Christmas at Aachen 792


       This seems a great time to share a Christmas scene that didn’t make it into print.  The following would have been inserted between pages 168 and 169 of Agnes.

After the Christmas feast Head Cook appeared exhausted and preparation for New Year’s still lay ahead. Agnes and Emmett talked her into going to the cottage as the evening meal was being cleared.  “We can handle hot cider and breakfast,” Agnes insisted. 

            That evening Karolus invited his Saxon guests to swim in the warm pool that drew him northward each winter.  The Queen and the other women gathered in the Great Hall, chatting about the entertainment, the food and vespers, and waited to share cider with the men when they returned.   Finally, her strength waning, the Queen sent a runner to ask Karolus his plans and to beg permission to return to her room.

            The runner returned with apologies to the Her Highness and a request that hot cider be sent to the pool.  Fastrada nodded tiredly and, taking her two young daughters, left the hall.  Imma oversaw the kitchen workers ladling cider from the huge iron vat to pitchers, and Agnes and Linza were to find servers; women were not allowed near the pool, even when it was not filled with naked Saxons.

            Fortunately, men who had not been invited to swim were now waiting in the Great Hall and eager to carry jugs of the hot cider.  Agnes still sent a man to the stables to get Deter.  He was a good observer and would tell Head Cook or Imma what he saw.  Although Karolus often soaked in the warm waters, he seldom called for servers to attend him there. 

            A fine snow was falling by the time six men returned for more cider.  Laughing and jostling, they looped a stout limb through the iron rings of the simmering tub and carried the whole thing away.  Imma and Agnes looked at one another, shrugged, and retired.  A messenger would wake them if Karolus needed anything more. 

            Next morning Deter could not spill his account fast enough to satisfy those in the kitchen.   The Saxon guests had made a contest of warming in the pool, then standing on the path until ice crystallized in their hair and eye brows before jumping back into the waters.  Karolus, even though past fifty years, had endured the cold as well as any chief.  Most of the time, however, he had been in the pool conversing with one or another of the Saxon chiefs.


Charlemagne’s magnificent legacy


                Last December my daughter Toni and I made a long-dreamed-of visit to Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen.  It’s a magnificent structure that has been in continuous use for 1200 years—a gift from the Carolingians of the early Middle Ages to their descendents and the people of the world.

               Sources seem to agree that Aachen

Palatine Chapel at Aachen (borrowed from
Palatine Chapel at Aachen (borrowed from

 was not more than a hunting lodge when Charlemagne first held court there. Yet, the sulphurous hot springs—with waters of 160 degrees F—had attracted settlement as early as the Bronze Age.  About 100 AD the Romans had built two-large pool areas—each capable of holding 100 people comfortably—and between them a forum surrounded by colonades.  The ample ruins loom quietly in the middle of a bustling city. 

                Those hot springs attracted Charlemagne more and more as he aged.  Summers he traveled—always on the move—but when drifting snow obscured what passed for roads at the time, Charlemagne chose to sit in the warm waters of his spa with several dozen of his closest friends and plan the world they would build.

               So Charlemagne built his capitol and magnificent chapel next to those Roman baths.

               Reports say that Charlemagne planned to build the chapel for God first.  Yet the palace was in use before the chapel was completed.  When I saw Aachen, I understood.  The chapel was built entirely of stone, with footings extending 15 feet below ground level.  It stands today; the other buildings do not.    

               It takes some imagination to see the chapel as it looked in Charlemagne’s day.  Much of the red sandstone walls are now covered with panels of white marble which were added over the centuries, perhaps each a gift from a special patron.  Structures have been added—including a room with soaring stained-glass walls.  Still, much is the same.

               The bronze doors—five of seven known to exist in the world—are still there.  And the slender upper columns—which bear no weight—are the ones that Charlemagne had taken from ruins in Italy and brought over the Alps in ox carts. 

               The soaring dome—for centuries the highest north of the Alps—is again covered with colorful mosaic, created 100 years ago in an effort to replicate the original. 

               And on the second floor balcony sits Charlemagne’s throne–a square, uncomfortable structure with a facade of yellowish stone.  It’s believed that these slabs once floored a holy site in Jerusalem where Jesus himself may have trod.

                Twelve hundred years ago Charlemagne built a shrine bathed in history and holiness that continues to awe and bless multitudes today.  It is the physical representative of the legacy he left Europe.

Charlemagne–the original Santa Claus?

           Oddly enough, we know little about Christmas in the days of Charlemagne.  References tend to jump over the eight centuries between Roman pagan customs and the 12th century.  Even Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne tells little.

The liturgical year was divided into the Christmas and Easter cycles.  From the first Sunday of Advent, the faithful began their preparations for Christmas by sleeping apart, fasting, and making confession if possible.  Christmas (with its three Masses) and Epiphany (Jan. 6) were celebrated ostentatiously. 

               We are left to imagine what “ostentatiously” meant.  We can be sure, however, that it was primarily religious ceremonies and feasts. 

               Easter was the bigger celebration with fairs and plays.  Is it surprising that medieval Christians felt more awe—and more cause for celebration—at Christ rising from the dead than at his birth?  Few paid attention to their own birthdays.      

               Still, I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that “the prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800.”

               People doubt my ravings about Charlemagne being responsible for wine grapes ever making it into Champagne country or Frankish roads—not Roman—uniting central Europe.  I can imagine their faces if I added “the prominence of Christmas” to his credits. 

               Still, knowing thatfor 500 years emperors of the Holy Roman Empire traveled to Charlemagne’s little chapel in Aachen to be crowned—and that at least two chose to be crowned on Christmas day—I can believe it is possible.             

               Charlemagne went wild with gifts after his coronation.   To churches in Rome he gave a silver table, golden vases, a golden chandelier covered with precious stones, a cross with sapphires…the complete list, according to Richard Winston, filled three pages.  And then he distributed 300 pounds of silver among the poor of Rome.

               Saint Nicholas had lived 400 years before Charlemagne but early gift giving in his memory was trinkets for children on his feast day, Dec. 6, and not part of Christmas. 

               During the centuries after Charlemagne, Christmas gifts were primarily exchanged between vassals and liege lords.  Vassals brought food and their lord gave a feast with neither being much richer nor poorer for it.  As time progressed, however, lords were expected to give costlier and costlier gifts, often of clothing or jewels or weapons.

               When a king failed to take part, it was noted.   This from Life in the Medieval Castle:

            In 1251 Matthew Paris complained that Henry III not only economized on his Christmas expenditures but exacted gifts from his subjects:…”the king…did not distribute any festive dresses to his knights and his household, although all his ancestors had a a practice from times of old of giving away royal garments and costly jewels.”

               So bless or curse Charlemagne this year as you elbow your way through crowded stores and struggle to wrap those Christmas gifts.  If Pope Leo III had not needed the protection of an Emperor, Christians might still celebrate the season with “ostentatious” worship services.