Although our word “Christmas” comes from the Old English (10th century) term “Cristesmæsse”, the medieval practices and celebrations of the season were very different to our contemporary celebrations, and gift-giving was certainly not a feature. There’s some evidence, however, of gift-giving at New Year and one of the most interesting medieval stories that deals with the exchange of gifts is an Arthurian story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The story begins in Arthur’s court of Camelot where he and his knights are enjoying frivolous New Year games and gifts. The carefree atmosphere is shattered by the arrival of an unknown giant of a knight who is not only dressed all in green but also has skin of a green hue. Even his horse is green. Now, of course, in the broadest interpretation of this story opening, the “green knight” represents the intrusion of the natural world (and the “old religions”) into a Christian setting but there are more important lessons in this story.
Once the shock of his entrance into the King’s court has subsided, the Green Knight asks for a volunteer to cut off his head. Sir Gawain steps up to the challenge and removes the Green Knight’s head cleanly in one blow. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Green Knight bends down to pick up his own severed head and, propping it under his arm, continues to speak to the assembly. He reminds them that since “one good turn deserves another”, Sir Gawain is expected to seek him out at the same time next year so that he may remove Sir Gawain’s head.
The laws of chivalry require Sir Gawain to honour the request and so, in the biting winter of the following Christmas-New Year period, Gawain sets off on his quest. His adventures en route to his destiny are too lengthy to describe here but what is really interesting about the fabulous Gawain is that, despite his honour and fortitude, he does eventually accept a talisman – a waist cord of green silk – that, while not allowing him to avoid his fate, will protect him from death. With such help, he still faces the Green Knight, still endures the strike of the axe, but his life is spared. Nevertheless, he must return (alive) to Arthur’s court with an obvious and an indelible scar on his neck. It is a bodily reminder of his human frailty. In addition, he decides to emphasise his lack of total courage by wearing the green cord as another sign of his imperfection. In support of his honesty, all the other Arthurian knights take to wearing green silk belts too.
In this New Year as we make all kinds of resolutions to be better than last year, I think that Gawain and the knights can teach us a valuable lesson about doing our best, honouring our commitments, acting with courage and behaving with dignity. But they can also remind us to accept that, despite our best intentions, we are only human; and our friends and family will love us, scars and all.