Medieval Christmas: how was it celebrated?
Medieval Christmas wasn’t quite the all-encompassing celebration it often is today, so relax a little. Christmas, the Feast of Jesus’s Nativity, was important, but more significant was Easter, and perhaps also the Annunciation – that moment celebrated on 25 March when God was supposedly conceived in Mary’s womb.
Much of the medieval world didn’t celebrate Christmas, and if you were a medieval Jew, Christmas could be a time of danger. At Korneuburg in around 1305, townsfolk accused the Jews of procuring a consecrated communion wafer at Christmas and desecrating it, whereupon it ‘bubbled blood-drops, like an egg sweats when it is cooked’. Stories like these – imagining Jews conspiring to attack Jesus’ vulnerable body, present in the wafer – could lead to terrible reprisals.
The medieval Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) inveighed against those Muslims who adopted Christian festivities, particularly criticizing what he saw as an imitation of Christmas in the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (mawlid).
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? There’s a rider: Christmas was preceded by a month of fasting in the season of Advent.
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?
If crushing demons is too much effort, at least keep rich foods off the menu. Fasting was central to the sacred rhythm of time in medieval Europe. (It’s no surprise that when reformers wanted to protest against the church in the 16th century, they held a sausage eat-in during a fast.)
William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas 1066. Christmas is a clever time to inaugurate a reign: you can nod to the classical imagery of an emperor’s triumphal entry into the city, his adventus. And since midwinter is too cold for battles, you can be, like Jesus, a prince of peace. Just as the kingdom of God entered the world in the infant Jesus, so too your reign could be born at Christmas.
If your tastes don’t run to a full imperial coronation, why not celebrate Christmas by inverting the social hierarchy? Mirroring pagan traditions, inversions of order occurred across medieval society around Christmas. One of the most colourful was the election of a boy bishop, who presided over processions and church ritual on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December).
In a surviving example of a boy bishop’s sermon, the boy bishop wishes that all his schoolteachers would end up on the gallows at Tyburn. One chronicle records how, at the Abbey of St Gall in the 10th century, King Conrad tried to distract the procession of the boys by strewing apples down the processional route; the boys were, however, so disciplined that not an apple was touched.
Inversion could, however, be less controlled: in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court, a ‘lord of misrule’ was responsible for a death.
Evergreen trees feature in the ritual life of many cultures, but medieval Christmas trees are hard to trace. We have stray references, particularly from the later middle ages, but their popularity exploded only in the 19th century.
Alternatively, decorate your house with candles (no electricity!), and holly and ivy. Gifts were more commonly given not on 25 December, but on New Year’s Day or elsewhere in the Christmas season.
Carols multiplied in the late middle ages – a sign of Christmas’s rising importance. They are often ‘macaronic’ – uniting learned Latin with vernacular languages, and so mixing the high and low, divine and human, in textual form. As devotion to Mary increased, these Christmas songs often hymned her purity:
Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.
For in this rose conteynyd was
Heuen and erthe in lytyl space,
Res miranda (translation: what a wondrous thing).
Other carols were slightly less pious:
The boar’s head, I understand,
Is chief service in all this land;
Wheresoever it may be found,
Servitur cum sinapio (translation: it is served with mustard).
Many of the medieval carols we sing today have had their rhythms regularised and their harmonies rewritten to suit later tastes. If you are a purist, return to the complex rhythms and intricate interweaving lines of manuscript carols. Or you might like to accompany carols with bagpipes, associated with shepherds watching their flocks.
We know the boar’s head was on the medieval menu from the records of the Christmas feasting of Richard de Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford in the 13th century. Along with boar, Richard served beef, venison, partridges, geese, bread, cheese, ale and wine.
Christmas was also a time for charity and sharing food – at Christmas in 1314, some tenants at North Curry in Somerset received loaves of bread, beef and bacon with mustard, chicken soup, cheese and as much beer as they could drink for the day. Gifts of food were sometimes enforced: for the right to keep rabbits, the town of Lagrasse had to give their best bunny to the local monastery each Christmas.
One chief characteristic of medieval food was its seasonal variation, so you’ll need to source your food from what you have around you, flavoured with spices like pepper, ginger, cloves and saffron.
Foods you won’t see on the menu include chocolate and turkey, first brought to Spain under Ferdinand II in the 16th century.
Biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth were often supplemented by other stories or visions in the medieval world. If a vision is not granted to you, you might piously meditate on those of St Bridget of Sweden, a saint from the 14th century: Bridget saw Mary’s womb “very heavy and swollen”, and, as she prayed, “the infant in the womb moved, and at that very moment, in the flash of an eye, [Mary] gave birth to her son”.
To complete your medieval Christmas, set up a nativity scene in a cave. I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t a stable or inn be more biblical? Don’t stress about this kind of historical accuracy – it didn’t really become a consideration until the 16th-century.
You’ll be following the example of St Francis, who famously set up a nativity in a cave at Greccio. The earliest accounts record that Francis was so moved by the crib that as he spoke the word ‘Bethlehem’ during the Christmas Mass, his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.
Dr Matthew Champion is a research fellow in medieval and early modern history at St Catharine’s College Cambridge
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2014