One of my favourite Christmas stories of all time is the late fourteenth-century anonymous poem Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives now only in a single manuscript filled with charming pictures (see left – aren’t they sweet?)
In this rollicking tale, King Arthur’s court is interrupted during some festive feasting by a peculiar green chap (who is also sparkly in the frankly bizarre in the terrible 1984 film Sword of the Valiant) who invites the knights to partake in something that he calls a ‘Christmas Game’.
It turns out that this ‘Christmas Game’ is that Gawain and the Green Knight will chop each others’ heads off (pictured above). Gawain is not very keen, until the Green Knight tells him he can have first chop. Thinking he’s on to a winner, Gawain chops off this chap’s head and thinks he’s safe. Not so since the Green Knight picks up his head, and tells Gawain the blow will be repaid a year and a day from then, and to keep his honour Gawain has to find his way to the Green Chapel to receive it.
So far, so not what you want to receive for Christmas. But off Gawain goes until he comes to a castle near to the Green Chapel. He’s generously hosted by its lord, more feasting ensues, and ends up as the object of his host’s wife’s alarmingly persistent desire, which culminates in her giving him some underwear of hers that he accepts since she claims it has the power to save any man from death. (Magic pants indeed). Quite a useful festive gift for a man who’s about to have his head chopped off.
I shan’t spoil the end (you can google it if you’re dying to find out), but rest assured that our dashing hero has quite a tale to tell at the next Christmas feast. Gawain and the Green Knight, although it covers an entire year, is closely tied to medieval traditions surrounding Christmas. It opens with a Christmassy feasting scene, and King Arthur demanding stories and entertainment for the festive season. The ‘Christmas Game’ that Gawain accepts would usually have been something more whimsical and fun than having one’s head chopped off. Perhaps they even played charades.*
Anyway, when you are all sitting around at your family Christmases, do take comfort in the fact that at least no one is going to chop off your head.
(* I am sure they did not.)