In the 3rd century a man called Sextus Julius Africanus wrote down what I think is the best theory of why December 25th was chosen as Christmas. The Roman Christians didn’t approve of the Gnostics or their beliefs and tried to discourage people from using their date to observe Christ’s birth, so they came up with their own preferred date. They placed the conception of Christ (a feast now called The Annunciation) on Roman New Year’s Day – March 25th. That put his birth 9 months later on December 25th. Even when they’d done that, there was still no partying.
However, people had got used to the Gnostic date and found it hard to change. The solution the Roman Church arrived at was to use January 6th as the last day of the religious observance of Christmas, specifically to commemorate the arrival of the “Three Kings” at the Nativity. The Gnostic name of Epiphany was retained, but it also gained the popular name of Twelfth Night. That’s how we got the 12 Days of Christmas.
Among most communities across the whole of the Christian world at this time there were folk traditions of celebrating winter, hang-overs from pre-Christian times which the Church didn’t officially approve of. During the 12 Days of Christmas the Church preferred people observed the religious aspect and leave the celebrations and partying until January 6th. Most of our Christmas celebrations originate from Twelfth Night parties, including the Christmas cake. By the Middle Ages partying was common throughout the whole Christmas season, even though the Church preferred otherwise.
In the Middle Ages scholars began linking Christian religious observances with those ancient festivals based purely on dates, not continuity. The most common belief was that Christmas was based on the Roman festival of Saturnalia held from December 6th to 21st. Because they were scholars, people believed them, even the Catholic Church. A lot of people still do. But as we have seen Christmas didn’t originate in December, so couldn’t be based on Saturnalia. However, some of the party aspects of Saturnalia were common to most winter festivals across Europe, and were introduced into the celebrations in the Middle Ages (centuries after festivals such as Saturnalia had been forgotten). One aspect was the idea of gender and role swapping. That idea still survives in the traditional British pantomime (more of that in ten days time).
To illustrate another topsy-turvy Christmas tradition I’ll bring in the gay King Edward II of England (1284-1327). He loved Christmas, and we know exactly what he was doing every Christmas of his 20-year reign because they’re all recorded in court documents. He and his court spent at least part of the Christmas season here in Nottinghamshire at least five times. His Christmas routine in Nottingham was probably the same as every other year, wherever he spent it. He would gamble on Christmas Eve (probably dice), go to church on Christmas Day, and go hunting on December 26th (in Sherwood Forest when in Nottinghamshire).
|A Medieval Feast
In 1315 and 1316 King Edward, his queen Isabella and the entire court spent Christmas at the royal palace at Clipstone, just over 19 miles due north of Nottingham. On the second occasion it is recorded that Edward gave a gift of money to the Boy Bishop of his chapel there, a boy called John, son of Alan de Scrooby. This was on December 6th, the traditional date on which Boy Bishops were chosen. By December 28th King Edward was at Nottingham Castle where he gave another gift to the Boy Bishop of St. Mary’s Church, the main parish church in Nottingham.
Also in 1316 Edward gave gifts to another topsy-turvy character called the King of the Bean. It’s customary in the UK to put a coin in the Christmas pudding (if you’re baking it yourself and not buying one from a supermarket). The person who finds the coin when eating the pudding is considered lucky. Originally the coin was a bean. At large Medieval communal festivities, and small family ones, the person who found the bean in his pudding was treated like a king for the day – the King of the Bean. This was a traditional event for Twelfth Night, January 6th. Some of us “up north” in the UK still call a big party a “bean feast”.
At King Edward’s celebrations on 6th January 1317, ten days after meeting the Boy Bishop of St Mary’s, one of his courtiers, William de la Beche, became King of the Bean. This meant he was allowed to take on King Edward’s role as leader of the festivities. Edward gave him a gift of a silver-gilt basin. The following year, at the Twelfth Night party in Beverley, Yorkshire, King Edward gave gifts to a young squire who became King of the Bean.
During the 19th century these age-old celebrations of Twelfth Night moved to Christmas Day itself, probably because in 1834 the British parliament created Christmas Day a public holiday, which meant that for the first time in history people didn’t have to go to work that day.
These topsy-turvy celebrations which originate in European-wide winter festivals, including Saturnalia, weren’t the only non-Christian festivals that have been suggested as the “true” origins of Christmas. As we shall see next Sunday there’s one alleged origin which didn’t even exist when the Gnostic Christians began observing Christmas Day. In fact, in a topsy-turvy kind of way, it was created because Christmas had already become too popular.