Monday, December 24, 2012

An Anglo Saxon Christmas

by Richard Denning

Christmas is coming . Along with the new year celebrations that follow it, it is in Britain the most important festival and holiday of the year. Families get together, give and receive presents, eat and drink and have a good time. Many businesses close down for almost 2 weeks and very little work gets done even in those places that are actually open. Unless of course they are pubs and restaurants!
In celebrating this time of year we recreate festivals that predate even the coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. For here it is deep winter. It is a time of long nights and short days. It is cold and dark and not a time to be out. This is a time to feast and create our own light and warmth and to look forward with hope to the return of the sun.
That at least is how our ancestors saw things. Christmas coincides with Yuletide – the ancient celebration that occupied midwinter. Here in England it was celebrated for a number of days running on from the 25th of December. At that time, under the old Julian calendar, December 25 was also the winter solstice. (Today it is 20th or 21st December of course).
How do we know that the early Saxons celebrated Yuletide at this time? Well the 8th century scholar, Bede, tells us this in an essay he wrote on the Saxon calendar:
They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. 
The very name for the months that straddled Yuletide -December and January – were considered “Giuli” or Yule by the Anglo-Saxons.  The Anglo-Saxons celebrated the beginning of the year on December 25th,which they called Modranect”— that is, Mothers’ Night. This celebration was linked to the rebirth of ‘Mother’ Earth and the whole idea of ceremonies conducted at the time was to ensure fertility in the coming spring season.
As the Saxon gods of fertility were Freyja, who governed love and fertility and her twin brother Freyr then they may well have been linked to the celebrations.
Forget the Turkey – bring out the boar
It is probable that the feasts involved boars. Freyja and Freya were associated with the boar. This was the primary animal represented in Yuletide customs and indeed in Anglo-Saxon culture in general. It is mentioned in epic warrior poetry like Beowulf. A boar’s head may well have been sacrificed to appease the gods and the boar continued to ornament brooches, bowls and jewelry as well as more military objects for centuries.

It was not only boars that were eaten but cows and other animals. We can get some idea of Yueltide ceremonies from Icelandic writings. (We have to rely on Scandinavian writing often as not many writing exist from the early Anglo-Saxon period).

This is an excerpt from The Saga of Hakon the Good. 

It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was  ... smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat.

The narrative continues that toasts were to be drunk. The first toast was to be drunk to Odin "for victory and power to the king", the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr "for good harvests and for peace", and thirdly a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk.

So sacrifices were made to the gods including the fertility gods as well as Odin (Woden in England) and then much drinking of ale and eating of meat ensued. The main celebration lasted three days and it seems that fighting and duels were put of for this period.

The Svarfdæla saga records a story in which a berserker put off a duel until three days after Yule to honor the sanctity of the holiday. Grettis Saga refers to Yule as a time of "greatest mirth and joy among men."
The missionaries arrive
In the year 597 the pope at the time sent Augustine to England to try and convert it to Christianity. The process would take centuries but quite early on it appears that a decision was made to amalgamate the pagan festival of Yuletide with Christianity. 

The Roman church had already decided to use 25th December as the date of Christ birth some centuries before. Christmas as a festivity celebrating the birth of Jesus originated in Egypt sometime in the second century: here it took over a previous festivital, most likely the birth of Osiris. In Europe, Christianity encountered the Roman cult of Mithras.  The 25th of December is now universally accepted as Mithras’ bithday. Mithras was an Iranic deity associated with Sun worship whose cult became so widespread in the Roman Empire as to become a serious threat for Christianity. When the Emperor Constantine declared that Christianity was the official religion of  the Empire then, from 336 AD onwards, the WESTERN Church used this date. The church often took this pragmatic view - rather than attempt to do away with pagan celebrations and traditions and temples they took them over and eventually replaced them although often older traditions still show them selves in little things we do.

A significant step in this process occurred in 567 AD, In order to encourage the people to abandon pagan holidays, The Council of Tours declared the 12 days of Christmas to be a festival. Historically, the 12 days of Christmas followed-did not precede-December 25th. These dozen days ended the day before Epiphany (the coming of the Magi), which was celebrated on January 6th.

So when Augustine arrived in Britain in 597 he was encouraged by the Pope to bring the Saxons Yuletide into line with Christmas. "Because they are accustomed to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in place of this... they may make bowers of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but for the praise of God kill animals for their own eating..."
Christian influence, however, remained superficial until the time of the Norman Conquest. Many older pagan rites persisted and to some extent do today. Rites included Yule logs which may have been a Celtic tradition adopted by the Anglo Saxon. The idea was that since the sun was far away it could be persuaded to return if the log could be kept burning throughout Yuletide. The use of evergreens and mistletoe originated in ancient fertility customs – an echo of mother’s night.
Gradually old Germanic Yule celebrations combined with nativity feasts, and the English Christmas began to take shape. Alfred The Great insisted that no business was done during the Twelve Days. By 1066 the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days were the main annual holiday.
So when we sit down to our Christmas lunch we recreate traditions that stretched back through fifteen and more centuries.
Merry Christmas and Happy Yuletide!
I write novels set in early Anglo Saxon England. To find out more click here


  1. That was a nice survey of the roots of Christmas traditions including the date fixed for Christmas.


  2. That was really interesting.
    I never realised that at one time Christmas/yuletide coincided and celebrated the solstice. I always knew it as a 16 day (I think!) difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, but of course that 16 day error had crept up incrementally over many centuries!

    It's a shame that the winter solstice is so overshadowed by Christmas, which I think of as a rather parvenu and inauthentic celebration of a 'foreign' belief.

  3. The Julian/ Gregorian thing certainly causes confusion (to me at any rate) but it does seem that the ROMAN winter Solstice was 25th Dec. (see OK its wikipedia but it is a decent article.

    It refers to Pliny's calculations here:
    writing in 1st century AD.

    That article establishes the fact the Romans celebrated the Winter solstice on 25th dec.

  4. That was very interesting and informative. Thank you!

  5. Nice post Richard- I tweeted it via @kescah. I'm very glad that I didn't have to try and fit a wild boar in the oven yesterday- the turkey was a tight enough fit!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.