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.