Christmas traditions from
the time of Robin Hood
|Modern day decorations
||We celebrate Christmas
differently from how Robin Hood and his merry men might have enjoyed
Historical consultant, Richard Rutherford-Moore,
explains how Christmas traditions have evolved.
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 its lowest -
the shortest day - begins its journey through the
heavens towards the longest day of the Summer Solstice
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 shouldnt 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 Christs 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 didnt 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 Christs
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 its 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,
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.
Germans also exchanged the first decorated Christmas cards circa AD
1900, but the earliest card with a Christmas message dates from AD
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 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.
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.
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 couldnt 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 boars 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 Christs 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 Churchs
teachings and also acknowledging a few hangovers from their pagan
If the weather wasnt too cold - or the Sheriffs men too
close - they could have perhaps forgotten some of their troubles for
a short time and enjoyed Peace on Earth and Goodwill amongst
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.
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’.