By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West. The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”
Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.
There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.
There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.
Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.
Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.
But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.
After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.