“Saturnalia”, the Month of December

“Yeah, Santa Claus is coming to town, tonight!”

In writing this series of monthly accounts describing the customs and traditions of the British Isles I had hoped to emphasise the eternal, cyclic nature of time as opposed to the immutable projection of time as a linear illusion. In this sense, like Spike Milligan; “I’m walking backwards to Christmas across the Irish sea” – for we will never know what the future has in store for us until it finally arrives at our door. No doubt in the Christian year you might already have bought your Advent calendar, a festival which could take place towards the end of November or the beginning of December being located some 24 days before Christmas Day (falling in the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day). Advent Sunday marks or denotes the “Coming of Christ” into the world during the darkest days of the year and coincides with the Jewish Hanukkah or “Feast of Lights” which begins on the 25th December and continues for eight days thereafter. Traditionally, the feast or celebration of Christmas began 12 days before the 25th and 12 days after that and ends on Twelfth Night (6th January, Epiphany). In 1864 Chamber’s Book of Days writes:

“Dark December has now come, and brought with him the shortest day and the longest night: he turns the mist-like rain into ice with the breath of his nostrils: and with cold that pierces to the very bones, drives the shivering and houseless beggar to seek shelter in the deserted shed…Even the houses, with their frosted windows, have now a wintry look; and the iron knocker on the door, covered with hoary rime, seems to cut the fingers like a knife when it is touched.”

A photographer’s view of Matlock, Derbyshire in the dead of Winter

December was known to the largely pagan Anglo-Saxons as “Wintermonath”, but was renamed “Helighmonath” (Holy Month) when Christianity was absorbed or introduced into the British Isles. “Yuletide” or “Saturnalia” as it was known took place over the 7 days before Christmas day as the sun entered the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (21st Dec), the sea-goat, but unfortunately there was no Father Christmas or Santa Claus in Shakespeare’s time. If you take into account that SANTA is an anagram of SATAN, who is represented in astrology as the planet Saturn or that the curious belief in Santa Claus was an invention or custom of the late 19th century and for Christians derived from the European saint St. Nicholas whose feast day occurs on the 6th December. However, this was a period when these days before the Winter Solstice were known as the “halcyon days”. It was a time of tranquillity and joy derived from a legend that the Kingfisher was breeding, and at this time the sea was calm and navigable by the mariner. Essentially, celebrations, festivities and customs as well as occasions for drama, focussed on the end of the “Old Year” and the beginning of the new around St. Lucia’s Day (December 13th). These notions were later transposed to the 1st January by the 15th and 16th century, largely because of persistent Scottish influences. For Catholics Christmas Eve became St. Thomas’s Day, conjoined with the “9 Lessons” festival drama followed by St. Stephen’s Feast Day (28th) or Almsgiving Day, the Feast of Innocents (29th) and then into New Year’s Eve. December was known to the largely pagan Anglo-Saxons as “Wintermonath”, but was renamed “Helighmonath” (Holy Month) when Christianity was absorbed or introduced into the British Isles.

An artist’s impression of a live performance at the Globe Theatre

December derives its name from the Roman Decem meaning the tenth month of the year which began in March. It marks officially the end of Autumn and the beginning of Winter. However astronomically winter per se begins at the winter solstice on the 22nd of December. A traditional rhyme recites:

“If New Year’s Eve’s Night the wind blows south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish into the sea;
If north, much cold and storms there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man and brute.”

A medieval scene depicting a Mummer’s play

Moreover Saturnalia was celebrated by Mummer’s plays. Usually, a presenter, such as “Auld Nick” (ie: Father Xmas)  would introduce the characters and announce their intent, for example the first warrior knight would appear boasting of his formidable strength, courage or accomplishments, then another (“The Turk”) would appear to take him on. A slashing sword combat would take place, and one would fall dead and soon after a Doctor would be called to revive him, and if this failed a minister with attendants (“Beelzebub”) would arrive to administer the last rites. Therefore within elements of the Mystery plays, Miracle plays and Morality plays we will find vestiges or correspondences to these earlier ritualistic masques or traditions that had taken place prior to the conversion of the British populace to Christianity. For example among the Celtic peoples the time of Christmas was celebrated in honour of the dead with Odin, who was thought to ride his horse across the heavens leading the hunt. Today that task is performed by Santa Claus, alias Old Nick or Father Christmas with a team of reindeer and a bag of presents for children. However, the clergy were keen to sanitise and censor much of what they considered to be inappropriate pantheism or idolatry in any respect to the old pagan ways. Mummer’s plays were often considered a threat by the Church Fathers partly because of their satirical innuendos and symbolic or allegorical content, where for example they were critical of the lies and hypocrisy of the Orthodox Church. But these traditions remain in the dramatic yet secular celebration of pantomimes such as “Jack & the Beanstalk”, “Cinderella”, “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves”, “Dick Whittington”, and “Aladdin, the Thief of Bagdad” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood” which featured a “principal boy”, usually played by a girl and the “principal girl”, played by a boy as it was in Shakespeare’s time. A good deal of the narrative and style of these popular dramas owe their existence to the influence of the Italian “Commedia d’ell Arte” which William Shakespeare helped to import from Europe. Favourite Shakespeare plays for performance at the Globe this time would have been “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Comedy of Errors”, “A Winter’s Tale” and of course “Twelfth Night”.

Chambers Book of Days, a compendium of annual and regional pagan and Christian festivities and customs, wrote in 1864:

“To investigate the origin of many of our Christmas customs, it becomes necessary to wander far back into the regions of past time…We have frequently, in the course of this work, had occasion to remark on the numerous traces still visible in popular customs of the old pagan rites and ceremonies. These, it is needless here to repeat, were extensively retained after the conversion of Britain to Christianity, partly because the Christian teachers found it impossible to wean their converts from their cherished superstitions and observances, and partly because they themselves, as a matter of expediency, engrafted the rites of the Christian religion onto their old heathen ceremonies, believing that thereby the cause of the Cross would be rendered more acceptable to the generality of the populace, and thus be more effectually promoted.”

Christina Rossetti writes of this time:

“In the bleak Mid-Winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow;
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter, long, long ago.”

An artist’s depiction of the nativity

Christmas Eve or Candlemass, as it was sometimes called, (often confused with Candlemass which takes place in February) was celebrated by the recitation of hymns and carols both in church and in the local community. Boughs of holly, mistletoe, and fir would be collected to decorate door thresholds and beams in the homes and churches. More especially Mummer’s Plays were usually performed at this time. Pagan customs such as burning of the Yule log and candle, or sharing of the Loving Cup would be drunk, love divination was entertained because evil or mischievous spirits were thought to have little influence at this time. Another magical custom was the “Wooden” (after Wodin) or “Hooden Horse” visits from place to place knocking at doors, the horse being a pagan symbol of the new Sun. The word “Yule” is actually of Nordic origin and refers to the month of July, although the actual feast was originally held in midwinter (Dec 21st) and transferred later to the 25th December.

Ideally, if the weather permitted it was an opportunity to indulge in winter sports especially if the rivers or lakes were iced over and gave participants an opportunity to display their ice-skating, skiing or snow-boarding and sledging skills. When the river Thames froze over in 1716 and 1814 for example local stalls and booths were set up, with roasted chestnuts, mince pies, warm broths and the like were sold to the participants and visitors who came to watch. They were accompanied with musicians, dancers and acrobats and tumblers eager to display their skills.

Sunset at the Winter Solstice at Gors Fawr, Wales

William Langland (1330-1400) attacked the corruption and hypocrisy of the state and clergy while Geoffrey Chaucer, like his European contemporary Sebastian Brant, also satirised and lampooned the human condition (viz; “Ship of Fools”). Langland’s most well known work was “The Vision of Piers Plowman” where he presents the reader with a vivid illustration, in a symbolic and abstract sense, of contemporary life from the period and some insight into the ordinary person’s religious outlook. Less Old English and more Middle English is also characteristic of his literary style.

Et Incarnatus Est
Love is the plant of peace and most precious of virtues;
For heaven hold it ne might, so heavy it seemed,
Till it had on earth yoten himself.
Was never leaf upon linden lighter thereafter,
As when it had of the fold flesh and blood taken;
Then was it portative and piercing as the point of a needle,
May no armour it let, neither high walls.
For-thy is love leader of our Lord’s folk of heaven.

The customary pagan feast was in honour of the Teutonic gods Odin, Thor and Freya and consisted of three symbolic elements. Firstly, it was intended as a revival of the dead, the renewal of the life-force in nature, and as a commemoration of the end of the old year. The hunting rite of Odin, who hailed the souls of the dead warriors is now celebrated as Santa Claus riding his sleigh over the rooftops and the vigil Christian Midnight Mass. For Catholics, New Year’s Day was associated with the circumcision of the infant Jesus. The associations with boar, duck, goat and deer reflect the primal fertility of nature. Evergreen trees featured strongly and a ritual log placed on a fire, usually oak or pine to commemorate the spirit of the new year as in the case of the Greek Dionysus, Phoenician Attis, or Celtic Balder. It was thought that ill-fortune or lightning would not strike a house where the Yule log was burning, it therefore acted as a pagan prophylactic charm. A grand feast was held accompanied by drinking bouts, with a meal of roasted boar’s head intended to symbolise the Sun and in honour of Freya or Odin. The giving of Christmas presents originates from Germany as does the decoration of the traditional Christmas tree which symbolises the World Tree (Ygdrassil) of Germanic and Nordic myth. In fact tree worship at Christmas time is extensive and a vestige of earlier pagan practices. For example, the mistletoe, ivy, the holly and the oak all feature symbolically at this sacred time of the year.

In the “Arthurian Book of Days” this period marks the event known as “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight” when King Arthur, together with his most loyal and honoured knights celebrates around the Round Table a great feast, with music, carols, revels and mirth. The persona of the Green Knight had several transformational makeovers over his 400 year history. Initially, in some sagas he fights heroically against the Romans, he dies in the conflict with Mordred, but in later French romances he assumes the role of a silver-tongued charlatan and seducer of women, and in others as a brutal murderer. In England however he was paradoxically portrayed as a “virtuous knight” who would not succumb to the beguiling seductions of his hosts’ wife. The wife somewhat astonished by his celibate or rather chaste lifestyle in contrast to his widespread reputation in the realm as a lothario or gigolo. The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears only in one ancient manuscript, the anonymous author of which probably heralded from the North or West Midlands (Cheshire, Derbyshire or Staffordshire). The most likely candidate, according to Brian Stone (Penguin Classics) is Hugo de Masci, later spelt Mascy or Massey from Cheshire, (Dunham Massey?) who lived there in the time of Edward III, although Brian Stone is not the sole source for such a suggestion. References and evidence for this theory begin with Ormerod Greenwood‘s translation of the poem (Lion & Unicorn Press 1956), suggesting they may lie in an understanding of medieval numerology hidden in poetry, in particular a peculiar link between another work St. Erkenwald and the Massey family name. The style and content of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight is also similar to other works of the time eg: “The Owl & the Nightingale”, “Cleanness”, “The Pearl” and “St. Erkenwald”. The reference to Margery (which literally means “pearl”) may be to Margaret the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke and granddaughter of the legendary King Edward IIIrd who revived the Round Table of Knights.

The story goes that the Green Knight rides to the court of King Arthur on Christmas Day and challenges Arthur’s’ knights to an unusual form of mortal combat. He tells them he will endure any blow with the axe he displays so long as he could in turn give a similar blow to his executioner. The Green Knight then held the axe out to any volunteer saying that whoever remained alive would have earned the right to carry the axe. Somewhat bemused by this offer at first no knights volunteered for this feat, then as King Arthur himself grabbed the axe, Sir Gawain interceded and offered to take the place of the King and strike the first blow on the neck of the Green Knight. Sir Gawain raised the axe and with one mighty blow severed the head of the Green Knight. Whereupon, to the astonishment of the entire gathering the headless Green Knight got up, swung onto his horse and rode away saying he would expect a visit from poor Gawain, the next year to when he would be entitled to exact his blow on him. A year passes and come the time Gawain dons his armour and astride his favourite mount Gringolet he heads off to North Wales to meet the Green Knight.

The Green Knight interrupts the festive occasion with a startling challenge

After many perilous adventures he finds hostelry at a castle where his host is a genial red-bearded lord named Sir Bertilak with a beautiful fair-haired damsel as his wife. Gawain discovers from them the location of the Green Chapel (assumed to be Llud’s Church in near Leek, Staffordshire) where the Green Knight lives and explains his mission to them. The next day the lord decides to go out hunting and allows Sir Gawain every comfort he may wish and that they give each other a solemn oath to exchange what ever they had gained that day. Gawain is openly propositioned by the Lady of the house and he graciously declines to acquiesce to her desires except for one kiss. So, when the lord returns he tells Gawain of his success in killing a deer and hands it to Gawain as a trophy as arranged. Gawain smiles secretly and embracing him kisses him on the cheek. The day after the lord goes hunting for boar while his wife attempts another seduction of Gawain who, on this occasion allows her only two kisses. When the lord returns much later he is greeted by Gawain only this time by two kisses. On the third day the lord went fox-hunting and his wife’s amorous advances continued until in an embrace she gives him three kisses and offers her magic girdle as a token of love to Sir Gawain, which he kindly accepts. She tells him that the wearer of the girdle becomes invulnerable and cannot be killed, so that bearing in mind the ensuing challenge from the Green Knight, Gawain is extremely thankful for the gift, yet he is concerned that he cannot offer it up to Lord Bertilak when he returns as promised. Towards evening the lord of the castle returns with a fox hide and they adjourn for a merry supper.

The next day Gawain is resolved to finish his mission and meet the Green Knight, so mounting his steed he rides off in search of the Green Chapel. When he encounters the Green Knight he kneels before him as requested so that he might strike his blow with the axe. The Green knight raises the weapon and just as he is about to strike he notices that Gawain, despite his valour makes a terrified flinch. He holds the axe a bear millimetre away from his neck and declines to finish him off saying that he is not a true knight to have an ounce of fear in his bones. Gawain challenges him to make the blow again and he will see that he is courageous enough not to flinch in anticipation. As Gawain was wearing the magic girdle the Green Knight only manages to nick him slightly on the neck, from which wound a little blood begins to flow. Now the Green Knight discovers the trickery and retrieves the girdle from Gawain and openly accuses him of falsehood as it rightly belongs to him through the vestiges of his own wife. Therefore, the “Green Girdle”, traditionally a symbol of faithlessness, but paradoxically offering protection from the Knight’s blows, gives Sir Gawain away, and consequently he wears it reluctantly, even though it is a symbol of honour. Unfortunately, his own faithlessness as a knight of the realm had been exposed. Aware that some secret plot or drama has been exacted upon him, Gawain then acknowledging this possibility discovers that this trial has all been engineered by the sorcery of the witch Morgan le Fay. In earlier romances Sir Gawain holds the sword Excalibur, not Arthur as noted in later versions, and he was also considered a healer and extremely self-sacrificing as well as chivalrous.

Literary Sources:

Brewer’s Phrase & Fable; revised by Adrian Broom (Cassell Publishing Group)
Chamber’s Book of Days; R. Chambers (Chambers Harrap Publishers)
The English Year; Steve Roud (Penguin Press)
The Arthurian Book of Days (Brockhampton Press, Caitlin & John Matthews)

The links to my publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and my anthology of poetry; “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:

“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,