A medieval Christmas carol

Medieval Christmas Traditions

A medieval Christmas carol
Katriena Knights's image for:
"Medieval Christmas Traditions"
Caption: A medieval Christmas carol
Image by: Rob

Many Christmas traditions from medieval times are still common, or at least familiar, today. While some are only familiar from Christmas carols, others are still commonly practiced as part of our modern traditional celebration of the holiday.

Many of these traditions come from pagan customs that were in use long before Christmas became a Christian holiday. Among these are the Yule log, Wassail, and the ever-popular Christmas tree.

Used by both the Druids and the Vikings in their winter solstice celebrations, the Yule log represented the coming of a new year. In the Druidic tradition, the log was blessed and burned for twelve days, then a part of the log was preserved and used to light the next year's Yule log. The Vikings used it as a sort of New Year's Resolution tool. Before burning the log, they carved it with symbols of traits or trends they wished to be "burned away" in the next year, such as bad luck. Burning the log would then hopefully remove those things from their lives in the New Year. This custom continues, either as a literal log burned through the holidays, a cake shaped like a log, or even a popular TV show that shows the burning log throughout the Christmas season.

Wassail, familiar from the carol, "The Wassail Song," is another tradition from the Norse or Viking people. In Old English (the language of Beowulf), waes hael can be translated as "good health." The original wassail drink is likely to have been a spiced beer or mead, but has evolved into a spiced cider-like drink.

The Christmas tree finds its origins in pagan traditions, as well, though later Christian traditions present it as an invention of Martin Luther. The evergreen bough was important in Roman customs, used in Roman Saturnalia festivals as a representation of eternal life. The Druids used the evergreen tree for similar reasons, as well as mistletoe, another Christmas tradition that is still a part of our modern celebrations. While the actual Christmas tree didn't come into fashion until the 18th century, it was used in Germany as early as the 16th century, and even earlier than that, evergreen boughs were part of medieval English Christmas celebrations.

Some foods we commonly associate with Christmas celebrations find their origins in medieval times, as well. Mince pies were made in a rectangular shape to symbolize the baby Jesus' crib, and the three main spices in the pies, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, acted as stand-ins for gold, frankincense and myrrh. The traditional Christmas goose also could be found on the table for many medieval Christmas dinners alongside an early version of Christmas pudding.

Whether you celebrate a modern Christmas, with an artificial, electrically lit tree and the Yule log burning on the television, or a traditional holiday gathering with roast goose and all the trimmings, you can trace much of your tradition back to medieval times. Take a few minutes this year to research the origins of your personal favorite traditions. You might be surprised at where they come from.

More about this author: Katriena Knights

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