Christmas was an important event for Christians in medieval Europe. Not just celebrated around December 25th, it began with the advent season at the end of November and continued through Epiphany on January 6th. Advent (the 40 days before Christmas) was a time of preparation, of waiting for God’s arrival—both historically as the Christ Child, and also in the future end times spoken of in the book of Revelation. Fasting and holy reflection preceded the greater merriment and feasting that took place during the 12 days of Christmas. The fasting was not as stringent as that which would come before Easter during Lent, and it was broken up by smaller feasting days in between, such as for St. Nicholas day on December 6th. Taking time for prayer, confession, and repentance was also an important part of Advent, when one was supposed to experience a mix of longing and desire for the joy of Christmas that was yet to come.
Christmas trees did not become a tradition until much later, but houses and churches alike were typically decorated in green; a spiritual symbol that signified eternal life, and also was a reminder of the coming spring when the cold, bleak world would come alive again. Holly, bay, ivy, mistletoe, and anything else green could be used along with candles to make rooms look festive.
In England, a form of the nativity scene was made from small boxes, often decorated with flowers, ribbons, and sometimes apples. They had a glass lid, and were covered with a white napkin. Inside were two dolls—one representing Mary, and the other Jesus. These boxes were carried from door to door, and it was considered unlucky not to see one by the time Christmas Eve arrived.
Hymns and carols also made up part of the medieval Christmas season. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is one such medieval Advent hymn. More to come on the medieval celebration of Christmas in next Monday’s post!