customs and they had some interesting ones of their own that didn't carry over to the present day.

With the passing of summer, things become bleak and drab so, at Christmas we decorate our houses to chase away the gloom. In the middle-ages they used evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe to brighten the place, a tradition stemming from the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Icy holly by Liz West

Holly was thought to deter witches while men wore it to attract female admirers. Ivy also kept evil forces away but it was kept outside the home, while mistletoe – a plant venerated by the pagan Druids – was really frowned on by the Church but that didn't stop suitors kissing beneath it as they do to this day.

Of course, the main evergreen we use to see in Christmas nowadays is the fir tree, with its fairy lights and shiny baubles. Medieval people didn't have a tree in their house but a candlelit fir was displayed in London in the fifteenth century and, in general, it was seen as a Christian symbol, possibly to combat the pagan oak.

Many of those traditions originated in even earlier times, with the Vikings, who celebrated the winter solstice, their Yuletide, around the same time as we enjoy Christmas.

Our lovely, chocolatey Yule Log, for example, which is a cake nowadays but in pre-Christian days it  was an actual log or even a small tree, carved with protective runes and brought inside with great ceremony to be used as fuel for the household's fire during December.

That should last a while!

Santa Claus takes many elements from the Viking legends. They believed Odin, or Old Man Winter, a white-bearded old man in a hooded robe who flew around the world on an eight-legged horse, gave out gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. He would even be invited into people's homes with food and drink.

Yuletide was often referred to as “drinking yule”, which suggests drinking a lot of alcohol played a big part in the Viking celebrations, with feasting, games and songs. Which of course carried on into medieval times and nowadays...well, I'd imagine more booze is sold in December than any other time of the year. We certainly carried on that custom!

Getting back to medieval times, the people had various saints' days which were celebrated throughout the winter, with some of them even carrying over after Christmas Day (which is still the case for those of Catholic faith).

December the 26th was St Stephen's day and it saw sword dances and mumming plays which sound pleasant enough, but the animals were also bled (in those days, of course, bleeding was seen as healthy!) and in Wales, female servants would have their arms and legs beaten bloody by young men with holly branches! Ouch. Thankfully that tradition died out…

Odin/Father Winter

There was also Holy Innocents' Day on the 28th, and Epiphany on January 6th, but most interesting to me was St Lucy's Day, which was on the 13th of December and was a celebration of light. This is another feast day that has links to earlier, pagan times, with candles and processions. Of course, Lucifer, before he became synonymous with Satan, was known as the light-bringer, so it seems clear to me that St Lucy's Day was actually a celebration of Lucifer (bear in mind, the Latin word lucifer was once even applied to Jesus)...

Which brings me rather neatly to my own little take on medieval festivities.

Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is my brand new novella and December 1323 is the backdrop for much superstition and fear. I greatly enjoyed writing and researching it and, who knows, maybe reading it each December will become as much a modern tradition as Scrooge and Noddy Holder/Mariah Carey!

I am doing a giveaway of the book this week. Click HERE to find out more, and leave a comment below to enter!




Steven A. McKay is the bestselling author of the Forest Lord series of books, Wolf's Head, The Wolf and the Raven, and Rise of the Wolf. All his books are available on Kindle, paperback and from Audible.

To buy Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil click HERE

To find all of Steven's books on Amazon, click HERE 

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References:
Jackson, Sophie - The Medieval Christmas (The History Press, 2005)
http://skandland.com/vikxmas.htm
http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/yulelog.shtml
http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/christmas/santa.shtml
http://www.mrshea.com/germusa/customs/lucia.htm


42 comments:

  1. A wonderful - and very timely - post for the Christmas season. I've tweeted it!

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  2. I must admit, I'd never heard of the connection between Odin and SantaClaus/Father Christmas! Who'd have thought it? The Saturnalia, yes! And I'd always wondered if there might have been a connection between the Lord of Misrule thing and the topsy turvey nature of the Saturnalia...

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    1. It's funny how so much is connected, even in religions spread far across the globe from each other.

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  3. PS Wasn't St Lucy the girl who plucked out her eyes? Or we they plucked out? I have a vague memory that she said to an unwanted suitor,"You like my eyes? Have them!"

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    2. The St Lucia legend always involves the plucking of her eyes. Sometimes she does so herself, sometimes it is done to her. In both cases, her eyes are restored to her by God - after she's dead...And St Lucia's day used to be the darkest night of the year (prior to teh calendar adjustment in teh 17th century) so she was celebrated in an effortto keep the dark, as represented by Lucifer/Satan, at bay. But at least in Sweden Lucifer deffo prowls around at the edges of the St Lucia celebration, as the buns traditionally eaten are called Lucifer buns.

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    3. More on Lucy here (including the Lucifer connection) -
      http://www.mrshea.com/germusa/customs/lucia.htm

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  4. Always find it interesting how many of our traditions have pagan roots. Odin seems to have been at the bottom of a lot - and sacrificed himself by hanging on a tree as well...Yggdrasil.

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  5. Interesting post and the pre Christian festival is well documented. People, certainly in Britain, would have needed a festival like this to be able to get through the horrible winters and give them something to look forward to. As their hangovers receded, thoughts would turn to spring and hope of some better weather and more daylight.

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  6. So stoked to read this, I just downloaded my copy on Audible yesterday and listened to the first 25 minutes of it. Your descriptive language is beautiful! Keep on rockin, Steven!

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  7. Great to see Saint Stephen's day mentioned. It's still called that in Ireland- Boxing Day is for the heathens!

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  8. Very good article . I've heard a traditional mummers Christmas play and it was very similiar to the one featured in Robin of Sherwood coincidentally :)

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    1. Ah RoS, such a great show. Did you enjoy the mummers?

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    1. You love her, Mr Hopkins. And Wham! too.

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  10. I couldn't resist downloading a copy of your novella! :)

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    1. Thank you Barbara, I hope you enjoy it! :-)

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  11. Nice post! I hadn't heard of St. Lucy's Day. I'm going to follow up to learn more.

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  12. I'm in too. And I love the cover. Steve, you bring smiles to my face. Cx

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  13. What a wonderful post, loved reading about some of the traditions & there roots...thank you

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  14. What a wonderful post, loved reading about some of the traditions & there roots...thank you

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  15. Thanks everyone for your kind comments, you all made my day! :-)

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  16. Fascinated to read of lit fir tree in 15th century London. Can you tell me the source for this reference?

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  17. Replies
    1. You're the winner Mary! Email me at stormwatch1977@hotmail.com with your details!

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  18. Interesting article, Stephen - Thanks!

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  19. I like to renew my knowledge of the history of Christmas traditions each year. Loved all your details about the holly, ivy, and mistletoe.

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    1. Thanks Verna, check out Sophie Jackson's book I listed in the references, you can find it pretty cheap on Amazon and it's a fun little read.

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  20. As previously mentioned, a timely post as we near Yule/Saturnalia/Christmas. The festivities are indeed widespread geographically and religiously. I find it fascinating to examine every festival throughout the year. I vaguely recall hearing about St Lucia once, but following this post I'll toddle off and read some more! Wonderful stuff, thanks Steven!

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  21. Just completed the draw for the signed copy and the winner is.....................
    Mary Preston!
    Email me your address please Mary. :-)

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