Our medieval forebears celebrated the Christmas period with a full twelve days of festivities. Some of the festivities would be very familiar to us today but other traditions have long since died out. Indeed, some of the ways we celebrate the season today would seem most alien to them.
So, what was it like to celebrate Christmas in medieval times?
If you read the gospels, you’ll discover that they don’t say anything about the precise date when Christ was born. The selection of the 25th of December as a date for the nativity is not therefore based on anything you’d find in the Bible.
However, we do know that the early church selected December 25th as the date to celebrate the nativity, in Rome, in 354 AD. Fortunately, not long after, the Christian writer, Scriptor Syrus, recorded the reason why that date had been chosen:
‘It was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part.’Scriptor Syrus
In fact, the celebration of a mid-winter festival had precedents within both Roman and barbarian paganism.
The Roman festival of the Sun was itself a new festival. It had only been introduced for the first time by Emperor Aurelian in 274, less than a century before. However, prior to this the primary Roman celebrations at mid-winter had been the festival of Saturnalia (which began on 17th December and ran for between two and seven days) and New Year (on 1st January).
Other pagan cultures also held festivals at this time of year. The Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson tells us that the Vikings made offerings at three key festivals. Offerings for an easy winter were made at the festival of Winter Nights in October. Offerings for good crops at the celebration of Yule in December. And, last but not least, offerings for a successful fighting season were made on the Summer’s Day festival in April.
As significant parts of northern and eastern England came to be occupied by the Danes between the ninth and eleventh centuries, some Danish customs inevitably found their way into English culture. We get the word ‘Yule’ from this period. However, we can only guess at exactly how this festival was celebrated (although it’s a safe bet to say it involved feasting and heavy drinking).
Archbishop Wulfstan of York gives a hint as to the nature of these celebrations when he criticised the local pagan customs in the early C11th. He scornfully denounced the Viking inspired celebrations at midwinter as ‘nonsense’ and involving ‘various kinds of sorcery’.
Locating a holiday in mid-winter had many precedents prior to the existence of Christmas. And, of course, the main reason for this was simply pragmatism.
At mid-winter the days are short and there is little farming work to be done. Indeed, no agricultural work at all can be done without daylight. So, having a holiday at this time of year makes good sense.
Christmas in the Middle Ages
By the high to late Middle Ages, the celebration of the Christmas period had become formalised as a twelve-day holiday. The holiday itself involved a lot of excessive feasting and drinking.
However, perhaps sensibly, good Christians were expected to prepare for Christmas by fasting during the preceding four-week period of Advent. Rich people would forego roasts and pies, poorer folk would subsist on an even blander and more meagre diet than usual. Christmas Eve was the subject of a particularly severe fast. No meat, cheese or eggs were permitted.
Christmas Day itself began with no fewer than three masses. After these were performed, a chorister would sing the genealogy of Christ from Saint Matthew’s gospel from the rood loft. The rood loft, and the church more generally, would be decorated with candles and tapers (a practice probably inspired by the old Roman Sun festival).
Then, with the religious observances completed, the festivities could begin in earnest.
The Twelve Days
The Christmas holiday began with Christmas Day and ran for twelve full days until 6th January (epiphany). The 6th January was chosen to celebrate the baptism of Jesus and John the Baptist and the visit of the three kings.
The period always included the old Roman New Year. Initially, this was not supposed to be a day of significance in the Christian calendar. However, old habits die hard (especially where a party is concerned) and New Year’s Day continued to be a time of celebration throughout the Middle Ages.
Each of the days of this period were eventually marked by a different significant Christian festival. The 26th became the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The 27th was set aside for Saint John the Evangelist and the 28th marked the day of the Holy Innocents (the day on which the infants slaughtered on Herod’s orders were remembered). In England the 29th was set aside for Saint Thomas Becket. The 30th, depending on the year, was marked by the feast of the Holy Family. And so, it went on. Suffice to say there were no shortage of excuses to celebrate.
A big part of a medieval Christmas was all about the feasting – potentially twelve days of it if you could afford it! The Christmas Day feast, coming as it did after a month of austere moderation, would have been particularly welcome.
Lords were supposed to open their doors and supply a feast to their tenants. However, the tenants were expected to bring presents (usually food that would be cooked and served at the feast along with whatever their lord provided). For the richest members of society these banquets were often accompanied by lavish entertainments from minstrels, jesters, acrobats, and players.
The types of food served could include a wide variety of different meats, including decorative boars’ heads and dressed birds such as geese, swans and even peacocks. However, there would have been no turkeys since the new world had not yet been discovered.
Richard II laid on an especially lavish Christmas feast, accommodating as many as 10,000 guests. Richard and his guests consumed no fewer than 200 Oxen and 200 tubs of wine.
The custom of the wassail bowl became popular by the late Middle Ages. The bowl, filled with a suitable beverage, would be offered to a guest with the cry ‘Wassail!’ The drinker would respond with ‘Drinkhail!’ and having taken a good draft, pass it to the next guest with a kiss.
The word ‘Wassail’ comes from old English and simply means ‘your good health!’ It had no specific association with Christmas in earlier times aside from the fact that it was used generally in any situation where there was drinking to be done.
Wassail bowls seem to have first made an appearance in the C13th. At this time, they were used more as dipping bowls, into which guests dipped cakes and white bread. However, by the late C14th the custom of the Wassail bowl toast had become part of Christmas. More elaborate and quite valuable bowls were being produced around this time as the Wassailing became more formal and flamboyant.
Since the twelve days were a time for feasting and merriment, it is not surprising that singing and dancing featured prominently. Particularly popular at this time of year were carols. However, these were not carols as we would know them today.
The medieval carol was a song and accompanying ring dance. Given the fact that participants had to hold hands and dance in a ring, they were often performed outside or in a large hall. The term ‘carol’ had no special religious association. Instead, it referred to the distinctive lyric style of these songs. The subject matter could be anything and was just as likely to be bawdy as pious.
In the early 1300s Franciscan friars became especially prominent in the composition of religious songs. This included either authoring or inspiring religious themed carols. After this time, the singing of religious carols increasingly gained in popularity around Christmas time.
By the C15th, the singing of carols started to be de-coupled from the associated ring dance. As a result, as the century wore on, it was increasingly possible to hear Christmas carols sung without any dancing.
Presents and Santa Claus
The giving of presents was an old Roman New Year custom that survived into the Middle Ages. For much of the period present giving was more closely associated with New Year’s Day rather than with Christmas itself. However, some gift giving on Christmas Day did occur and by the end of the Middle Ages it had become an established custom. We have evidence for Christmas presents from the C15th but nothing earlier, although it is quite possible the custom began during the late C14th.
However, presents or no presents, Christmas did not feature Santa in the Middle Ages. Saint Nicholas had a saint’s day on 6th December, but he was not yet associated with gift giving over the Christmas period itself. We would have to wait until after the Middle Ages to meet Santa as we know him today.
In the Middle Ages, he may have been associated with giving presents to children, but he was only prominent in the Low Countries and, even then, not at Christmas time.
In late medieval England, however, we can find evidence for an embryonic Father Christmas figure. A carol written by the Reverend Richard Smart during the 1460s mentions a character called ‘Sir Christmas’ who announces Christ’s birth and encourages those who heard the good news to ‘make good cheer and be right merry’.
Hognells and Hogglers
One old English medieval custom that has long died out is hoggling. Unfortunately, we don’t know what exactly the Hogglers (otherwise known as Hognells) did, aside from raising money for parochial finances. The ‘hognel time’ began at Christmas and lasted well into January each year.
How they raised money is lost in the mists of time. However, we do know that they were very successful at doing it. Hoggling appears to have emerged during the latter half of the C15th and became extremely popular in late medieval / early Tudor times.
Whatever it was that the Hogglers did, it had strong associations with the Catholic Church. This seems clear from that fact that the practice was repressed under the hard-line Protestant reign of Edward VI, revived under Catholic Mary only to disappear once more under Protestant Elizabeth.
Entertainment formed an important part of medieval Christmas festivities. This was a time of year for minstrels, jesters, acrobats, and players of all kinds to ply their trade. People also enjoyed playing games such as blind man’s bluff as well as games now no longer played such as hunt the slipper and bee in the middle.
People also celebrated with ‘disguisings’, a practice that became popularly known as mumming. Mummeries were performed by groups of people who’d dress up in festive masks to conceal their identities. Mummers could sing songs, make speeches, organise games or even put on plays. They could (and often did) elicit money in exchange for their performance. Sometimes this could be raised for a genuinely good cause but often it was just a way for poor folk to make some coin.
The practice had its dubious side since criminals sometimes used mumming as a cover for illegal activity. In some towns mumming was banned or restricted for this very reason.
Mummery dated back at least to the C13th and by the C14th it had become extremely popular.
At Christmas 1347, Edward III was entertained by a large troupe of over 80 mummers. These people wore a selection of impressive masks, some were simply disguised in masks of men or women, but some came as angels, dragons, peacocks, or swans.
The Hobby Horse
We might associate hobby horses and the folk dances that incorporate them more with May Day. However, in the late Middle Ages, hobby horses were also (and perhaps more commonly) associated with Christmas festivities.
The earliest references we have to hobby horses come from the C14th. The word itself is likely of C14th origin – ‘hobby’ being a term used to describe a small horse. The first specific reference to them is from the latter part of the C14th, where they are described as being a relatively recent (from a C14th perspective) English innovation.
Hobby horses appear in dances and mummers’ plays in the late Middle Ages and it would be in this context that we would have encountered them at Christmas time. Some believe they have earlier pagan antecedents, but this is impossible to demonstrate. The folklorist Ronald Hutton has suggested that the hobby horse may have been originally inspired by medieval jousting tournaments. This makes a lot of sense since jousting became an especially popular form of pageantry from the C14th onwards.
Christmas has always had an anarchic side to it. There has always been an element of society for whom Christmas represented a good excuse to engage in tomfoolery.
Silly pranks and juvenile humour at midwinter have a long history that pre-dates Christmas itself, being a well-documented feature of Roman Saturnalia.
In post Roman times this subversive tradition survived. The New Year’s Day festivities took on the name ‘Feast of Fools’ – a time for anarchic and subversive behaviour to be given free reign.
The worst offenders were the junior clergy. Silly pranks, irreverent gesticulations, throwing mud at each other and even giving mock sermons in praise of demons were all part of the fun.
Exeter cathedral was plagued by silly behaviour during the 1320s when one stuffy senior cleric complained of ‘disorderly laughter and illicit mirth’. In 1390, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Lincoln Cathedral and was most outraged at what he found. Apparently, some of the junior priests decided it would be a wheeze to dress up as members of the laity and interrupt the service with rude songs and silly games.
Alas, these shenanigans were less tolerated during the C15th. However, the tradition of misrule never entirely died out and, happily, seems alive and well in our modern times.
Christmas then and now
In many ways Christmas was celebrated differently in medieval times. There was no turkey and no Santa but there were bawdy carols, hoggling, and mummery. However, there is still much in the way medieval folk enjoyed their Christmases that we find all too familiar today.
Christmas, as it turns out, has always had more than its fair share of ‘disorderly laughter and illicit mirth’.
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References and further reading
The Nativity – painting by Robert Campin 1420s (via wiki commons)
St Eilian’s Church, Llaneilian rood loft – photo by verbcatcher (via wiki commons)
Banquet du Paon illustration – anon C15th (via wiki commons)
Budēļi – photo by spekozols (via wiki commons)