Developing from Celtic and Roman times, through the Dark and into the Middle Ages, or Medieval time, the Christmas season was celebrated from Hallow’s Eve to Candlemas.
When the Christmas holidays draw to their modern-time close on January 1, many people remark that their homes look cold and cheerless after taking down the Christmas decorations, or that the room looks empty where the Christmas tree once stood.
Clement A Miles wrote a detailed history of Christmas in his 1912 book, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. He found that the Christmas season often was observed from the beginning of November through early January or February, as long as twelve weeks.
Miles looks at Celtic winter celebrations, and the Celtic New Year in November, and follows the development of the Christian Christmas feast, and its connection to the physical, mental, and spiritual.
Late Fall Celebration of All Hallow’s Eve
With the harvest brought in, and the farm work done until the coming of Spring, people had time to reflect on their past, and their ancestors, a tradition expressed in the Church’s observance of All Saints Day, November 1.
This was also a time to enjoy the present and plan for the future. With the end of the growing season, people looked upon this time as a new year, and began the year with celebrations and festivals to enjoy the harvest, and to look forward to the next harvest.
Celtic New Year Bonfires
Of the many features of the Celtic New Year was the lighting of bonfires, as a ritual to bring light and warmth to a world growing darker and colder in November. The fires could represent the sun, Often, figures were designed from hay or straw, and might represent the spirit of vegetation. There is some speculation that this practice is now manifested as Guy Fawkes’ Day, on November 5.
Saint Martin’s Day, Martinmas, November 11
One of the saints revered by the Church was Martin of Tours. This soldier was famous for renouncing war in favor of peace, and of cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar man. Saint Martin’s qualities were commemorated in a feast day, Martinmas, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
During the Dark Ages, the weeks between Martinmas and Christmas became known as Advent, a time of preparation for Christmas. Later, World War I was ended on Armistice Day, November 11, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This day is now known as Veterans’ Day.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas to the Epiphany
The twelve days start with December 25, and the birth of the infant Jesus, and continue until January 6, the celebrated Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the Three Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child.
While the holiday was a somber, quiet observance at first, the ritual developed into a feast day, adding much eating, drinking, dancing, singing, and storytelling to the tradition. For twelve days, the purpose was to celebrate the coming of an infant, and the activities included practices intended to delight children, such as games, decorations, sweets, and presents.
After twelve days, generally the high festival of Christmas ended with the Feast of the Epiphany.
Octave of the Epiphany and St. Knut’s Day
In his book about Christmas, Miles notes traditions that kept the Christmas season into middle January or early February.
January 13, the Octave of the Epiphany, is twenty days from Christmas, and the Swedes observed Christmas until this time. This is also known as St. Knut’s Day, for Canute the Great, who forbid fasting from Christmas until the Octave of the Epiphany.
Miles notes that historical records show that the Christmas season could last until Candlemas. Thus, the time from Christmas to February 2 was “sacred to the Babyhood of Christ.” (p. 350).
“At the old English court, for instance, the merrymaking was sometimes carried on until Candlemas, while in some English country places it was customary, even in the late nineteenth century, to leave Christmas decorations up, in houses and churches, till that day.” (p. 350).
The feast day on or around February 2 was an observance of the Purification of the Virgin, and of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when he is considered a young man.
On this day, candles are blessed for the upcoming year. And some people replace their Christmas decorations with flowers, such as a snow-drop, so the house keeps a festive, cheeerful air.
The season of Christmas was traditionally celebrated for much of the late fall and early winter months of the year, and could be echoed in modern times, with Christmas items available by Halloween, and by neighbors who never get around to taking their Christmas lights down from their homes.
- Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976. Originally published as Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by T. Fisher Unwin, 1912.