A bloody hand is holding a bunch of holly in the forest
A Saxon Christmas in Bath
As most of us prepare to celebrate Christmas, indulging in fine food, rich treats and alcohol in the midst of our loved ones, seldom few of us spend much time reflecting on the origins of the traditions we hold so dear.
The birth of Christmas as an important festival in the Christian calendar originated in Europe during the Dark Ages, a period dating from around 400AD to around 800AD and so called because of the relative lack of information we have of this time, a period characterised by warfare, violence and instability. It was also the period during which the Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales, as we know them today, began to take shape.
The Story of Bath
Bath, or Aquae Sulis, as it was known to the Romans, was an important town during the Roman era, as a spa retreat for the wealthy. Once the Romans abandoned Britannia to its fate around 410AD, the town continued to play a prominent part in the island’s history albeit in a very different role. One of the most famous events of this period was the Battle of Badon Mount. This was supposedly fought between the legendary King Arthur and the Saxon ‘savages’ that had invaded Britain in the
late 400s and had been remorselessly pushing westwards.
We are not entirely sure of where this battle took place, but based on historical references, many believe Solsbury Hill – just above Batheaston – is the most likely site. It is here that the Christian Celtic-Britons repulsed the encroaching heathen Anglo-Saxons, killing hundreds in an almighty battle that lasted three full days and resulted in the invaders being driven back east for at least a generation. It is, however, the Saxons rather than the Britons that have seized my imagination.
Despite Arthur’s great victory, within a few decades following Arthur’s victory, the Bath region was firmly under the control of the West Saxons and the Britons had retreated west and south to become the people we know today as the Welsh and the Cornish. It seems that the Saxons were fascinated with the crumbling Roman ruins they inherited at Bath and one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon poems, The Ruin, written in the 8th or 9th centuries – around 500 years after the Romans left – appears to refer to the derelict city:
Wondrous the stone of these ancient walls, shattered by fate. The districts of the city have crumbled. The work of giants of old lies decayed . . . . . . Stone courtyards ran streams of ample water, heating the great baths, conveniently flowing into the great stone vats . . .
Roman Baths - Aquae Sulis
By the time this poem had been recorded in the 900s, Bath’s importance as a Saxon town was well established. The founding of a convent in Bath in 675 CE attests both to the fact that the heathen Saxons had been successfully converted to Christianity and also that Bath’s stature was growing once again.
It is from this time that Bath starts being referred to by the name we recognise it today. Hat Bathu or Hot Baths was the name it was given by our Saxon forebears. The convent was soon joined by a monastery and thus Bath’s role as a centre of religious importance was restored – both the ancient Britons and Romans had linked Bath’s springs to their respective religions. Finally, in the 880s, King Alfred the Great made Bath one of his new boroughs. This development of fortified, self-governing towns that would act as a network of defences and provide men and supplies would ensure that it was the Anglo-Saxons that ended up the dominant force in England, not the Vikings. Bath’s prosperity was thus guaranteed by Saxon patronage of the city in religion, politics and defence.
There is clearly more to Bath’s past than the Romans, Normans and Georgians. Whilst Bath Abbey clearly reflects the Norman’s influence on Christianity in this country, what legacy have the Saxons left us with in regards to our festive practices? Whilst we may not be aware of it, many of our Christmas traditions stem from this part of our history. As a way of incentivising the Saxons to convert, the early Christian missionaries in the British Isles wholescale adopted many pagan traditions into Christian festivities as a way to wrest the heathens from their old religions.
Photo Resource: The Press Enterprise
Pagan Origins & Yule
The term ‘Yule’ referred to the sun or light and was the name for the Saxon festival marking mid-winter solstice. At that time the Julian calendar was in use, which marked mid-winter’s day on 25 December and the pagan Saxons would spend the 12 days before Yule lighting candles and keeping fires burning to mark the occasion.
It is no coincidence that the celebration of Christmas emerged alongside the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity around the same time. Other Saxon traditions also continued. Burning a Yuletide log was a common Saxon tradition which consisted of burning an ash or oak log lit from the remains of the previous year’s log on 25 December. The ashes were then spread across the fields and the burnt remains kept in the house to ward off fire until re-lit to light the next Yule log the following year.
Holly and ivy were also central to the Saxons’ celebration of Yule. Both were revered as they did not die or wither as other plants seemed to during winter, but kept their greenness and vitality. They symbolised continuity and fertility, with holly representing the masculine, and ivy the feminine. While these meanings have been largely lost on us today, we continue to use holly and ivy in our modern Christmas decorations.
Due to the cultural annihilation and disconnection wreaked upon the Saxon population by the Norman conquerors in 1066, we tend to forget our connections with our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, yet as we enjoy this festive season and reflect on the year behind us, times gone by and times ahead, is it worth sparing a moment’s thought for our Saxon ancestors? Who, over a thousand years ago, would have huddled in dimly lit, wooden-framed houses, sitting close to a smoky fire, wrapped tightly in thick sheepskins celebrating the end of the year and the arrival of a new one sharing customs we still practice today? Perhaps it is worth at least a thought.