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Christmas in the Middle Ages


It’s a common misconception that our modern view of Christmas and how to celebrate it in the UK originated only in the nineteenth century. But although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert did much to promote various seasonal customs – for which I, for one, am grateful! – many of those we enjoy today actually have their roots in the Middle Ages or even earlier. Let’s drop in on a small village one 24 December in the early thirteenth century to see what the people are up to…

It’s cold, and it’s dark. The sun rises late and sets early at this time of year; candles and rush-lights are dim at best and beyond the means of many. As we walk through the street of wattle-and-daub huts we can see the faint outline of firelight around the edges of doors and window shutters, and we can hear the sounds of men, women and children who work hard all year, most at back-breaking manual labour. Their lives are tough, but just now there is a sense of anticipation in the air.

On Christmas Eve one building is lit more brightly than the others: the village church. ‘Christ’s Mass’ is first and foremost a religious feast, and as midnight approaches the church is illuminated by a blaze of candles. It will be a focal point for the next twelve days, as there are several other religious feasts during the Christmas season: St Stephen’s Day on 26 December, St John the Evangelist the following day and then the feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December. This last commemorates the young boys murdered by King Herod at the time of the Nativity, and the church centres children on that day: there might be processions of choirboys, and the local monastery will elect a ‘boy bishop’ to oversee festivities.

Going to church provides the villagers with a well-earned break and the chance to gather together, so everyone capable of leaving their home attends the Christmas Mass. In addition to the warm and welcoming candles, the church is decked with whatever greenery can be found at this time of year – including holly and ivy – so friends and relatives greet each other in a crowded, bright, cheerful space where they can forget the cold and the dark outside.

After the service some might stay up to chat, while others head home for a few hours’ sleep before Christmas Day dawns and the feasting begins. Advent is a time of fasting, and the last four weeks have passed slowly and hungrily. But now it’s time to celebrate, and every household will eat the best meal it can afford, perhaps getting down the smoked meat saved from November’s slaughtering and enjoying home-made bread or pastries.

Up in the castle or the lord’s manor house, meanwhile, the food is spectacular. Meat is very much in evidence, with the table’s centrepiece being a boar’s head; the lord and his household hunted and killed the animal themselves for winter sport. Poultry and roast birds are also much in evidence, and there are large mince pies – which, in the thirteenth century, contain minced or finely chopped meat as well as fruit. The scent of exotic and expensive spices fills the air.

If the lord is a generous one, or if it’s the established custom of the manor, he might host a Christmas feast for the villagers who toil in his fields all year. Alternatively, if he’s feeling slightly less open-handed then he might invite them all to his hall but expect them to bring their own food to share. In either case this is another community celebration, with everyone getting together during the darkest days of the year. Wine flows at the top table with ale being liberally dispensed for everyone else.

After the food there will be entertainment of some kind. Like everything else, the scale of this depends on wealth and social position: down in the village it might simply be dice or board games by the fire, or perhaps some ‘mumming’ with disguises and masks. Up in the hall, meanwhile, there is music and maybe even a hired minstrel or two, struggling to make themselves heard over the increasingly merry and raucous crowd. In later years this sort of unruliness will be formalised, with a ‘lord of misrule’ elected each Christmas to oversee the festivities.

The feasting and the celebrations continue throughout the next several days, interspersed with more church services and communal gatherings. On 1 January (which is not, incidentally, officially New Year’s Day; from 1155 until 1752 the new year began on 25 March) it is customary for the lord to give gifts to his retainers. These are likely to be practical in nature, perhaps new boots or clothes, but they are much appreciated nonetheless.

In one respect, thirteenth-century people – yes, even the peasants – enjoyed a luxury that few can boast now. What we call Christmas Day, the centrepiece of our festivities, is in fact only the first day of Christmas: the entire feast runs for twelve days until the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem) on 6 January. This was the longest feast of the year and all workers – with the exception of the poor souls in the kitchen, of course, for whom a holiday is never a holiday – would expect to have the entire period off.

Twelfth Night, the evening of 5 January, marked the end of the celebrations and was also increasingly becoming an opportunity for misrule. Then it was the Epiphany, the final church service of the festive season. Work in the fields would begin again on the aptly named Plough Monday, the first Monday after 6 January, at which point the villagers’ tools would be blessed before they began another year’s hard graft, perhaps longing for Christmas and all its joys to return once more.

By C.B. Hanley

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