The Bible is reticent on the birth of Christ. The nativity is mentioned only in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke was probably written around 80CE, Matthew perhaps a decade later. Both may well have relied on a common source, for some details of their stories are identical. Luke describes how a census obliges Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, the city from which his family originates. There, Mary gives birth and her son lies in a manger, although there is no mention of a stable. An angel announces the birth to shepherds in the fields, who hurry to see the child. In Matthew, in the reign of Herod, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as though this were his parents' permanent place of residence. Unnumbered, unnamed wise men from the east follow a star (no brighter, in this telling, than any other), bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the house where child lies. In the later, non-canonical protogospel of James, probably written towards the end of the second century CE, Mary gives birth in a cave, beneath a star that shines more brightly than the rest.
Historically, as is well known, much of the story as we have it is problematic. There was a census carried out in 6 CE, but that was ten years after the death of Herod, while there is no record of any census that obliged people to return to their place of ancestral origin to be counted. Further, these censuses enumerated property-owners. If Joseph owned property, why weren't he and his wife able to lodge there? And even if Joseph had to be counted, why did his pregnant wife go too, when women were not included in censuses? If Mary gave birth in December – and there is no mention in the Bible, nor in any early church writings, of the date of Christ's birth – why were the sheep still in the fields in the winter months, when they should have been taken in to the villages for warmth?
Moving from historical plausibility, it is likely that these writings made no reference to the nativity because birthdays carried little religious significance in the early church: the important day was the day of baptism, the day of religious rather than physical birth. From the second century, the Eastern churches marked 6 January as Epiphany, a Greek word meaning 'showing forth', indicating the day that Christ's divinity was revealed to man and, at least among some Egyptian Christians, the day was understood to mark Christ's baptism, although we have no knowledge of why that date was chosen.
Constantine the Great extended tolerance to Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313; the establishment of Christmas as a church festival followed not long after. The earliest evidence we have for a celebration of Christ's birth is when Julius I, Bishop of Rome (337–352), decreed that Christ's nativity was to be observed on 25 December. Even so, from the start Christmas seemed determined to break away from religion: sometime before his death in 389, Gregory of Nazianzus, Archbishop of Constantinople, found it necessary to warn against the dancing and 'feasting to excess' that were occurring on the holy day. Nobody issues warnings about things that aren't happening, so we can therefore assume that, only thirty years after it was first mentioned, Christmas was already being spent as a day of secular pleasure. And so it continued. By the mid-seventh century, Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, was reminding his followers that while it was fine to eat well at Christmas, the church frowned on gluttony. It is difficult not to conclude that many were indulging on the day.
But why 25 December? According to biblical scholars' calculations, based on the Gospels and other church writings, 17 April, 29 May and 15 September are all more likely dates. The choice of 25 December seems instead to have been tied to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
No convincing evidence of winter solstice celebrations in pagan Europe has survived. Instead, the first instance of such celebrations that we know of was in Roman times, with three festivals clustered around this date. Saturnalia, when religious offerings were made to Saturn, the god of agriculture, began on 17 December and lasted for seven days. Work ceased, shops closed, gifts of candles were given and gambling, eating and drinking prevailed. This holiday was followed by the Kalends, a secular, civic New Year festival, officially from 1 to 3 January, but often unofficially continuing to 5 January. Buildings were decorated with greenery and people ate, drank and watched races and processions, while small tokens, wreaths and garlands, or lamps inscribed 'Happiness in the New Year' were exchanged.
Libanius, a pagan Greek philosopher, described the Kalends celebrations of the fourth century, and they already sound familiar, featuring 'carousals and well-laden tables', 'abundance' for the rich, and for the poor 'better food than usual'. It was a time of spending: 'People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men.' There was also a strong element of society turned upside-down, as masters waited on their slaves and senators dressed as plebeians. By the sixth century, wrote one Church father, these topsy-turvy traditions had prevailed, 'the heathen, reversing the order of all things', not just masters and servants trading places, but even men dressing as women. As with Gregory, two centuries before, he too worried that 'the majority of men on those days became slaves to gluttony and riotous living and raved in drunkenness and impious dancing'.
Between Saturnalia and the Kalends came the celebration of the solstice. By the first century, Mithraism had spread from the Middle East to become the most widely practised religion in the Roman Empire. Yet, despite its prevalence, we know little about it today. The central event is speculated to have been the slaying of a sacred bull by the god Mithras, probably a spring fertility ceremony. The birth of Mithras, however, was marked at the winter solstice, when, on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth day of the unconquered sun, Mithras emerged from his birthplace in a cave, witnessed by two shepherds. By the third century, Sol Invictus was the main god of the Empire and Dies Natalis his primary festival, which now began to assimilate many of the Kalends traditions. This merging of holiday customs continued after Christianity became the established religion of Rome, in 380: 'when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival [of Sol Invictus], they ... resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day'. In other words, 25 December was chosen because it was already the commemoration of a sacred figure's birth. By the end of the fourth century, Eastern Christians in Constantinople were also celebrating Christmas on 25 December, rather than Epiphany on 6 January, as were Christians in Gaul. The holiday itself now expanded. In 567 the Council of Tours made the days between Christmas and Epiphany into a single holiday, which was confirmed by Alfred the Great in 877 in Wessex: his law code named the twelve days a general holiday, when even servants supposedly did no work.
In northern Europe, too, there were markers of the year-end. Most Germanic languages contain some form of the word 'yule', meaning midwinter. The Venerable Bede, in c. 730, claimed that the ancient Britons called December and January Giuli, or 'Yule', but in the British Isles from the seventh century, Yule was used to mean Christmas. That Old English word, Geol, had derived from Old Norse Jól. Although today in Scandinavia jul means Christmas, originally it merely meant 'festivities', and we know little of these Norse ceremonies or beliefs. There may have been some form of ancestor worship, to mark the return of the dead, a not uncommon idea as the sun waned and the old year 'died'. Some said this was the day when in various northern European legends the 'wild hunt', that army of the dead, rode across the sky with their baying hellhounds led by Odin, or Wotan, on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Or it may have been a festival following the harvest and autumn slaughter, which was also the annual time for beer-brewing. The older oral tradition recorded in the thirteenth-century saga of the Icelandic bard Snorri Sturluson describes a midwinter festival of feasting and drinking, when the king drikke jól, or 'drank yule'. Bonfires and candles, or burning logs, as well as greenery, may have been part of the observances – we simply don't know. By 960 King Haakon of Norway had Christianized the day, decreeing that Jul was to be marked on 25 December, to coincide with the Christian festivities.
What can be said with certainty is that in the Christian tradition, from the early days through to the Middle Ages, many of the Christmas ecclesiastical developments were a matter less of religious liturgy than of entertainment. By the eleventh century in France, a star was hung over thealtar for an Epiphany play that was incorporated into the Mass, and the story of the Magi, of Herod, the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt, were acted out. In the twelfth century English churches also staged these plays, and as late as the sixteenth century church records show that painted and gilded stars continued to be made. Another form of theatre originated with Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 first produced a replica of a stable, with a manger, an ox and an ass. This became popular across much of western Europe, as did, in the Rhineland, Kindelwiegen, or cradle-rocking, services, where a life-sized cradle with a Christ child was rocked by the altar to the rhythm of Wiegenlieder, or cradle songs. In the Netherlands, two cradles, one on the altar, one near the congregation, were decorated with little bells that rang as they were rocked.
A distinctive seasonal feature in England was the miracle play. These plays were religious in content but, unlike Epiphany plays, they were in English, not Latin, and, unlike the Kindelwiegen or the nativity scenes, they were produced under the patronage of civic guilds, not the church. We know little about the early plays, but from at least 1392, guilds in Coventry staged The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors, which recounted the events of the annunciation, the nativity, the adoration of the kings, the Flight into Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. A fragment of surviving stage direction indicates how the drama played out: 'Here Herod rages, in the pageant cart, and also in the street.'
One remnant of the topsy-turvy nature of the Kalends reemerged in the European craze for the Feast of Fools, when minor clergy took over the roles of their seniors between Christmas and New Year. This was no gentle event:
Priests and clerks ... dance in the choir dressed as women, panders [pimps] or minstrels. They sing wanton songs ... They play at dice [at the altar]. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church ... with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste.
Over time, these lewd games were replaced by a more innocent version of the servant-as-master inversion, this time controlled by the masters. 'Boy bishops', choristers who took on the bishops' role, were elected for the holiday cycle on 6 December, the name day of St Nicholas, patron saint of children, and they officiated especially on 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The first boy bishop we know of was in St Gallen, in what is today Switzerland, in 911, and that this social upheaval was approved from above is clear: both King Conrad I of Germany and the Bishop of Constance attended services on the day the boy preached, the king attempting to distract him and his child attendants by rolling apples down the aisle. (The boys apparently turned a dignified blind eye to the misbehaviour of their rowdy adult congregants.)
Boy bishops were especially popular in England, many churches keeping miniature chasubles and staffs and albs for the use of their miniature clergy. Ultimately, Henry VIII took a dislike to the custom and it was banned in England in 1541. Queen Mary restored it, but it failed to outlast her, although schoolboys continued to enjoy St Nicholas's Day as a holiday. Elsewhere, it survived far longer. Many Swiss districts had a boy bishop as late as the mid-nineteenth century.
Churches saw more solemn pageantry on Christmas Day, but it was no less theatrical. Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, and the holiday remained a favoured one for kingly entrances and exits: Edward the Confessor was buried in Westminster Abbey on Epiphany 1066, while the coronation of his successor, William I, took place the following Christmas Day. At Epiphany 1300, Edward I offered the church a gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh, a king marking the day of the three kings, a tradition that continued in England for another six centuries.
The holiday impulse in courts across Europe, however, was primarily secular. Courtly feasting in Germany in the eleventh century saw guests singing secular songs (although at one of these feasts they were countered by liturgical chanting from the shocked clergy present). Welsh and Irish courts also held winter feasts from around the same date, and soon it was a time of feasting for all who could afford it. In Germany especially, year-end fairs became regular events, with one in Kempen being established from at least 1461 to supply these lavish entertainments. In England, rulers intermittently attempted to curb the excesses of the period, although with little success. Around 1100, Henry I issued a proclamation declaring the year-end a time of fasting, not feasting. Yet by the reign of King John, courtly Christmas feasts had become mind-bogglingly elaborate. On Christmas Day 1213 the king's household and guests consumed 27 hogsheads of wine, 400 head of pork, 3,000 fowl, 15,000 herring, 10,000 eels, 100 pounds of almonds, two pounds of spices and 66 pounds of pepper. Two hundred years later, Edward III tried again, passing laws restricting the meals on seven of the holiday's twelve days to two courses, with a limit of two kinds of meat per course.
The recipes that have survived indicate that seasonal excess was not confined to the courts, but was also indulged in by the prosperous. One recipe for a Christmas pie from 1394 includes pheasant, hare, capon, partridge, pigeon and rabbit, livers, hearts and kidneys, and meatballs, all spiced and sauced and cooked with pickled mushrooms before being baked into a pastry case 'made craftily in the likeness of a bird's body', including a 'great tail' complete with feathers.
This was the more remarkable, because from at least the fifth century, Advent had officially been a church-designated period of penitence and fasting, like Lent, with Christmas Eve a major fast day, on which meat, cheese and eggs were forbidden. Yet the late fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight indicates that this was often honoured more in the breach. There, the castle guests are served
a feast of fish, some baked in bread, some browned over flames, some boiled or steamed, some stewed in spices and subtle sauces to tantalize his tongue. Four or five times he called it a feast, and the courteous company happily cheered him along:
'On penance plates you dine – there's better board to come.'
That they are eating fish from 'penance plates' makes clear that this is a fast-day meal, but otherwise the notion of fasting is barely observed.
That feasting overcame all prohibitions is unsurprising. The European agricultural year almost dictated it. After the autumn harvest, grain was stored, fruit and vegetables preserved, followed by what the sixteenth-century poet-farmer Thomas Tusser called 'slaughter-time', when 'the husbandman's feasting begin[s]'. In the colder parts of Europe, St Martin's Day was the traditional time for slaughter, and feasting followed hard behind, with St Martin's geese or swine in Germany, geese in Denmark and Martlemas beef in England. In wine-growing regions, too, St Martin's Day was when the new wine was ready.
In England, seasonal drinking was given an archaic air, a sense of tradition to justify it. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain told the tale of the fifth-century leader Vortigern, who was invited to drink with the toast, Lauerd king wacht heil! [more correctly, wæs hæil, or Lord king, your health], to which the response was Drinc heil! The story was almost entirely fabricated, and the parts that weren't were anachronistic by half a millennium. Nonetheless, this legendary wæs hæil was transformed into 'wassail' and became part of the holiday traditions. In the fourteenth century the rich began to prize special wassail bowls of precious metals, using them for formal toasts; the poor carried humbler bowls from door to door, drinking to their superiors in exchange for food or drink.