Monday, 23 December 2019

Christmas in early seventh century Britain

"Come, remove your sodden cloak and take a place on the bench. The fire is warm and there is food and drink a-plenty." The bearded man looks at you askance. "Even one who has travelled so far to be here tonight."

He ushers you towards the long bench where others are seated around the central hearth. The feast is already well underway and the men raise their cups and drinking horns to you as they slide along, making way for you to sit.



"I see from your apparel that you have come a long way to be here in our Lord King Edwin's hall at Gefrin," says the steward as you settle onto the wooden bench. "I note you have no eating knife. I will fetch you one." And with that he is gone, bustling away through the servants and thralls who attend the revellers.

Looking up, you see the rafters of the long hall are wreathed in soot and the smoke from the hearth fogs the air around the beams. Your nostrils are filled with the scent of roasting meat, ale, mead, and the sour stink of dozens of unwashed bodies. The man beside you, a sharp faced brute with a badly set broken nose and a savage-looking scar under his right eye, pushes a wooden cup into your hand. Some of the contents slosh over your fingers and onto the board before you. The man grins. There is a gap between his strong white teeth, and judging from his scarred face you imagine he might have lost the tooth in combat. You suppress a shiver of fear, but he seems friendly enough and the warmth of the hall is welcome after the driving, bitter rain outside.

"Drink!" the gap-toothed man demands.

Nervously, you sniff the liquid in the cup. It smells faintly of a plant. Heather, perhaps. You sip it and it tastes unlike anything you have drunk before. It is not unpleasant and has a slightly floral taste.

"The ale is good, is it not?" the man asks. "It is fresh," he continues, "goodwife Aelswith made it this very morn."

You drink some more, allowing the ale to refresh you, and offering the man a nod. He seems pleased.

"Here is the knife I promised you." The steward has returned and hands you a small scabbarded knife. Its handle is smooth and made from antler. "So, tell me, stranger,” the steward says, “did you travel here with the Christ followers? They have come all the way from Cantware."

He indicates a dark robed, sallow-faced man, sitting at the high table beside the richly dressed man you assume to be the lord of the hall, King Edwin of Northumbria. Before you can answer, the steward continues.


"Now I have nothing against this new religion of the Christ, and my Lord King is wise to invite the learned men from Roma into his lands. But they say that this, the shortest day of the year and the longest night, is the birth of their god, the Christ. I suppose that might be true.” He scratches at his beard for a moment, finds something in the thatch of hair and inspects it. He squeezes whatever it is between his fingernails and flicks it over the laden board and into the fire. “But for me,” he continues, “this night will always be Modraniht, Mother Night, and I will celebrate it as I always have and as my father did and my father's father did before him. See," he waves his hand towards the carcass that was being turned slowly on a spit over the fire by a sweat-streaked youth, "a boar has been sacrificed and its head and blood offered up to the gods, that the coming year will bring us fertility and prosperity. This priest man from the south, with his strangely-shaved head, can preach all he wishes about the birth of a child god, but I think Yule will always be celebrated as we do now. With good food, strong drink, and offering up thanks to our forebears and the gods. For at this, the darkest and coldest time of the year, we must make our own light and merriment and look forward to the turning of the year and the coming of the sun and warmth of summer once more. Then the land will be green and full of life and plenty." He laughs and shrugs ruefully. "Listen to me, I speak as though I were a scop, ready to tell you a tale or sing a song. But that is not my place, I am not a spinner of words. That will come later, after the eating is done. Caedmon the bard will sing then and tell-tales the like of which you have never heard. His voice is like liquid honey poured into the ears. But now I must be away. I see Hrothgar calling for more ale. Where is Odelyna?” He tuts. “I told her to take a fresh jug over there an age ago. If I find her dallying again with young Acennan, I will take a hazel switch to her hide! Enjoy the food, friend." He shakes his head, gives you a friendly pat on the shoulder and hurries away.

One of the servants, a redheaded comely girl with skin as pale as lamb’s wool and eyes the green of a summer orchard, places a trencher of freshly sliced meat onto the board. Unsheathing the small knife, you take your lead from the others sitting around you and skewer a piece of meat. Chewing the succulent flesh, you look about contentedly, allowing the merriment of those gathered in the fug-filled mead hall to wash over you. The dark-garbed priest at the high table catches your gaze and inclines his head, as though he recognises a kindred spirit. You raise your cup to him and drink deeply of the ale that had tasted so foreign only moments before. Now, you savour the brew as you wash down the boar meat.

You look the length of the hall, taking in the throng of revellers, the raucous laughter. The heat from the fire and the redolence of the hearty food is comforting. You lean back, feeling the tension easing from your shoulders and you ponder the steward's words.

Much will change over the centuries, you muse. Until one day, this draughty timber hall is just a distant memory, veiled in an almost forgotten past. In these northern lands, raiders and invaders will come and go, kings will be born, rise to power and then go the way of all things.

And yet there will be a constant through the ages. When the year is at the wane and the longest night is come, then, whether it is known as Yule, Modraniht or Christmas, the people of this island will eat, drink and spend time with their loved ones, looking back at the year behind them and gazing forward to warmer, brighter times ahead.

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This article first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde's blog.

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