An Early Modern Christmas

As Christmas nears, many of us have spent the last few weeks decorating Christmas trees, baking cookies, and wrapping presents in preparation. Holiday traditions such as these have become so ingrained in our modern (Western) society, but what was Christmas like over four hundred years ago during the Renaissance and Early Modern period? This week, we travel back in time to explore the popular Christmas traditions from throughout Europe during the Renaissance!

Renaissance Italy

art + history — An Umbrian Nativity Perugino (Pietro di Cristoforo...
Perugino, “The Nativity.” 1500

In Renaissance Florence, Christmas celebrations lasted from December 24th through January 6th. In the nine days before Christmas, the Novena, Catholic Italians spent their time reflecting on the Bible, praying, and singing carols. These days ended with a grand Christmas Eve feast, the cenone della Vigilia di Natale (quite literally the “big feast on the night before Christmas.”) The day of Christmas was typically spent at church, attending a solemn mass which marked the birth of Christ. Scenes of the Nativity would decorate the space and boughs of evergreens perfumed the church. Like many Christmas celebrations, many of their traditions borrowed from traditional pagan rituals for the celebration of Yule. Located in a Mediterranean climate, rather than decorating their homes with boughs of evergreen like those they saw in church, the Italians filled their homes with dried oranges and lemons (and many still do today!)

The biggest day of the Holiday season actually came on January 6th, Epiphany. It was on this day that most gift giving took place and the day was filled with reenactments of Biblical scenes. The city would gather for the Cavalcade of the Magi, the arrival of the three wise men who brought gifts to Christ. For many years, the three Magi were played by members of the Medici family! A perfect representation of the Medici’s status as wealthy providers for the city of Florence.

Tudor England

Wassail, an English hot mulled punch, being brought house to house during the Christmas season.
Print of ‘wassailing,’ the tradition of bringing mulled punch and singing carols door to door

Did you know that many of the Christmas traditions popular in the United States today came from 16th century England? It was during the Tudor period that many of our popular Christmas carols were created, which meant the popularization of caroling! They also popularized decorating with boughs of evergreen and Christmas trees, and kissing under the mistletoe!

A remnant of the Viking invasion of England centuries before, the Yule Log was a vital part of the Tudor Christmas. Rather than the small log we may imagine, the Yule Log was typically a large log that was expected to burn for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. The tree was decorated with ribbons and was a spectacle for all during the days between Christmas and the New Year.

During these twelve days, all work was meant to stop as well and restarted once again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. As the majority of the population were laborers, these twelve days were a welcome break and a time of great festivities. People would visit with neighbors, sharing in minced meat pies, and enjoying each others company.

Serious feasts for Christmas were reserved for royalty, and considering the appetite of King Henry VIII, they were grand affairs. Turkey was first introduced to England in the late 16th century and Henry VIII was one of the first to eat it as part of his Christmas feast. The Tudor Christmas Pie, a nightmare for any vegetarian, consisted of a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served along with other wild game such as hare and other wild fowl. This hearty meal was all washed down with Wassail, a punch made from hot ale, cider, and plenty of spices.

Early Modern Scandinavia

Print from Olaus Magnus’ “History of Northern Peoples,” showing a snowball fight

Scandinavia was the center for Vikings and Norse traditions for centuries, welcoming Christianity around the 11th century. As traditions from Christianity mingled with Norse pagan traditions, the Christmas, or Jul, Celebrations took shape. Many historians consider Vikings (as well as Romans) as one of the most important influences on the creation of Christmas. The proximity of Christmas to the Winter Solstice and Saturnalia is not a coincidence.

The primary celebration for the pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter Solstice centered around “drinking jul/yule,” placing an emphasis on drinking and eating well. It is in Olaus Magnus’ “History of the Northern Peoples” published in Rome in 1555 that we get a real glimpse into their menu and their Yuletide activities. It is in Magnus’ text that we find the first written description of the infamous Swedish dish, lutfisk (a dish of dried fish soaked in lye). Magnus also discusses horse races taking place over ice as well as a furious dance done by warriors around a large fire of burning pine trees.

Magnus’ text offers a delightful look into winter life in Sweden, including woodblock prints of snowball fights, reindeer pulling sleighs, and the harvesting of ice (which people may be familiar with from the opening scene of Disney’s ‘Frozen.’)

Renaissance Germany

Gerard David | The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard | The  Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gerard David, “The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard.” 1510

While evergreen boughs were a popular decoration during the winter throughout Europe, the popularization of the decorated Christmas tree originates in Renaissance Germany. In the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have been the first decorate the evergreen tree with candles and it was popular for mothers to secretly decorate the Christmas tree while the children slept. As well as decoration, trees were decorated with paper flowers and paraded through the streets to be burned as the yule log.

Another important German Christmas tradition that still exists today are their Christmas markets, which have their origin in the 14th century. The markets were places were craftsmen and merchants should display their wares in preparation for the holidays. It was in these markets that people could purchase everything they needed for their Christmas celebrations, from decorations to sweets to toys for the children. Until the 20th century, these markets were the only place people could get these seasonal items! To this day, many of the markets focus on handmade items, often carved wood ornaments or toys or handblown glass. In addition to the seasonal items, the markets also offered seasonal foods and drinks as well as seasonal music!


The Holidays in Renaissance Florence

8 Ways The Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas

The Wonderous Winter Wonderland that was 16th Century Sweden

Christmas Celebrations in Germany

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