A Subversive Christmas

What can irreverant and raucous medieval holiday traditions teach us about modern Christmas?

Medieval Christmas traditions would seem a little weird to most of us. In fact, the kind of Christmas that my ancestors likely observed in the fishing villages of Medieval North Holland probably looked a lot more like Halloween than Christmas.

Take caroling, for example. We think of caroling as a joyful, cheer-sharing pastime meant to help people get into the spirit of Christmas. But in Medieval Europe, caroling had a lot more in common with trick-or-treating than it does with mirth-spreading. It was a time when poor peasants would go up to their lord’s door and sing, sure, but if the lord refused to bring them inside for food and drink, the peasants might do something unpleasant to the manor.

Or consider the “Lord of Misrule.” In England, Christmas was an opportunity to invert the social order. A jester would be elected mayor of the town, and issue all kinds of raucous and ridiculous rules for people to follow. The tradition eventually got so out of hand, it was banned in 1541 by Henry VIII – a man not known for his sunny disposition.

It wasn’t just the political leaders that were targeted. For centuries – and still to this day in some places – Europeans would elect a “boy bishop” to run the church during the Feast of Saint Nicholas who was the patron saint of children. The child would keep his authority through Holy Innocents’ Day on the 28th of December. That tradition was probably a holdover – like so many other Christmas traditions – from the Roman Saturnalia celebrations.

Even livestock got into the act in Medieval Christmas celebrations. The Feast of the Ass was a medieval, French feast that was observed on January 14, supposedly celebrating the Flight into Egypt but more likely simply a Christian adaptation of the pagan feast, Cervulus. A donkey would be led through town to take a place at the altar of the church, and the congregation would repeat its braying in a call-and-response with the priest. The Feast usually ended in a drunken party, which – like the Lord of Misrule – often got out of hand.

All of this is, of course, very interesting – and a little hilarious. But what can it teach modern Christians about Christmas?

Lighten the mood

It’s simple – relax. Chill out. As I’ve written before, Christmas came at a dark and cold time in the Medieval calendar. Candles and presents were literally meant to lighten the mood, and lift people’s spirits. So were the weird, inappropriate traditions that challenged the social order. All of it was meant to hold the dread and the dark at bay, at least for a while.

But looking at modern Christianity – particularly North American evangelical Christianity – you’d think Christmas was a celebration of drudgery and dead earnestness. It’s become an opportunity for irony-challenged culture-warriors to scold and finger-wag at those who don’t use the approved phrases (Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays). It’s become a time to complain and moan about the death of “traditional” Christmas which – it turns out – would actually involve a lot more drunkenness and donkeys than most of us realize.

The fact is, traditions change. Celebrations evolve. If we confuse the outward trappings of the way Christmas is celebrated by Canadian Christians in 2021 with some immutable, unchanging perfect version of Christmas, we’re missing the point.
Christmas is joy. It’s light. It’s meant to be slightly subversive of the social order. It’s never been about comfort and conformity. It’s meant to challenge our perceptions of what’s normal and acceptable. To elevate the impossible to the everyday – even if just for a while. It’s a season of hope – and even a bit of silliness – that subverts our expectations.

And if you think about it, that’s very much in line with the first Christmas. What could be more outrageous – and subversive – after all, than a king, born in a stable, attended by shepherds in a backwater village in the middle of nowhere?


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