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How ‘Christmas’ came late to the Anglo-Saxons

23 December 2022

The term itself took a long time to oust its predecessors, says Eleanor Parker


IN THE depth of midwinter, when the days are shortest and the shadows longest, comes the winter solstice: the return of the sun. Centuries before the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, 25 December — at that time the date of the winter solstice in the Julian calendar — had been chosen as the day on which to commemorate the birth of Christ, and a festival on this date is first recorded at Rome in 336.

This date was probably chosen not primarily because it was the solstice, but because it fell nine months after the spring equinox (25 March in the Roman calendar), which had perhaps already gained acceptance as the date of Christ’s conception. But the winter solstice was, of course, a meaningful day on which to celebrate the birth of the Creator of light.

Bede explains this in De temporum ratione, articulating the widespread medieval understanding of the relationship between the church year and the solar cycle:

Very many of the Church’s teachers recount . . . that our Lord was conceived and suffered on the 8th kalends of April [25 March], at the spring equinox, and that he was born at the winter solstice on the 8th kalends of January [25 December]. And again, that the Lord’s blessed precursor and Baptist was conceived at the autumn equinox on the 8th kalends of October [24 September] and born at the summer solstice on the 8th kalends of July [24 June].

To this they add the explanation that it was fitting that the Creator of eternal light should be conceived and born along with the increase of temporal light, and that the herald of penance, who must decrease, should be engendered and born at a time when the light is diminishing.

Bede himself thought that the solstice should more accurately be dated a few days earlier than this, on 21 December, but he doesn’t dispute the central point of the symbolism: the birth of Christ is celebrated in midwinter, when the sun’s light is reborn, because he is the source of light itself.

As Christianity took root in Anglo-Saxon England, this festival must have offered something powerful to a culture in which winter represented such a terrible threat. Living in Northern Europe, where midwinter is the bleakest, darkest time of year, the Anglo-Saxons surely already celebrated some kind of midwinter festival before their conversion to Christianity — possibly a variety of different festivals.


ONE is mentioned by Bede, who says that the pagan Anglo-Saxons began the year on “the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That night, which we now hold so holy, they used then to call by the pagan word Modraniht, that is, ‘mothers’ night’, because, we suspect, of the rituals they performed through that night.”

This is the only surviving reference to “Mothers’ Night” from Anglo-Saxon England or anywhere else. As often when Bede comments on such matters, his knowledge seems limited, and here he admits he’s speculating (“we suspect”). However, it’s been suggested that he may be describing some form of survival of the Romano-British veneration of groups of mother goddesses, which is well attested in the first half of the first millennium.

If a form of such veneration survived somewhere in early Anglo-Saxon England, late enough for Bede to have heard about it in the eighth century, that’s remarkably interesting. However, it can’t have lasted much longer than this, as there are no later records of “Mothers’ Night”.

Another pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon midwinter festival may have been Geola, “Yule”. Instead of being connected with a deity, this seems to be linked to the solstice. It gave its name — again according to Bede — to the months corresponding to December and January in the Julian calendar, “the earlier Geola” and “the later Geola”. The etymology of Geola is unclear, and we have no information to tell us how it might have been celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England.

Unlike Modraniht, however, it was a word that survived into the Christian period, and it was adopted as a name for Christmas. It’s used in this way in some Christian sources from the early Anglo-Saxon period, though it’s not common, and from the ninth century onwards, with Scandinavian migration into northern and eastern England, it was reinforced by the related Old Norse name for the midwinter festival, Jól.

The Viking settlers swiftly converted to Christianity, but seem to have held on to their name for the festival. As a result, “Yule” continued to be another name for Christmas into the later medieval period and long afterwards, especially in the north of England and in Scotland, areas where Scandinavian settlement had a deep and lasting impact on the local dialect.


IN OLD ENGLISH, the name Cristesmæsse, “Christmas”, appears in the recorded sources surprisingly late, not until the first decades of the 11th century — at least four centuries after the festival began to be celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England. This may be partly an accident of survival in the written sources, but it may also be because there was already a well-established name for Christmas — another which probably has pre-conversion origins but developed, like “Yule”, a new Christian meaning.

That was middewinter, “Midwinter”, a term more prevalent in Anglo-Saxon sources than either Cristesmæsse or Geola. This name could refer to the whole Christmas season but was also frequently used for Christmas Day, middewintres mæsse-dæg, “Midwinter’s mass-day”. It’s used in this way, for instance, in the first lines of The Menologium, which begins “Christ was born at Midwinter”, and Ælfric tells in one of his sermons how after Mary conceived Christ she “carried him until Midwinter’s mass-day, and then gave birth to him”.

“Midwinter” is also often used to mean “Christmas Day” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. At the end of 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned king at Westminster on Christmas Day, one version of the Chronicle records that it took place on midwintres dæg. This name, too, survived well into the later medieval period, both as a name for the Christmas season and for Christmas Day.

“Midwinter” was probably the name for this season long before the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity; like “Midsummer” (also a very long-enduring name), it reflected the older two-season pattern of the year and the importance of the solstices in the seasonal cycle.

However, the name lasted because it was very much in harmony with the Christian feast as it developed in the Anglo-Saxon festival calendar, and for medieval English writers it must have made a powerful link between feast and season, evoking what it meant for Christ to be born into the very darkest time of winter.


IN THE Advent Lyrics, the birth of the sun is associated with the antiphon O Oriens (O Dayspring), sung on the evening of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

The Old English poem based on this antiphon is a beautiful meditation on longing for the return of light:

O Earendel, brightest of angels,
sent to mankind across the earth,
and righteous radiance of the sun,
splendid above all stars, by your own self
you ever enlighten every age.
As you, God born of God long ago,
Son of the true Father, eternally existed
without beginning in the glory of heaven,
so your own creation cries with confidence
to you now for their needs, that you send
that bright sun to us, and come yourself
to lighten those who long have lived
surrounded by shadows and darkness, here
in everlasting night, who, shrouded by sins,
have had to endure death’s dark shadow.

The opening address of this poem, Earendel, is a rare word, but its cognates in other Germanic languages suggest that it may originally have been the name of a mythological figure, perhaps a personification of a star or the dawn.

It was adopted into Anglo-Saxon Christian writing and is here transferred to Christ, the radiance of the eternal Father, sent to earth to bring light and comfort. Christ is imagined as the sun that dawns in the time of greatest darkness, in midwinter and in deorc deaþes sceadu, “death’s dark shadow”.


THIS image of Christ as the sun is one of the most familiar in Christian tradition — biblical in origin and immensely common in early medieval Christian writing. But it works in English (and other Germanic languages) in a different way from the Latin sources in which Anglo-Saxon writers would have encountered it, because of the verbal similarity between two English words, sunne, “sun”, and sunu, “son”, which are almost identical in Old English.

That means that in this poem Christ can be called the Son/sun in two senses: he is both soðfæsta sunnan leoma, “radiance of the true sun”, and sunu soþan fæder, “son of the true Father”. To a medieval way of thinking, such a linguistic echo was not just coincidence, but a potential revelation of truth; like the birth of Christ falling at the solstice, it pointed to the pattern and design underlying the whole created world.

The “sun” image was a metaphor that could bear a distinctive meaning for speakers of the English language — just as a midwinter festival like Christmas, though first celebrated in Rome, might come to develop its own meaning for a people living in northern Europe. At the time when Christianity began to influence Anglo-Saxon culture, winter may have already been associated with ideas and images like those we’ve seen repeated across the poetry — a natural product, perhaps, of the dark and cold of a northern winter.

But it was reinterpreted in a Christian context, and Middewinter came to mean “Christmas”, with all that signified. For Anglo-Saxon writers, adopting terms like Earendel, Middewinter or Geola into Christian vocabulary was a way of interpreting their own culture and environment in the light of their Christian faith, finding in these terms a new meaning that was, in their eyes, more true and powerful.


This is an edited extract from Winters in the World: A journey through the Anglo-Saxon year by Eleanor Parker, published by Reaktion Books at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78914-672-1.

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