Wassail! Wassail!, by Milica of Varna

The celebration of the Christmas season brings most of us together to enjoy customs and traditions that have been passed down for generations. Those of us in the SCA know that many of these traditions go back much further than our American colonial ancestors. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw the creation of a number of the customs we hold dear during the Christmas season. The boar's head, the Feast of Fools, the twelve days of Christmas, and Santa Claus are all customs derived from the Middle Ages.

Most of our present day Christmas customs come to us from pagan traditions far older than even the Middle Ages. The holiday as we know it, is an extension of the Teutonic celebration of the Winter Solstice, in which the tribes gathered to light bonfires, feast and honor Father Odin. Still today, in pagan circles, it is the return of the sun that is celebrated at the winter holiday with the use of the evergreen, the symbol of eternal life, and candles, representing the light of the sun. Even the drinking of the wassail has pagan origins. On Christmas Eve, the men of the village often went out into the orchards to "wassail" the trees. If they failed to do so, the trees would produce little fruit the following year. The farmer and his helpers would carry a huge pitcher of cider out to the tree and drink a toast to it three times saying "Here's to thee, old apple tree," or sometimes dip a branch in the cup. Whether this benefitted the trees more than the farmers is not recorded.

Christmas was not observed officially in England until 521 when traditionally King Arthur celebrated the taking of the city of York. As the religion took hold in Europe, Christian traditions replaced the earlier pagan remembrances. Alfred the Great, in the year 878, set aside twelve days for king and serf alike to remember the birth of the Christ Child with food and drink, gambling and hunting, music and pageants. The great halls were opened and all were fed. It was said that Edward IV fed over two thousand people each day over the Christmas season of 1482. It was a very important time for the people of the Middle Ages. The Christmas season was seen as a new beginning, and often kings were crowned and official documents signed during the Christmas season. For instance, Henry II of England became king on Christmas and the Magna Carta was signed by King John during the Christmas season. In contrast, St. Thomas a Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral during the holidays.

The celebration of the Christmas season has brought us many traditions associated with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As feasts and merriment became more sophisticated, creative revelers were forced to come up with increasingly more elaborate entertainments. Dancing, caroling, mummers and music of all sorts were standard fare for the Christmas season. The earliest British tragedy, Gorbuduc, was first presented at Christmastime, as were many religious plays and tournaments. The tradition of the boar's head is said to have come into being when a student at Queen's College in Oxford was attacked in the forest by a wild boar. To defend himself, the wily, young man thrust the book he was reading into the jaws of the beast and then cut off its head as a trophy to carry home to his mates. Once established, the boar's head ritual became a custom at the feast when the head cook would carry the roasted dish on a silver platter preceded by a man carrying the very dripping sword which had dispatched the boar.

In the great halls, the Lord of Misrule reigned over the Feast of Fools, often arranged by the lesser clergy. It was the job of Misrule to select the entertainments for the season which often included parodies of the Christian liturgy. Jugglers, bards and enormous feasts were all part of the twelve days of celebration. By the time of HenryVIII and his daughter Elizabeth, celebrations had become so elaborate that entertainers were given garments of gold to wear. Meals often consisted of twelve courses and lasted over nine hours.

But it is with the saintly figure of a third century holy man that most Americans identify the Christmas season. St. Nicholas has become the modern Santa Claus, but his beginnings were far more humble. As Bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey, he worked among the poor and hungry, and developed a reputation as a kind man who ministered to the needy. He is remembered today as Father Christmas, Sankt Nikolaus, or Santa Claus, a giver of gifts and kindnesses. Originally buried in Myra, his remains were removed to the Italian city of Bari during the Crusades, where they are still a popular site for pilgrims.

This year, when you are carving your Christmas bird with your family and friends, think back on some of the traditions that have been cherished and changed over the last two thousand years, and lift a cup in gratitude to those who came before who have made them possible.

Wassail!