Celebration is an important characteristic of mankind, and all societies build traditions around seasonal landmarks of the year, and significant national events, as well as personal ones.
The celebration of the birth of Christ has been a highpoint of the Christian Church from its earliest days, but it was not until the Church received official sanction under the Emperor Constantine that it began to grow in public recognition and become the central part of Midwinter Festivals. As the pagan tribes were slowly christianized by missionary activity and military force the two strands blended together into a joyful, colorful, celebration that lightened the cold and darkness of midwinter.
Through the Middle Ages it became the most important festival of the Catholic Church - a season of light and colour in the midst of winter cold and scarcity. The people gathered to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the World and to look forward to the spring, the rich shared their plenty with poorer members of the community, and the grim winter was forgotten for a short while. In many regions the traditional celebrations extended to Twelfth Night on January fifth (commemorating the arrival of the Magi, or Kings) and beyond and took place both within the church precincts and throughout the town.
It is hard for us to imagine how intimately the life of the Church and of the Town were intertwined in the days when people lived in local communities and made their own entertainment, or relied on minstrels travelling on foot and by ship. There were no celebrities flown in to create music and many members of the community would participate - or hope to do so the following year. Christmas celebrations involved all the guilds, which meant most of the town's craftsmen and merchants, with pageants, parties and church services, and bells ringing out on all sides.
The idea of a creche - a living re-enactment of the stable scene with a baby and live animals can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi's vision to show people the homely beginning of the Savior's life, but there were also Christmas pageants in which carts of actors moved through the city streets stopping at designated corners to enact scenes from the birth and life of Christ. Most of the guilds had their own cart for which they provided the inspiration, costumes and participants and these depicted the intertwining of faith and life. There was no effort to set these plays in Roman costume, they were performed in ordinary dress, with masks to identify the various characters and symbols that represented the guilds scattered freely throughout. Even the lines spoken would refer to topical events and characters, so that although they were using a common fund of stories each depiction was unique.