Christmas in medieval Europe

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Nativity mosaic (St. Maria in Trastevere, ca. 1300 AD)

Nativity mosaic (St. Maria in Trastevere, Rome ca. 1300 AD)

Beginning about 300 AD, people began to think that December 25th was the day when Jesus was born. So they celebrated that day as Christmas. Probably this was mainly because there was already an important Roman holiday at this time – Saturnalia. Christian bishops were eager to replace Saturnalia with a Christian holiday. The earliest celebrations of Christmas involved singing Christmas songs like Prudentius’ Of the Father’s Love Begotten. Many people actually waited to celebrate on Epiphany, January 7th. That was the day when the Magi were supposed to have arrived to give Jesus their gifts. So it seemed like a good time for people to give presents.

Around the year 1000 AD, people began to build nativity scenes at Christmas time. Nativity scenes showed Jesus being born in the stable with his mother Mary and his father Joseph. In 1223 ADFrancis of Assisi, a popular young monk, built a nativity scene in Italy. After that nativity scenes became very popular. By the early 1300s pretty much every church in Italy had a nativity scene at Christmas. By the 1400s, there were nativity scenes all over southern Francesouthern Germany, and Poland too.

Adoration of the Magi (Notre Dame cathedral, ca. 1300 AD)

Adoration of the Magi (Notre Dame cathedral, ca. 1300 AD)

In northern Europe, Christmas was a little different. People decorated houses and churches in northern Europe with green plants like holly and ivy. Poor young men in England began to visit the houses of richer people at Christmastime and sing Christmas carols (songs). (Girls stayed home.)

People called this “wassailing”. They may have done this much earlier, maybe as early as Anglo-Saxon times or even earlier than that. The rich people were expected to give presents, either food, or ale, or money, to the poor men who were singing in their houses or outside their doors. It was like trick-or-treating at Halloween today.

Sometimes wassailing was peaceful. Other times wassailers were drunk and rowdy. They might wreck rich people’s houses if they didn’t get what they wanted. Some of the Christmas carols we still sing today, like Good King Wenceslas or O Come all ye Faithful, got their start in medieval Europe.

After the wassailing, rich people in England had feasts on Christmas day. They usually ate a roast goose and mincemeat pie (which was really made with meat then). People also ate Christmas puddings.

Christmas Trees
Christmas in the United States

Bibliography and further reading about Christmas in the Middle Ages:


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By |2018-04-10T22:50:25+00:00August 4th, 2017|Medieval, Religion|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Christmas in medieval Europe. Study Guides, August 4, 2017. Web. December 13, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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