Friday, December 28, 2012
Medieval Christmas - Part 4
This post is an exploration of guilt. You see, we never did get around to putting up our tree, and in fact except for the obligatory card garland, our only other holiday decoration was a sprig of strategically placed mistletoe. And while contemplating our lack of decorations I started wondering about medieval Christmas decorations.
We all know that many of our traditional Christmas decorations are pagan throwbacks, but let's look at a few things in more detail.
Medieval Christmas trees were usually oak trees or evergreen trees both of which were repurposed in medieval Europe from pagan roots. Oak trees were venerated by the Druids, and evergreen trees held special meaning to the Romans. Evergreen trees were believed to hold special powers and symbolized the eternal promise of spring. For Christians the evergreen would come to mean the eternal life promised by Christ.
Christmas trees were brought into churches on Christmas eve and decorated with apples and even paper flowers. On Christmas day the trees would be brought into banquet halls and celebrated by the attendants, they were even danced around. At the closing of the feast the trees would be paraded through the city streets and then ceremonially burned.
The holly, ivy and mistletoe were all sacred plants to the Druids and would all become important parts of medieval Christmas decorations. Druids believed that good spirits lived within holly branches, and Christians believed that the bright red holly berries were once white and had turned red by Christ's blood when he was forced to wear the crown of thorns. Ivy, a plant associated with the Roman god Bacchus, would not be a favored Christmas decoration until the later Middle Ages when it was believed to ward off the plague.
Also, our representations of the Nativity reflect medieval Christmas plays and pantomimes that were popular during the period. Actors would dress up as characters of the Christmas story, and without talking, would 'decorate' a Christmas feast or church interior.
What are your favorite Christmas or holiday decorations? What holds special meaning for you? For me, it was always a lighted star on the top of our tree. I always thought it was the most beautiful thing in the house at Christmas time.