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Oregon Family Magazine

Holiday Magic in Medieval Europe

12/02/2022 ● By Lexie Briggs
Ah, the holiday season, that time between Halloween and New Year’s Eve when we reconnect with family, friends, and community. It's a little bit magical, a little bit spiritual, and mostly a lot of fun.

People have viewed this time of year as just a little more magical for longer than you might think! Did you know that many of the traditions we still celebrate today date back as far as the Middle Ages? Many modern "American" traditions have roots dating back to medieval European Christianity and spirituality, and those traditions have roots that date to pre-Christian Europe. 

Halloween as we know it began as an American holiday, with some of the earliest instances of spooky costume wearing and celebrations dating back to the early 1900s. But traditions like carving a jack-o'-lantern and going trick-or-treating are much, much older. The tradition of making jack-o'-lanterns originally comes from Ireland, where people would carve a face into a turnip, beet, or potato. Pumpkins are much easier to carve, and Americans adopted the pumpkin jack-o'-lantern as the official mascot of Halloween.

Halloween can also trace its roots further back to Medieval Christianity. One predecessor to Halloween is All Souls' (or All Hallows') Eve, a day for using Christian supernatural power against the forces of death and darkness, which in turn is a holiday from a much earlier, pre-Christian tradition. Trick-or-treating can trace its roots back to soul-cakes, a popular treat in medieval Europe. People would go "souling," or going door-to-door to ask for homemade Eucharist, or soul-cakes. They would say a rhymed blessing as well—a little different from trick-or-treating today. At one time, soul-cakes were basically homemade communion wafers, but they became sweeter with time.

Besides medieval Christian roots, Halloween and Christmas share another tradition—one that is nearly forgotten today. Have you ever wondered about that line in It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year that says "There'll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories of/Christmases long, long ago?" Christmastime was once thought to be a time when the boundary between spirits and the living blurred, and many families told holiday ghost stories around the yuletide fire. We still see some lingering ghost stories, though—one of the most popular Christmas stories is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, where ghosts lead Ebeneezer Scrooge through Christmases past, present, and future. Plus, who could forget the modern classic The Nightmare Before Christmas?

That's not the only magic of Christmas! Santa Claus, Père Noël, Kristkind, Befana—whatever the name, magical beings are part of Christmastime gift-giving traditions throughout Europe and the United States. Traditionally, Santa Claus was a small, magical being, like a household sprite. People today still leave him milk and cookies, just as medieval people did for their household sprites. Only after people began dressing up as Santa did he become life-sized in popular culture. Remember the portion of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (commonly called "T'was the Night before Christmas") that calls Santa's sleigh "miniature," with "eight tiny reindeer." Also, it's easier to fit down a chimney if you're the size of a sprite!

So, this holiday season, while you're hanging out with family, maybe try carving a face into a turnip, telling a ghost story, or leaving out an extra cookie for your own household sprite. After all, it's tradition!

Want to dive deeper into magical traditions? Magic in Medieval Europe is currently on display at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History on the University of Oregon Campus. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and until 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays. The museum will take a winter break between Wednesday, December 21 and Tuesday, December 27, but is open the rest of the month.