As Christmas approaches, we spend time celebrating this special time of the year. With NAT sites spanning thousands of years, we often think how life would have been for those who knew these places. This month we look at three sites to understand the winter celebrations which may have been held there.
With origins in the 11th century, St Benet’s Abbey would have been a hive of Christian celebrations for the Christmas period. It is believed that it was in this century that the term Christmas was first used – originating from the Old English ‘Christes Maesse’ – Festival of Christ. Many of the Christian celebrations had roots in pagan winter festivals, and Epiphany on the 6th January was a more important date in the calendar in the early medieval period. Advent, with events starting 40 days before Christmas Day, started to then dominate the later medieval Christian calendar. The Catholic Church had at one point banned the giving of gifts, however this soon became part of the winter feasting and gatherings held by both rich and poor. It is likely that gifts were made to Abbey servants and funds paid out for entertainments. Gifts to the Abbey would have been made by benefactors; these may have included food and drink.
During Advent, the diet of those at St Benet’s Abbey would have been austere with a ban on eggs, animal fats, milk and any foods made with milk. Christmas saw a lifting of this prohibition. On Christmas Day, three masses would have been held – Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn and the Mass of the Day/High Mass. The monks would have returned to the church on a number of occasions to sing additional services. Additional masses were held up to and including Epiphany, including on St Stephen’s Day (26th).
Caistor Roman Town would have seen very different merriments. Established in the AD70’s, Christianity had not yet reached Britain. For Romano Britain, the main winter celebration was Saturnalia, the mid-winter ‘festival of misrule’. Feasting, drinking and singing were commonplace, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God. Social constraints were turned on their heads, with masters serving their slaves during meals, and highly flamboyant clothing being worn. Feasting was often at home but could also take place in the temples. Gambling in public was allowed and bobbing for corks in water was popular. Icey cold water one imagines!
Originally held around the 17th of December, Saturnalia merged with other events leading to a week long jolly from 17th to 23rd. This was shortened at one point to just 3 days due to the chaos it caused, later being extended to a 2 week period by the 5th century! The festivities coincided with the Winter Solstice, giving the inhabitants of Caistor some joy during the dark days between the end of the harvest and spring. Small gifts would be given – often ornaments or candles, and greenery was bought into the home in the form of holly and berries to honor Saturn.
Going back further in date, the Iron Age earthworks of Bloodgate Hillfort would also have seen winter celebrations – many of which would be incorporated into later traditions. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, takes place between 20th and 23rd December. This has long been a sacred time, a time of feasting and celebrations. Forts such as Bloodgate Hill are thought to have several purposes, including a place for religious and ceremonial activity, and the Winter Solstice could have been one such event held there. Fire and light are the traditional symbols of the solstice; Yule was also celebrated at this time, where Celtic Britons collected mistletoe from oak trees, for magical and health giving properties, and evergreens to keep evil spirits at bay.