Merry Medieval Christmas
The first recorded use of the word Christmas was in an Anglos Saxon book in 1038 referring to “Cristes Maesse”. It took a backseat in significance to March 25, the Annunciation, and Easter, but was still an important holiday.
The forty days prior to Christmas, people prepared for Christmas by fasting for Advent. This time of preparation and penance, traditionally began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours. The faithful were expected to fast, pray and abstain from weddings, love making, games and unnecessary travel. Fasting did not mean abstaining from all food. A good Christian would abstain from meat, cheese, fat, wine, ale and honey beer. Basically everything that tasted good. So by the time Christmas rolled around, everyone was ready for a good time.
Christmas was the beginning of Christmastide, or the twelve days of Christmas as made famous by the song. The celebrations began on Christmas and ended on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Day itself was celebrated by three masses, one at midnight, one at dawn and one at later in the day. These were symbolic of how Christ was the light of the world and was driving out the darkness of sin. Another part of the celebrations was mumming, which was where actors would perform plays and dances. Mystery stories, which were watered down Bible stories, would be performed often with King Herod as the villain. On the whole these plays had little dialogue and could be thought of as a precursor to mimes.
One tradition held that on Christmas lots were drawn to determine who was in charge of the revelries starting on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This office began as a “boy bishop” and morphed into the “Lord of Misrule” in England and the “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland and the “Prince des Sots” in France. This was usually a peasant or someone of lower social standing. This started as a fairly innocent tradition where the “boy bishop” presided over a processions and church ritual. This progressed to games that were less innocent and in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court a “Lord of Misrule” was responsible for a death.
The celebrations did include music, however, it was not allowed at Mass. At that time a carol was where people sang and danced in a circle. Christmas carols became so disruptive with people literally dancing in the aisles, the Church banned them from being sung at Mass. That started our tradition of carolers roaming the streets singing. Many of our traditional Christmas carols are from this time, however, the tune and harmonies were modified throughout the ages. As devotion to the Blessed Mother increased, many carols were dedicated to her and her purity. Other carols were more secular and praised the delicious food at the Christmas feast, like the boar’s head. This was a country tradition where a wild boar was killed and it’s head was presented as a delicacy. The boar’s head used to be presented to the goddess of farming as tribute, but coming of Christianity changed this. However, the boar’s head remained a popular dish.
At more urban feasts, goose, woodcocks and swan would be eaten, but only with the king’s permission. These would be roasted with butter and saffron plant, which would give them a golden color. Poorer households would eat ‘umble pie’. The umbles were the less desirable parts of the deer, which were left over after the rich took their shares. These included heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains. The umbles were distributed to the poor for their Christmas feast. Clever cooks would mix these with anything else they could find to make it tasty and make a pie. This is the origin of our expression “humble pie”.
For dessert were mince pies, which were pies of shredded meat, dried fruit and spices. There were many traditions around the mince pie. If you refused the first offer of a mince pie on Christmas, this was bad luck. If you made a wish with your first bite of mince pie, it would come true. Spicy porridge of thick boiled wheat with dried fruits known as “frumenty” rounded out the desserts. All of this was washed down with wine, mulled beer with apples or Church Ale, a strong brew reserved only for Christmas.
Originally, the Church banned gift giving because the similarity to the Roman feast of Saturnalia, but as time passed this prohibition was softened. By the High Middle Ages, gifts were regularly exchanged by rich and poor alike. Although, Christmas day was a quarter day, which meant peasants still had to pay their rent. Christmas or not some things never changed.
Then as now, this was a season of hope. Whether you were hopeful at the birth of the Christ child or just for a break in the drudgery of winter, the Christmas celebrations brought hope and joy. This is the hope that brings us through the dark of winter into the first whispers of spring.