History: When Augustine Reintroduced Christmas to England

 Taken from, “Christmas, its Origin and Associations”
Written by, W.F. Dawson.

leo crowns charlemagne

The outgoing of the Romans and the incoming of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes disastrously affected the festival of Christmas…

…for the invaders were heathens, and Christianity was swept westward before them. They had lived in a part of the Continent which had not been reached by Christianity nor classic culture, and they worshipped the false gods of Woden and Thunder, and were addicted to various heathenish practices, some of which now mingled with the festivities of Christmastide.

Still, as these Angles came to stay and have given their name to our country, it may be well to note that they came over to Britain from the one country which is known to have borne the name of Angeln or the Engle-land, and which is now called Sleswick, a district in the middle of that peninsula which parts the Baltic from the North Sea or German Ocean. The Romans having become weakened through their conflicts with Germany and other nations, at the beginning of the fifth century, the Emperor Honorius recalled the Roman legions from Britain, and this made it much easier for the Angles and Saxons (who had previously tried to get in)”to come and remain in this country.

Thus our Teuton forefathers came and conquered much the greater part of Britain, the Picts and Scots remaining in the north and the Welsh in the west of the island. It was their custom to kill or make slaves of all the people they could, and so completely did they conquer that part of Britain in which they settled that they kept their own language and manners and their own heathenish religion,and destroyed or desecrated Christian churches which had been set up. Hence Christian missionaries were required to convert our ancestral worshippers of Woden and Thunder, and a difficult business it was to Christianise such pagans, for they stuck to their false gods with the same tenacity that the northern nations did.

In his poem ofKing Olaf’s Christmas” Longfellow refers to the worship of Thor and Odin alongside with the worship of Christ in the northern nations:”

“At Drontheim, Olaf the King
Heard the bells of Yule-tide ring,
As he sat in his banquet-hall.
Drinking the nut-brown ale,
With his bearded Berserks hale
And tall.
O’er his drinking horn, the sign
He made of the Cross divine
As he drank, and muttered his prayers ;
But the Berserks evermore
Made the sign of the Hammer of Thor
Over theirs.”

In England, too, Christ and Thor were worshipped side by side for at least 150 years after the introduction of Christianity, for while some of the English accepted Christ as their true friend and Saviour, He was not accepted by all the people. Indeed, the struggle against Him is still going on, but we anticipate the time when He shall be victorious all along the line.

The Christmas festival was duly observed by the missionaries who came to the South of England from Rome, headed by Augustine of Canterbury, (not Augustine of Hippo) and in the northern parts of the country the Christian festivities were revived by the Celtic missionaries from lona, under Aidan, the famous Colombian monk. At least half of England was covered by the Columbian monks, whose great foundation upon the rocky island of lona, in the Hebrides, was the source of Christianity to Scotland. The ritual of the Celtic differed from that of the Romish missionaries, and caused confusion, till at the Synod of Whitby (664) the Northumbrian Kingdom adopted the Roman usages, and England obtained ecclesiastical unity as a branch of the Church of Rome. Thus unity in the Church preceded bv several centuries unity in the State.

In connection with Augustine’s mission to England, a memorable story (recorded in Green’s “History of the English People”) tells how, when but a young Roman deacon, Gregory had noted the white bodies, the fair faces, the golden hair of some youths who stood bound in the market-place of Rome. “From what country do these slaves come?” he asked the traders who brought them. “They are English, Angles!” the slave-dealers answered. The deacon’s pity veiled itself in poetic humour. “Not Angles, but Angels,” he said, ”with faces so angel-like! From what countrv come they?” “They come,” said the merchants, “from Deira.” “De ira!” was the untranslatable reply; “aye, plucked from God’s wrath, and called to Christ’s mercy! And what is the name of their king?” “AElla,” they told him, and Gregory seized on the words as of good omen. “Alleluia shall be sung in AElla’s land!” he cried, and passed on, musing how the angel-faces should be brought to sing it.

Only three or four years had gone by when the deacon had become Bishop of Rome, and the marriage of Bertha, daughter of the Prankish king, Charibert of Paris, with AEthelberht, King of Kent, gave him the opening he sought; for Bertha, like her Prankish kinsfolk, was a Christian. And so, after negotiations with the rulers of Gaul, Gregory sent Augustine, at the head of a band of monks, to preach the gospel to the English people. The missionaries landed in 597, on the very spot where Hengest had landed more than a century before,in the Isle of Thanet; and the king received them sitting in the open air on the chalk-down above Minster, where the eye nowadays catches, miles away over the marshes, the dim tower of Canterbury.

Rowbotham, in his “History of Music,” says that wherever Gregory sent missionaries he also sent copies of the Gregorian song as he had arranged it in his “Antiphonary.” And he bade them go singing among the people. And Augustine entered Kent bearing a silver cross and a banner with the image of Christ painted on it, while a long train of choristers walked behind him chanting the Kyrie Elcison. In this way they came to the court of Aethelberht, who assigned them Canterbury as an abode; and they entered Canterbury with similar pomp, and as they passed through the gates they sang this petition: “Lord, we beseech Thee to keep Thy wrath away from this citv and from Thy holy Church, Alleluia!”

As papal Rome preserved many relics of heathen Rome, so, in like manner, Pope Gregory, in sending Augustine over to convert the Anglo-Saxons, directed him to accommodate the ceremonies of the Christian worship as much as possible to those of the heathen, that the people might not be much startled at the change; and, in particular,he advised him to allow converts to kill and eat at the Christmas festival a great number of oxen to the glory of God, as they had formerly done to the honor of the devil.

The clergy, therefore, endeavored to connect the remnants of Pagan idolatry with Christianity, and also allowed some of the practices of our British ancestors to mingle in the festivities of Christmastide. The religion of the Druids, the priests of the ancient Britons, is supposed to have been somewhat similar to that of the Brahmins of India, the Magi of Persia, and the Chaldeans of Syria. They worshipped in groves, regarded the oak and mistletoe as objects of veneration, and offered sacrifices. Before Christianity came to Britain December was called “Aerra Geola,” because the sun then ” turns his glorious course.” And under different names. such as Woden (another form of Odin), Thor, Thunder, Saturn, etc., the pagans held their festivals of rejoicing at the winter solstice; and so many of the ancient customs connected with these festivals were modified and made subservient to Christianity.

Some of the English even tried to serve Christ and the older gods together, like the Roman Emperor, Alexander Severus, “whose chapel contained Orpheus side by side with Abraham and Christ.” Roedwald of East Anglia resolved to serve Christ and the older gods together, and a pagan and a Christian altar fronted one another in the same royal temple.” Kent, however, seems to have been evangelised rapidly, for it is recorded that on Christmas Day, 597, no less than ten thousand persons were baptized.

Before his death Augustine was able to see almost the whole of Kent and Essex nominally Christian. Christmas was now celebrated as the principal festival of the year, for our Anglo-Saxon forefathers delighted in the festivities of the Halig-Monath (holy month), as they called the month of December, in allusion to Christmas Day. At the great festival of Christmas the meetings of the Witenagemot were held, as well as at Easter and Whitsuntide, wherever the Court happened to be. And at these times the Anglo-Saxon, and afterwards the Danish, Kings of England lived in state, wore their crowns, and were surrounded by all the great men of their kingdoms (together with strangers of rank) who were sumptuously entertained, and the most important affairs of state were brought under consideration. There was also an outflow of generous hospitality towards the poor, who had a hard time of it during the rest of the year, and who required the Christmas giftsto provide them with such creature comforts as would help them through the inclement season of the year.

Readers of Saxon history will remember that chieftains in the festive hall are alluded to in the comparison made by one of King Edwin’s chiefs, in discussing the welcome to he given to the Christian missionary Paulinus: “The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at your meal in winter, with your chiefs and attendants, warmed by a fire made in the middle of the hall, while storms of rain or snow prevail without.”

The “hall” was the principal part of a gentleman’s house in Saxon times “the place of entertainment and hospitality” and at Christmastide the doors were never shut against any who appeared to be worthy of welcome. And with such modes of travelling as were in vogue in those days one can readily understand that, not only at Christmas, but also at other seasons, the rule of hospitality to strangers was a necessity.