In modern times, the christ the biggest midwinter festival of the northern hemisphere by far. But midwinter has always been a time for celebration. For many centuries, well before the Christian era, the time around the winter solstice was marked by feasting, often for a number of days. It is believed that this was to mark the lengthening of the days and the return of the sun, vitally important for communities which were tied to the rhythms of the earth and dependent on the land. This was also the one time of the year when there was less to do in agricultural terms and so more time to celebrate.
The traditions of modern Christmas celebrations largely developed out of the pre-existing pagan practices. Ancient traditions were adopted and adapted by Christian missionaries, who believed that this would help the pagan peoples they were preaching to accept the new religion more easily through familiarity. This included the way that people decorated their homes.
The Nativity Scene
The notable exception is the nativity scene. Depictions of the stable, manger and holy family are said to have become popular to mark Christmas in Rome from the 10th century, but their popularity really spread throughout Europe as a result of the legend of St Francis of Assisi.
According to legend, in 1223 St Francis visited the town of Grecio to celebrate Christmas there. Grecio was a small town built on a mountainside. It had a Franciscan hermitage where St Francis was staying, but he realised that the chapel there would be too small to hold the inhabitants of the town. To celebrate midnight mass, therefore, St Francis set up an altar in a niche of the mountainside. He wanted to make the celebration particularly solemn and meaningful for the townspeople so he also set up a manger filled with hay as a focal point. To add to the scene, he also included an ox and an ass.
During the service, according to his biographer St Bonaventure, St Francis chanted the gospel and then preached a sermon on the subject of the nativity. He was so overcome with emotion that he was unable to speak the name of Christ. Instead, St Francis called him the Babe of Bethlehem. It was then that the people saw a vision of a baby sleeping in the previously empty manger, a baby who was embraced by the saint. The hay was reportedly preserved afterwards and supposedly provided a miracle cure for the diseases of cattle.
The Holly and the Ivy
Evergreen plants used to decorate the home, whether woven into wreaths on the door, as boughs adorning the mantlepiece, or indeed hanging in bunches from the ceiling, illustrate the main crossover of pagan and Christian midwinter traditions. It is recorded that in 15th century London every house and every church would be festooned with greenery, but this had been done for many centuries before. It was a practice that stretched way back into pagan times, largely from Germanic and Scandinavian customs. The bringing in of evergreen boughs, including holly, was a pagan practice to celebrate Yule. They were believed to be a haven for the spirits of the woods and trees in winter.
Holly, with its sharp leaves and blood red berries, in Christian symbolism is a foreshadowing of the crucifixion during the nativity festivities. The sharp leaves represent the crown of thorns while the red berries are the beads of blood on Christ’s brow. In pagan terms, holly was a protection for the home against any evil spirits that might try to enter. The ancient Romans regarded it as the plant of Saturn and so boughs were exchanged between households during the festival of Saturnalia.