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

Nativity mosaic (St. Maria in Trastevere, Rome ca. 1300 AD) showing the birth of Jesus on Christmas

When did people start to celebrate Christmas?

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.

Who was Jesus? 
What’s happening in 300 AD?
Medieval religions
All our medieval Europe articles

An earlier Roman holiday

Probably this was mainly because there was already an important Roman holiday at this time – Saturnalia, celebrating the god Saturn. Christian bishops were eager to replace Saturnalia with a Christian holiday. The reason the bishops gave was that people celebrated the Annunciation – Mary finding out she was pregnant from the angel – on March 25th, associating it with the spring equinox, and December 25 was about nine months later.

How did people celebrate medieval Christmas?

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.

Nativity scenes for Christmas

Around the year 1000 AD, people in Europe 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.

Who was Francis of Assisi?
More about medieval monks

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.

Holly and ivy in the north

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.

What is wassailing?

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 early medieval 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.

What is ale?
Read more about Halloween

Christmas could be drunk and rowdy

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.

What did people have for Christmas dinner?

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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