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24 September 2014

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December 2002
Christmas traditions from
the time of Robin Hood
modern day decorations
Modern day decorations
We celebrate Christmas differently from how Robin Hood and his merry men might have enjoyed themselves.

Historical consultant, Richard Rutherford-Moore, explains how Christmas traditions have evolved.
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- The Yule Log
- Origins of Xmas
- Celebrations
- The Christmas Tree, holly, mistletoe
- Christmas cards
- Pantomimes
- Presents
- Santa Claus
- Mince Pies

Christmas goes back far beyond the medieval period and like traditional Robin Hood stories has changed from that era all the way up to the present-day.

A calculation based on adding up the ages of the characters in the Holy Bible was made by an early medieval monk who then arrived at the result that the world at that time was just over 4000 years old.

However, evidence for a major event in December (as we know it now) was made beyond 35,000 years ago. The Christian faith adopted this time as one of their major yearly celebrations from the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, the day when the sun at it’s lowest - the ‘shortest day’ - begins it’s journey through the heavens towards the ‘longest day’ of the Summer Solstice in June.

It was mainly the spelling that was changed by the Christians; ‘the birth of a Sun’ became ‘the birth of a Son’. The slight change in the 16th Century after the amendment by the Church of the Julian calendar made the ‘birth’ on the 21st of December the 25th of December instead.

Various traditions hanging over from prehistoric and pagan days were subsequently ‘Christianised’ too, by giving the old traditions a different interpretation and favouring the new religion. The Winter ‘solstice’ – a Latin word meaning ‘standstill’ – was a fire festival; fires were lit to strengthen and welcome back the sun on its six-month climb up to summer – these fires also kept the people waiting on the all-night vigil warm.

The Yule log
This tradition is now kept by The Yule log; ‘Yule’ is the old English word for the Christmas period, and on the eve of the solstice a log would be placed with great ceremony on the hearth and lit with a brand from the Yule log used the year before, commemorating the continuity of the sun from one year to another.

The Christmas celebration – as emphasised by one old Nottingham lady recently – ‘shouldn’t have the modern abbreviation of ‘Xmas’ but should always be written ‘Christmas’.

Origins of Xmas
This is in fact incorrect – X is the Greek letter for the first letter of Christ’s name and was written as such long before the medieval period and as such is not very ‘modern’ at all.

‘Christmas’ - the word - comes from the Mass or Church Service for Jesus held at this time from the early medieval period of England.

The Romans abandoned their gods and began to adopt Christianity in the 4th Century, but several pre-Jesus deities (such as the gods Mithras and Jeheshua) had very similar Christian attributes.

Though the Christians didn’t much like the sacrificing of animals in a Saturnalia to the new sun, they did favour the fun and joy associated with the event; by the early 7th Century, Pope Gregory was ordering Christians to ‘no longer offer beasts to devils at Christ’s Mass, but to worship God by feasting’.

By the Middle Ages, the ‘Lord of Misrule’ had turned the end-of-the-year feast into a festival of fun and merriment. Role-reversal meant that the poorest man in the parish usually got the top job as ‘Lord’ for the day and the actual nobility then took lower social places, often serving peasants at table themselves.

By the 15th Century, many young people used the festival as an excuse to behave like hooligans.

The 17th Century saw Christmas virtually banned by the Puritans until the Restoration ; but the straight-laced Scots did not like the new English monarch very much and that is why Christmas in Scotland is not the same as Christmas in England.

Candles on Christian altars represented the pagan solstice fire but were reinterpreted as being the ‘light of truth’.

Trees, holly and mistletoe
A German religious reformer named Martin Luther first placed candles on trees to represent the stars in the heavens, and a candle on top of the tree representing the star that brought The Wise Men to Bethlehem.

Evergreen trees were used as decorations by pagan peoples to show that life went on even though the Earth was dormant through winter; the holly and the ivy were popular selections. It was hoped that associated woodland spirits would come with the plants into the home or shrine and not freeze to death in the real forest, surviving to return the favour and bring good luck in the following year.

The Holly tree in particular – it’s name is said to come from ‘holy’ – was Christianised and the story reinterpreted : the holly berries through their changes said to tell the story of Jesus’ life – the white berry representing the pure birth of Jesus, the green his youth, the red his blood and black berries as death before resurrection.

Mistletoe is another plant we see at Christmas – the plant has medicinal qualities and was used for this purpose well before the medieval period but as a Christian symbol of Love we have to look at the Scandinavian tradition ; Balder (the Sun God) was so revered by the rest of the Gods that they all agreed not to do or use anything to hurt him and placed a spell on everything in the woodland world to ensure this happened.

Plant poison would have no effect on him, water would not drown him nor wooden arrows pierce his body – but the sweeping spell somehow missed Mistletoe hanging underneath the oak tree branches.

Loki - the god of mischief - found out about this and tricked the blind god Hoder into throwing an arrow made from mistletoe at Balder, killing him.

Balder was brought back to life again by the gods in a resurrection and the mistletoe promised never to hurt anyone again. Christians used the plant as an emblem of love, exchanging kisses beneath it as it grew above them on a branch. Christmas trees - evergreens - as we know them were reintroduced into England by Prince Albert in the Victorian era from the Germanic tradition.

In Germany, these evergreens instead of being used as decorations being decorated in bright colours - townspeople did not have access to real evergreens and began to use representations of them instead in the form of paper angels, coloured stars and glittering ornaments.

Christmas cards
Germans also exchanged the first decorated Christmas cards circa AD 1900, but the earliest card with a Christmas message dates from AD 1467.

Could our Sherwood outlaws have visited a Christmas pantomime ?
Yes ; although by a different name. Nativity plays in church celebrated the birth of Christ using actors – people could rarely read and this was a popular way explaining the Holy Birth to everyday folk. Bible stories or Miracle plays were performed in this way throughout the year, but as they drew large crowds often too big for the interior of the church the plays became to be performed in the market square.

Once outside the restrictions of medieval religion, the plays began to include humorous or bawdy scenes that would not have been suitable in church.

In AD 1224, songs were specially written for one of these musical plays arranged by St Francis of Assisi ; they were written in the language of the peasants of the time and were immediately successful - the popular dance at the play was named from the French word for dance, a ‘carole’ – saw the people after the performance strolling home singing the songs and doing the little dance and although similar songs were performed in the 10th -12th Century by minstrels and travelling songsters in both church and castle ‘Carolling’ as we now know it was first born in the early 13th Century.

Exchanging gifts has really nothing to do with Christmas. Like many other countries, in Northern Europe the tradition of the gods Woden or Odin giving a special gift to Man and the Romans offering presents to their Gods takes place at the New Year.

Pre-Christian Romans would offer gifts to the goddess Strenia at this time, leaving them in her shrine ; they would exchange clay dolls with each other at the same time to be placed in the home, evolving into the nativity dolls today. The presents given on Christmas Day today actually represent the gifts brought to baby Jesus by the Wise Men, twelve days after the actual birth.

Santa Claus
The red-coated, white-bearded jolly Santa Claus does not go back in history further than 1863, from a drawing in an American magazine. Before then he was known as St Nicholas, an early Christian bishop of no particular appearance in the 4th Century living in Turkey, who had his own celebration day on December 6th. ‘Boxing Day’ on December 26th is St Stephens Day, when in medieval times collecting boxes in monasteries and churches were opened and the money therein distributed to needy people.

At the same time the nobility gave their manor servants a tip or a bonus in the form of a gift of money on this day, placing the money in a small box to avoid any embarrassment in one person seen to be getting more money than another.

Mince pies
One of the animals sacrificed by Romans at Christmastime was the pig; replacing the lamb of biblical times then seen as a Christian symbol. In England, Christian Anglo-Saxons slaughtered their pigs in November as they couldn’t feed them through winter and their neighbouring pagans sacrificed a wild boar to the goddess Freya to ask for a good harvest in the coming year - this and pork being the main meat of the feast in medieval times is still represented by the placing of a joint of pork on the Xmas dining table.

Pork meat would have been salted to preserve it through the medieval winter and the hardest portion to salt-down was the head - this is the reason why the boar’s head appeared on the feast table. Before the arrival of the North American turkey to England in the early 16th Century the bird served at the Christmas feast would have been a peacock.

The ‘mincemeat’ in small pies in the medieval era would have been minced mutton rather than the spiced mixture of suet, plums, raisins, sultanas and currants we enjoy in Xmas mince-pies today ; the pies would also have been deeper and oval-shaped rather than shallow and round, representing the crib used by Christ at his birth which is why you would never see a medieval person cut a mince-pie with a knife, thought then to be an extremely unlucky act. In eating the pie, people were supposed to think of the Holy Infant which is why in older days people gave their first pie to a child who was then encouraged made a wish with their first bite.

So from Christ’s Mass on December 21st (our December 25th) to Epiphany on January 6th - ‘the Twelve Days of Christmas’ as we now know it - our outlaws might have celebrated the birth of Jesus by observing the natural world, following the Church’s teachings and also acknowledging a few hangovers from their pagan past.

If the weather wasn’t too cold - or the Sheriff’s men too close - they could have perhaps forgotten some of their troubles for a short time and enjoyed ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill amongst Men’.

Richard Rutherford-Moore is currently an international historic tour guide for MIDAS TOURS and has previously served on and off-camera as Historical and Technical Adviser and Armourer in successful television drama series. Richard has appeared in several TV and radio documentaries on Robin Hood and has just completed the final book in his Robin Hood trilogy, to be published in late Spring 2003.

More about the author...
Richard Rutherford-Moore is an international historic tour guide, historical consultant for television drama and documentary and author. Since 1997, Richard has served as a guide and lecturer in exploring "Robin Hood Country". He has served as a historical and technical adviser and armourer in a successful television drama series and has contributed to several documentaries discussing Robin Hood. Most of the aspects in this article are featured in the author’s two books ‘The Legend of Robin Hood ‘and ‘Robin Hood : On the Outlaw Trail in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest’.
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