9. Anglo-Saxon Christmas

Pectoral cross (cat.588) – one of several items in the Staffordshire Hoard associated with Christianity

This gold cross, with delicate filigree decoration, is among a small number of Christian items found in the Staffordshire Hoard. When Anglo-Saxons first began to settle in England they brought their Pagan beliefs with them. However, by the time the Staffordshire Hoard was buried after around 650AD, a number of kingdoms had converted to Christianity.

Our modern ideas of Christmas owe much to the Victorians. So what did an Anglo-Saxon Christmas involve? It is interesting to note that the word Christmas itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, Cristesmæsse, first recorded in 1038.

Pagan Anglo-Saxons already celebrated the 25th December with a festival known as Yule. We don’t know too many details about what this festival entailed. A Yule Log was cut to provide fuel and gradually pushed into the fire as it burned. Homes and halls were decorated with evergreen leaves and branches. Feasting took place, but it was boar, not turkey, on the menu.

And what about Christian Anglo-Saxons? In fact their Christmas wasn’t much different. It was no coincidence that Christmas Day and Yule shared the same date. The early Roman church had realised people were more likely to convert to Christianity if there was some continuity in their lives, including the dates of key festivals. Although many kingdoms embraced the new faith, people hung onto traditions that had been observed for generations. Some, such as feasting, drinking, and evergreen decorations, even survive to this day.

Furthermore, Christmas didn’t have the same importance in the early Church calendar. Easter was considered far more important to the Anglo-Saxon Church, celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection. However, Christmas Christian traditions did develop. Ecgbert of York (died 766), a cleric and contemporary of the Venerable Bede, wrote “the English people have been accustomed to practise fasts, vigils, prayers and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas”.