Fasts, Feasts, Ale, and Meats: A Medieval Christmas
Any self-respecting capitalist will tell you that just behind Black Friday, Christmas is the time to clean up. The moment Thanksgiving ends, people drape their homes in lights and garlands, erect trees, and buy each other an unholy amount of gifts. Then they wrap those gifts in mountains of paper, travel around the country to deliver them, and eat heaps of pie. All for one day if you live in the United States.
People celebrate Christmas all over the world, even when they aren’t religious. From Armenia and Colombia to the Netherlands and Croatia, revelers decorate, eat, fast, feast, and sing in celebration. Some start early in December while others wait for January. Regardless of the customs or culture, Christmas transcends the globe. But if you’ve ever mindlessly watched the 24-hour yule log channel and thought, “would I have enjoyed a medieval Christmas more than this?” then you’ve come to the right place.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem, outlined in the New Testament of the Bible. No one knows exactly when he was born. Some scholars believe it’s more likely that it happened in the spring or summer of 2, 4, or 7 B.C.E. But because people were having a heck of a time calculating when Easter should be, Western Christian churches settled on December 25th in the early fourth century. That date coincided with various midwinter celebrations and the Roman winter solstice, which occurs nine months after the vernal equinox, a day linked to Jesus’ conception.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336, but after that it fell out of fashion for a few centuries. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans” at Saint Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in 800, the holiday began to regain prominence. The medieval Christmas was born.
The medieval calendar had no shortage of holidays, but Christmas was by far the longest, lasting from Christmas Eve (December 24th) to Epiphany on January 6th. Winter saw much of the agricultural work cease, and peasants and aristocrats alike could afford to take some time off.
But before it was time for things to be merry and bright, Advent happened. This was the season directly before Christmas. It was a sober time when you would prepare for the upcoming celebrations and contemplate the second coming of Christ. Medieval people needed to fast, abstain from sex, and in general be penitent and contrite.
Christmas Day itself was overshadowed by Epiphany, during which Western Christians focused on the visit of the three magi. Christmastide, also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas, was the period in between these two events. Once Charlemagne made his big stink on Christmas day, other rulers followed suit, including King Edmund the Martyr in 855 and King William I of England in 1066. By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had gained enough prominence that people started paying attention to how the rich and famous were celebrating.
Fit For a King
If you’re imagining lavish medieval Christmas banquets taking place in the castles of royalty, you would be right. When ten-year-old King Richard II hosted a feast in 1377, nearly 30 oxen had to die for the honor of gracing the table. Guests devoured them alongside hundreds of sheep, and if it was anything like the insane feast he held a decade later, tons of roasted birds, tarts, and maybe even a dissh of Gely. We hope he enjoyed it, seeing as how his cousin would eventually depose him.
Even if you weren’t the king of England, there was plenty to go around if you were rich. The landed aristocracy could expect several courses that started with an early lunch of broth with meat and vegetable stew. This might be followed by finer delicacies than they enjoyed on a typical day, like seafood, legs of mutton, veal, goose, venison, capon, crane, and much more. There were no vegans here. This was lucky, because one particularly special Christmas dish consisted of a boar’s head on a platter. If you didn’t have a boar, a swan roasted in its feathers would do. And though turkey is a common Christmas dish now, it wasn’t available in Europe until the 1500s after it was brought over from the Americas.
Up next was dessert. Before you enjoyed sumptuous fruit custards, pastries, cheese boards, and rare fruits like oranges, you nibbled on little decorated treats glazed with sugar and honey. To wash it down you quaffed red and white wine, spiced wine, cider, and if you felt like slumming it, ale. In the late Middle Ages you might have a nice beer. You ate all this with your hands, so you shared a washing bowl with one other guest. You put your meat on a trencher of day-old bread, and you could expect to have your very own bowl of salt, another indicator of wealth.
Please, Sir, I Want Some More
While all this feasting was going in the Great Hall of the local lord, the servants weren’t left completely high and dry. Traditionally they enjoyed better quality food than during the rest of the year, munching on geese and hens. The poor were likewise delighted with the leftovers of the feast, which were brought outside for them to scavenge.
Medieval Christmas also saw a bit of roleplay (no, not that kind), as aristocrats deigned to invite the serfs to the manor for a meal. This was at the discretion of the lord, who might invite everyone or just pick two. If they were lucky they could bring a friend along. Peasants needed to supply their plates and firewood to eat food they had produced. Still, it was a chance to see the splendor of the rich, pretend to be above your station, and get some free ale.
The lower classes took their cues from their lord to decorate their homes with readily available greenery like holly. There was also the selection of a Yule log. You lit this special chunk of wood on Christmas Eve and kept it burning until the Twelfth Night. Sharp-eyed peasants might see something in the flames that foretold how the new year would go. After Epiphany you placed the log beneath the bed for luck and protection. No one is certain where this tradition sprung from, but many suspect it has its roots in Germanic paganism.
Christmas trees didn’t become a thing until Germans began decorating trees inside their homes in the 16th century. But before that, trees still offered important symbolism to Christians. Evergreens were prized back to ancient Rome for their endurance and symbolized eternal life. Holly, with berries red like the blood of Christ after he wore the crown of thorns, housed good spirits.
You splurged on boiled meat, cheese, and eggs, and drank lots of ale brewed by women. Some unlucky serfs had to gift extra bread, eggs, or livestock to their lord. High-ranking estate hands, such as the swineherd and shepherd, enjoyed a lovely bonus of clothes, firewood, drinks, and food. Peasant children could look forward to simple toys like whistles, carved figurines, spinning tops, or marbles.
Just like now, drinking alcohol was a favorite pastime of many a medieval person, but especially so during the Christmas period. As a rule, the average citizen quaffed large quantities of weak ale instead of water. Despite this tolerance, people somehow still managed to get rowdy. So much so that it was commonplace for wealthy lords to employ watchmen to guard their estates against rioters. Outside of warmth and some bread, watchmen could expect a reward of, you guessed it — a gallon of ale.
If drinking wasn’t your thing or you liked multitasking, you could watch touring monks perform mystery plays recreating Bible scenes. You could enjoy everything from the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod to the Creation Story to the Last Judgement. Seeing monks play evil characters didn’t sit well with some, though, and in 1210 Pope Innocent III issued a papal edict forbidding clergy from acting on a public stage. This ushered in a wave of private plays in residences as well as those put on by special town guilds.
Bigger cities might put on public pageants with wagons carting people dressed as biblical characters. Mummers would also parade through the streets in various guises accompanied by bands of musicians. They dressed in outlandish costumes and acted out short plays, sometimes entering people’s homes for payment in food and drink.
Another seemingly non-Christian pastime during the holidays was gambling. Throwing dice was a particular favorite, but board games and cards had a place too. There was also a game called “king of the bean,” a precursor to the Mardi Gras staple of king cakes that has pagan roots. The idea was that a bean was hidden in bread or a special cake. The lucky person who found the bean became ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the feast and could subsequently lord it over everyone else at the table. Often other diners had to imitate their new ruler to hilarious effect.
Up in Scandinavia, drunk adults partook in a form of trick-or-treating called Julebukking. Young men would also go from farm to farm in the middle of the night in costume trying to frighten people. In Western Europe, some cities would elect a young boy to be the “Christmas Bishop” for the day. He would dress in vestments and marry people, give a sermon, and receive gifts of food and money. Italians held a nativity pageant called Presepi while the French enjoyed an inter-village football game called soule.
Take Me to Church
In between all of the feasting, singing, guising, and drinking, medieval Christmas was about devotion and church above all else. Services became more elaborate for Christmas, with troping developing around the 9th century. This was the addition of extra dialogues and songs that posed deep questions. Individual speakers and actors also partook in added dramatizations.
Childermas, also called the Feast of the Holy Innocents, occurred on December 28th. This commemorated King Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus by executing all the toddlers in Bethlehem (very Game of Thrones of you, Herod.) This was often the time for the aforementioned boy bishops to conduct services and lead a torchlit procession.
Things got even weirder on New Years Day, which saw the Feast of the Circumcision, AKA the Feast of Fools. This practice began in northern France before spreading to other parts of Europe. Minor clergy would take on the role of false Bishop, Archbishop, or Pope while higher clergy assumed the roles of the lower. A ‘Lord of Misrule’ was appointed and it was his job to encourage bad behavior and wild antics. Ecclesiastical rituals were parodied and extravagances reached almost blasphemous levels. It’s no surprise that the church tried to reign it in over the centuries.
The Morning After
It’s not easy coping with the letdown that is the day after Christmas, even now. While many are still in the holiday spirit until New Year’s, it’s hard to ignore that sinking feeling the morning of December 26th, when you’re left to count your presents while nursing a hangover with cold turkey.
Thankfully for people during medieval Christmas, that feeling didn’t arrive until after Epiphany. Even then, they liked to ease back into things. The following Monday men staged a plough race at sunrise, which they creatively named Plough Monday. Saint Distaff’s Day came on January 7th, when women returned to household chores and weaving. Often, men and women used this opportunity to pull hijinks and prank each other, because nothing helps you focus like someone trying to set your flax on fire.
This is supposing you didn’t celebrate the Octave of Epiphany, an eight-day feast beginning on January 6th and ending on the 13th. This tradition dates back to the 8th century, and it took until 1955 for the Church to officially say enough was enough. Pope Pius XII declared it a one-day hurrah.
There’s always Candlemas to look forward to, we guess.
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