By Jeff Westover
The history of Christmas through the ages is written in chapters of contrasting observance. One chapter could speak of the sanctity of the season, observed in hushed commemoration. And yet another chapter could speak of it as a season of riotous overindulgence, wild parties and outright mockery of things held sacred in churches.
The 11th century was such a time especially in medieval England. The season by then had been observed through twelve consecutive days of festival — the much-heralded 12 Days of Christmas.
On some levels the celebration did focus on the Nativity. Beloved Christmas traditions such as caroling were founded. And the more devote went about their observance in reverence.
But these people were clearly a small minority. The age became known more for seasonal excess than for religious fervor.
Revelers would attend church in costumes, not unlike Halloween today, and perform songs normally heard far from the walls of the church. Some even went so far as to roll dice on the sacred altars. Mock sermons would be given from the pulpit, poking fun at the otherwise serious nature of the church in those times.
King Henry III and the royal court observed Christmas in style, starting with over six hundred oxen prepared as the first course of a grand feast.
It was good to be the king at Christmas, too.
The merchants and those in high social standing were required to shower the king with gifts and cash. King Henry III was known to close down merchants who failed to pay their proper dues in celebration of the Christmas season.
In 1377, King Richard II held a Christmas feast for over ten thousand people. It took more than two thousand cooks just to prepare the meal. The day was celebrated with lavish gift-giving, excessive drinking and binge eating.
The differences, if there be any, between their day and our own is that such celebration was mandated from the thrones of power. These celebrations were such a part of society that generations of clergy were trained to look the other way in the face of blatant sinning, even within the walls of the churches over which they presided.
King Henry VIII, as the self-declared head of the Church of England, really gave the celebration of Christmas a new definition that survived for generations. People from all stations of wealth and poverty within his kingdom celebrated together with dancing, carousing, food and all manner of merry making that drew his subjects anywhere but close to God or to the church.
The focus of the season progressively degenerated from an observance of the birth of Jesus Christ to a public festival where gluttony reigned. This eventually led to an uprising by puritan ministers. They decried the pagan elements that had invaded a sacred day and felt it better not to observe it at all than to allow such riotous partying to continue as a blasphemy against God.
The massive societal celebrations of the 14th and 15th centuries eventually yielded to a more subdued observance in the centuries that followed. While, in a way, the Kings of Extravagance can be blamed for first spoiling the purity of Christmas observance it was the keepers of the Puritan age that can likewise be blamed for nearly killing Christmas tradition altogether.