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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM ALEX BEECROFT!
As I’m writing a Saxon set story at the moment, I thought I’d do a quick post about Christmas in Anglo-Saxon England.
First of all, the period of festivities around the winter equinox wasn’t really called “Christmas” until very late in the Saxon era – the first time we have it recorded as such is 1043. Before that it had been known as Yule.
“Yule” was the Saxon name for a midwinter festival that had been celebrated by the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe since pagan times, and which fell somewhere between December and January. That is, the month of December was known as Ærra Geola – before Yule – and January was called Æfterra Geola – after Yule. (The ‘G’ in Geola is pronounced like a ‘y’ as in ‘yes’.)
The Venerable Bede tells us that 25th of December itself was known as Modranecht – Mothers’ Night, “when we celebrate the birth of our lord.” Bede can be counted on to mention if there’s a link to Anglo-Saxon paganism in the naming of things, but he’s also dealing with stuff that was probably common knowledge to his readers, and he doesn’t give details. So although modern paganism has various theories as to who these ‘mothers’ are, the truth is lost.
As a Christian scholar of note, you might have expected Bede to be in denial of the fact that Christmas planted itself on top of older pagan celebrations. But at the time it was church policy to do so, and most people felt this was not only sensible but also generous – allowing people to keep the holidays they loved rather than trying to force them to give them up. Indeed, in 597ad Pope Gregory the Great wrote to Saint Augustine with instructions as to how to Christianise the English, and told him that churches ought to be built on top of earlier temples so that the people could continue to come and decorate their holy places with boughs of trees, and that whereas they had once sacrificed animals to pagan gods, they should be encouraged to do so in Christ’s name instead and then have a feast and eat the meat.
In other words – keep the holiday, just change the meaning.
We can tell from these instructions that the practice of decking the hall with boughs of holly is a very early Christmas tradition indeed. Since both holly and ivy are evergreen, not dropping their leaves or ‘dying’ in the winter, both are naturally appropriate to represent immortality during a time of death.
Apart from decking the halls, the tradition of the Yule log appears to date back to Saxon times – this was a log of ash wood, brought into the house and placed on the fire on Christmas Eve, which had to be large enough to burn until 12th night, with a little bit left over to start the Yule fire next year. Good luck to everyone if it lasted, terrible bad luck if it went out, or it burned up early. Frankly, since ash is a steady, eager-burning wood, the size of the thing must have been huge, and probably would only fit in the firepit of a hall rather than the humble hearth of a cottage.
But that would be OK. We know too that feasting was essential to the season, and most Anglo-Saxon feasting was communal and took place at the hall, along with much drinking, gaming, riddling tests of wit, singing, playing of musical instruments and, if you were lucky, listening to a professional scop (Anglo-Saxon bard) tell some of the great old stories that you might often have heard before, but never quite told exactly this way.
There’s no record of gift-giving particularly in relation to Christmas at this time, but that may be because it was the duty of the lord of any Saxon community to give gifts to his underlings at all special occasions, with the implication that the underling would pay him back in loyalty.
So, Christmas in Anglo-Saxon times? Pretty much a two month long period of preparations and celebrations, centring around 25th December to 6th January, and involving decorating the church, going to mass, eating and drinking around the fire until you couldn’t stand up, and being entertained by repeats of all the best old stories. Put like that, it sounds familiar ;)
Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.
Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.
You can find her on her website http://alexbeecroft.com
For slight whiplash in time, I’m offering a copy of my new Age of Sail novella By Honor Betrayed to one person who can tell me – what is the modern equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon month Winterfilleth?
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet - write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)
23. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” what film was this song featured–sung by Judy Garland?