Comment Opinion & Features

How to feast like a medieval Catholic

On Christmas Day in the Middle Ages, the fun was only just beginning

“Good day, Sir Christmas, our king!” proclaims an English carol of the 15th century, welcoming the beginning of the Christmas season, and telling Christmas that everyone, “both old and young, is glad and blithe at your coming”. Another carol says about Christmas that “in mirth and games he has no peer”, and it’s certainly true that medieval Christmas was a very joyous season. From carols, manuscript illustrations, literary descriptions and account books, we can get a vivid picture of the enthusiasm with which medieval people celebrated Christmas.

The best thing about a medieval Christmas is how long it lasts. The main festivities began on the Feast of the Nativity and lasted all the way through the Twelve Days of Christmas, ending on Twelfth Night (the eve of the Epiphany).

Though many people then had to go back to work, the season of Christmastide did not actually end until Candlemas on February 2, the Feast of the Purification, 40 days after Christmas Day. Unlike the modern commercial Christmas, which now starts some time around the end of November and stops abruptly on December 26, the medieval season was closely attuned to the rhythm of the liturgical year: fasting and preparation in Advent were followed by an extended period of celebration of Christ’s birth, brightening the darkest and coldest days of the year.

***

If you want to celebrate all 40 days of a medieval Christmas, what should you do? Just like today, feasting, music, games and communal merry-making were essential components of Christmas. It was a time for hospitality and charity, for giving to the poor, as well as hosting your friends and neighbours in as hearty a style as you could afford. Church services included imaginative touches which brought the Nativity story to life, beginning on Christmas Day with a dawn Mass lit by many candles, and sometimes even a brass Star of Bethlehem hanging in the church.

Music was a huge part of the Christmas season, and carols were especially popular – there are hundreds of surviving medieval carols for Christmas from England alone. They range from joyful celebrations of Christ’s birth to tender lullabies and sophisticated meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation, from playful debates to raucous songs which threaten to punish anyone who shows up to the Christmas feasting in a bad mood.

Carols were originally dance-songs, and dancing too was a regular part of Christmas festivities. Plays, storytelling, and other kinds of dramatic entertainment were also part of the medieval Christmas season. Aristocratic households and monasteries alike hired travelling performers to put on plays, which might be anything from miracle-stories about saints to comedies making fun of the tribulations of marriage. It wasn’t just noble households which enjoyed plays at this season: Christmas was a time for customs such as mumming and guising, which usually involved going around the neighbourhood in costume, performing short plays and collecting money for the parish church.

***

Although in the Middle Ages “Sir Christmas” was an embodiment of the Christmas season, not a present-bringing Santa Claus figure, gift-giving was popular at this time of year too. Presents were more often given at New Year than on Christmas Day itself, and one nice tradition which could easily be revived is the custom of “handsel” (which just means “something given into the hand”) – a small gift given on New Year’s Day, which was meant to be a token of happiness and success to come in the year ahead.

The Twelve Days of Christmas were a general holiday, and when people went back to work in January, usually on the first Monday after Twelfth Night, there were customs to mark the beginning of a new year’s work. “Plough Monday” was the occasion for more feasting, and also for blessing the plough, which was so essential to agricultural life. The idea was to start the year by asking for God’s blessing on the tools of ordinary everyday work. Unlike today, when many people turn January into a kind of secular fasting season – with New Year’s resolutions about giving up alcohol or going to the gym – January was a month for joy, not self-denial: medieval illustrations of January usually show him as a man at a feast, with a drink in his hand.

So if you feel like celebrating a medieval Christmas this year, there’s good news: on December 25, the fun is just beginning.

Eleanor Parker is a medievalist, blogger and History Today columnist