Ye Olde Christmas Traditions

This post originally appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in 2015. Enjoy!


Christmas isn’t a new invention – it’s been around for quite a while, in one form or another, as you’re probably aware! Many of our favourite traditions are relatively recent additions though, such as the red-suited, white-bearded Santa with his elves, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Slade with their annoying yet brilliantly catchy song.

Of course, winter has always been a time for people to celebrate, as the old year gives way to the new and we look forward to what the future will bring us. Medieval folk shared many of our customs and they had some interesting ones of their own that didn’t carry over to the present day.

With the passing of summer, things become bleak and drab so, at Christmas we decorate our houses to chase away the gloom. In the middle-ages they used evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe to brighten the place, a tradition stemming from the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Icy holly by Liz West

Holly was thought to deter witches while men wore it to attract female admirers. Ivy also kept evil forces away but it was kept outside the home, while mistletoe – a plant venerated by the pagan Druids – was really frowned on by the Church but that didn’t stop suitors kissing beneath it as they do to this day.

Of course, the main evergreen we use to see in Christmas nowadays is the fir tree, with its fairy lights and shiny baubles. Medieval people didn’t have a tree in their house but a candlelit fir was displayed in London in the fifteenth century and, in general, it was seen as a Christian symbol, possibly to combat the pagan oak.

Many of those traditions originated in even earlier times, with the Vikings, who celebrated the winter solstice, their Yuletide, around the same time as we enjoy Christmas.

Our lovely, chocolatey Yule Log, for example, which is a cake nowadays but in pre-Christian days it  was an actual log or even a small tree, carved with protective runes and brought inside with great ceremony to be used as fuel for the household’s fire during December.

That should last a while!

Santa Claus takes many elements from the Viking legends. They believed Odin, or Old Man Winter, a white-bearded old man in a hooded robe who flew around the world on an eight-legged horse, gave out gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. He would even be invited into people’s homes with food and drink.

Yuletide was often referred to as “drinking yule”, which suggests drinking a lot of alcohol played a big part in the Viking celebrations, with feasting, games and songs. Which of course carried on into medieval times and nowadays…well, I’d imagine more booze is sold in December than any other time of the year. We certainly carried on that custom!

Getting back to medieval times, the people had various saints’ days which were celebrated throughout the winter, with some of them even carrying over after Christmas Day (which is still the case for those of Catholic faith).

December the 26th was St Stephen’s day and it saw sword dances and mumming plays which sound pleasant enough, but the animals were also bled (in those days, of course, bleeding was seen as healthy!) and in Wales, female servants would have their arms and legs beaten bloody by young men with holly branches! Ouch. Thankfully that tradition died out…

Odin/Father Winter

There was also Holy Innocents’ Day on the 28th, and Epiphany on January 6th, but most interesting to me was St Lucy’s Day, which was on the 13th of December and was a celebration of light. This is another feast day that has links to earlier, pagan times, with candles and processions. Of course, Lucifer, before he became synonymous with Satan, was known as the light-bringer, so it seems clear to me that St Lucy’s Day was actually a celebration of Lucifer (bear in mind, the Latin word lucifer was once even applied to Jesus)…

Which brings me rather neatly to my own little take on medieval festivities.

Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is my brand new novella and December 1323 is the backdrop for much superstition and fear. I greatly enjoyed writing and researching it and, who knows, maybe reading it each December will become as much a modern tradition as Scrooge and Noddy Holder/Mariah Carey! It’s available on paperback, Audible audiobook and Kindle as part of the exclusive Kindle Singles Programme. Also now available in German!

To buy Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil click HERE

I also have another Forest Lord novellette set in snowy winter, ideal for reading around Xmas time – The Prisoner. Check it out by clicking the pic below.

The Prisoner 2.indd

Sign up HERE to Steven’s email list and get a FREE short story, “The Rescue”

THE DRUID – out now!


Jackson, Sophie – The Medieval Christmas (The History Press, 2005)


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