Christmas · History Facts

Medieval Festivities: What was Christmas like During this Time?

Morning everyone! How you all doing?

It’s been fairly busy on my end, I started a new job which is going amazingly (best decision ever). I’ve finally decorated one of my Christmas trees (which has been up for nearly a week and not decorated), all my Christmas presents are wrapped and yeah I’m just in a very Christmassy mood.

So I thought how perfect would it be to write about Christmas in one of my posts.

Although Christmas will be different this year and probably not how people would like to celebrate, but things have been changing for years and it’s never caused the end of the world. How we celebrate Christmas now is completely different to Christmases during medieval times. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Christmas was certainly the highlight of the year.

The way that we know Christmas would have been something very different back then. In fact, the term “Christmas” only became a part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.

It also wouldn’t have been the major holiday that it is now, Easter would have been a lot more of a significant holiday. In fact, although Christmas, the Feast of Jesus’s Nativity, was important, Easter and perhaps also the Annunciation – that moment celebrated on 25 March when God was supposedly conceived in Mary’s womb were more significant.

This isn’t really a surprising fact for me, since they were much more religious back then, but it still is an interesting point. And also… a slight side note, since I won’t be having family over for Christmas this year, we’ve decided that we will have a big celebration with the family on Easter, when hopefully it will be a lot safer.

So anyway, lets get back to focusing on what would things be like during the medieval festivities at Christmas time.

Fasting Before the Feast

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One of the things that I love about Christmas is that I can eat as much food as I want, without feeling too guilty. Dieting over Christmas doesn’t really seem like a possible thing, well for me anyway. It’s nice to know that having a feast was still a big thing at Christmas time.

For those who did celebrate Christmas, it wasn’t just one day, but a season covering at least the 12 days from 25 December to Epiphany on 6 January. Sounds good? Well there’s a catch: Christmas was preceded by a month of fasting in the season of Advent.

There was a very good reason for this though, and that was because advent was seen as a time of special preparation for God’s coming, his adventus, into the world – both in the infant Jesus, and at the end of time at the apocalypse. Advent was supposed to be a time of exile, desire, longing, and repentance.

So instead of trampling on your fellow shoppers, why not emulate medieval saints and trample on sin, temptation, and unfortunate demons? Definitely something that’s a bit different to how everyone normally does Christmas, but maybe with us all staying home and not doing the normal Christmas rush of getting presents, queueing up at 5 in the morning for stores to open which might mean we appreciate things a bit more… maybe.

To Tree or Not to Tree?

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I love a good Christmas tree – we have two in our home. The “grown up” tree, which is always well organised and looks perfect, and then there’s the “memory” tree, which is a mess and has ornaments on it that have been collected in my family for years – my parent’s first bauble bauble set that they got when they had their Christmas together, the terrible things that my sister and I made as a child, just a lot of memories, but we love it.

The real question for you guys, the readers, is do you have a real or fake tree?

I’ve always grown up with real trees, but does anyone actually know why we have trees at Christmas?

In Medieval times, Christmas trees are pretty hard to trace, even though evergreen trees do feature in the ritual life of many cultures. So why is it so hard for us to trace medieval Christmas trees? Although there are a few stray references, these references are from the later middle ages, but Christmas trees are really became popular in the 19th century.

They would have still decorated their houses though, not with trees, but with candles (since they had no electricity obviously), and holly and ivy. Which I think would have been quite pretty!

Even though they had no tree to place presents under, they would still exchange gifts when they could, but this would not have happened on the 25th December like how we do it, it would have probably been on New Year’s Day or elsewhere in the Christmas season.

The Church at Christmas

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Now I am not overly religious, but my family and I will go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I love this tradition that my family have. During the day, I’ll be making mince pies, the Yule log, and getting all the finishing touches done ready for the big day. Then at about nine o’clock we’ll head on down to our local pub and have a merry time before going to the Church.

I will say that I do believe in God, but the way that I lead my life is completely different to how I would have done it during Medieval times concerning the Church. Religion played a huge part in people’s life during that time, and naturally, in the very religious communities, the local church was a focal point for the Christmas celebrations and services were well-attended by all classes.

Over time though, the traditional services for major Christian holidays became more elaborate and Christmas was no exception. It became a huge part of Christmas, and something which would undoubtably lead to huge celebrations being performed at Christmas times.

Certainly it can be argued that this was when things like the nativity play became popular. The nativity play might have started due to a development from around the 9th century CE which was called ‘troping’. This basically meant that extra dialogues and songs were added to the service.

An example of troping in the Christmas celebration was an elaboration on the question which choirs sang: Quem quaertitis in praesepe? (‘Whom do you seek in the manger?’). One half of the choir would sing the line and then the other half did. This eventually led to a dramatisation using individual speakers and actors which resulted in the presentation of nativity plays with the Magi and King Herod playing prominent roles. 

When it came to the local clergy, the ones who were not invited to their nearest lord’s castle, they would still have celebrated with a fine meal of rarities at home. Larks, ducks, and salmon could appear on the menu. Even monks had a treat or two at Christmas.

The diet of those in medieval monasteries was quite good anyway but Christmas feasts included more meat and fish than usual. We also know that at monasteries such as at Cluny Abbey in France, the monks received a new gown and had one of their twice-yearly baths at Christmas (any more was not permitted).

So we can clearly seen that even back then that Christmas was a time to celebrate, and also treat ourselves to one or two new things – I would strongly suggest that you have more then two baths a year though!

Christmas in the Manor

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Outside the church, there were those who could afford a luxurious lifestyle, they could live in their castles and manors comfortably, without worry about where their next meal would be.

When it came to Christmas, this was a time of celebration, a time to enjoy themselves, and treat themselves to new things. Christmas gifts such as fine clothes and jewellery to wear for the season were exchanged on the 25th of December – items that would have been expensive, but also would have been a great gift.

There was another round of gift-giving on the 1st of January, too. Known as ‘first-gifts’ they were thought to be an omen of a person’s fortune in the coming year. Much like today, though, the real joy of Christmas for many was the food on offer.

This is something which I know would have been truly special – just imagine a massive roaring fire in a medieval great hall, with high wood beamed ceilings, decorated with festive garlands of holly, ivy and other seasonal greenery and it would have been filled with people laughing and just having an amazing time.

The tables were set with the usual knives, spoons and a thick slab of one-day-old bread (a trencher or manchet) to be used by way of a plate for meat. Christmas diners were also treated to the luxury of a change of tablecloth after each course. Two diners shared a bowl for washing hands (everything except liquids was eaten with the fingers), another bowl for soups and stews, and a small bowl of salt.

They would have certainly indulged when it came to food. For started they would have had soup, broth or weak stew with some meat at the bottom. The second course would have been a vegetable stew of leeks and onions. The rich would then have had meat with their next course (since they were lucky enough to be able to afford meat).

On ordinary days the rich would have had things like rabbit, hare and chicken – but Christmas saw finer meat delicacies like fish (e.g. salmon, herring and trout) and seafood (e.g. eels, oysters and crab) courses presented to the guests. Meats were roasted on a spit over an open fire. Besides legs of beef and mutton, there was veal, venison, goose, capon, suckling pig, duck, plover, lark and crane, to name a few.

You might have found a boar’s head roasting on a spit in the middle of the room which would have been used to impress the guests.

Of course, there would have been desert, which would have consisted of thick fruit custards, pastries, nuts, cheese and luxury fruits like oranges, figs and dates. And to go with all of this food, there would have been plenty to drink. There would have been red and white wine (from a cup shared with one’s dining partner). There would also have been cider or ale, although ale would have been considered a lower class drink.

Christmas for a Peasant

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It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a peasant’s Christmas was a lot different to a Christmas in the manor. It was a less grand experience for a peasant, and rather then spend a month looking forward to a joyous occasion, the very start of the month would have been a stressful experience.

For starters, the serfs, who were already subjected to all manner of odd fees over the year, were expected to give a ‘gift’ to their lord at Christmas of extra bread, eggs and perhaps even a valuable rooster or a couple of hens.

BUT if you were lucky enough to be a free labourer on the estate, then instead of giving presents you might have actually got given a present from the lord. This might have been something like a bonus of food, drink, clothes and firewood.

This actually is something which continued into later centuries when household servants received a box of gifts on the 26th of December, hence the name of that day in Britain: Boxing Day. A tradition that is still being done today. So if you ever wondered why Boxing Day is called exactly that, well now you know why!

It wouldn’t be all doom and gloom for the poorer peasants, they still would have decorated their homes like the wealthy people, with things like holly since they could easily find it if they went looking for it. They would also have a Yule log burning away in their home – not the chocolate Yule log that we have now, but an actual tree trunk that would have been lit on Christmas Eve and would have been kept burning for twelve days.

Just like now, the Christmas period ended on the 1st January. This was a day that people believed would share them what their year’s fortune would be like. All I can say is that this is true, I hope that for all of us when 2021 comes into affect that things get a lot better. 2020 certainly hasn’t been a great year.

But anyway, come the first of January, a superstition had developed. On this day it was terrible important that you had a good person who was the first person to visit your home. This was actually called ‘first-footing’, certain characteristics were considered desirable in this first visitor: a male with a dark complexion, perhaps fair-haired and, best of all, with flat feet were all considered a good sign…

So there we have it, Christmas in medieval times.

What’s great to see is how so many traditions have evolved and are still being used to this day – just look at the giving of gifts on boxing day, where the Yule log came from etc. Anyway, what we do know is that Christmas was an important time throughout medieval Europe, and many traditions developed during this period, some of which are still popular.

Did you learn anything new about Christmas or were you surprised by any of these traditions that would have occurred during the medieval times?

If I’ve missed anything that would have happened during the medieval time then please let me know, or why not share any of your family Christmas traditions, I’d love to hear from you!

16 thoughts on “Medieval Festivities: What was Christmas like During this Time?

  1. I love reading about how a holiday starts and looking at what it has become. The feasts of royalty certainly are spreads to make my mouth water, but I did not know about the month of fasting! That sounds like a surprisingly intentional thing to do to lead up to the big celebration.

    I love the sounds of your memory tree! I want to start something like that. We always save our ornaments and get a real fir tree from a farm near us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I would struggle with a month of fasting, but at least they knew they had a feast awaiting them at the end. It’s certainly is interesting learning/writing about all of these traditions that they had.

      And thank you! You definitely should start up a memory tree, it’s always great fun getting the ornaments out the bag and just remembering where/why we got them 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, what an extraordinary post, I’ve learnt so much! I can’t believe that in the medieval times they would have to fast, I bet that must have been hard work! Im totally shocked to see that ale was a lower class drink. I really enjoyed reading this post, its got me into the Christmas Spirit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah the surprising things you learn from looking back at Medieval traditions! I think the ale that they would have drunk would have been cheap and quick to make, hence a poor person’s drink. Glad it got you in the Christmas Spirit though 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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