Manorial Counsel

What was Christmas like in medieval times?

Christmas is a time steeped in tradition, isn’t it? You can’t help but feel as though you’re tapping into centuries of history each year. However, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that things were a little different ‘in the olden days’,  and we thought we’d explore this further.

For example, did you know that carol singing – where you go from house to house – was established because carols were banned from churches in these early times? The word carol meant to sing and dance in a circle, which wasn’t the done thing in church. Oh, and before you ask… no, turkeys weren’t around in the UK.

Features of a medieval Christmas

Even back then it was a very significant holiday – often 12 days. People stopped working, decorated their dwellings, and burned a yule log. They also enjoyed warm church services, exchanged gifts, and indulged in a feast. Which all makes a lot of sense, bearing in mind that this point of winter was a very low time for folk who lived off the land. Nature wasn’t offering much up for food, the days were at their shortest, and it was darned chilly. As a result of this, traditions built up to lift the spirits of everyone, which included socialising, tasty food, and merriment.

Medieval Christmas decorations

There is a real earthiness to the Christmas decs we create now, for they hark back to nature. But that was all people had for decoration in those days, and they made the most of it. Holly was striking for its dark leaves and red berries; and it had a reputation for warding off evil spirits, which was a boon. Mistletoe brought protection and fertility, and it was often a double ring of mistletoe that took centre stage; Christmas trees weren’t a concept then. And of course ivy was coveted for how it swished in attractive strings between beams and along walls.

The church

The church was, naturally, a focal point and celebrations and services were popular and well-attended. One tradition we still enjoy today grew at this time; the nativity play. It initially began as ‘troping’ between sections of the choir; where one half sang one line, and the other half then responded. But this then morphed into spoken parts, with actors, and you can see how the idea grew until the characters we are familiar with now developed.

The 28th of December

Childermas, aka the Feast of the Holy Innocents, was a significant day in the medieval Christmas calendar. This is the date that King Herod ordered all children under the age of two in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. Not a concept we’d normally associate with ‘celebration’. However, the medieval religious mindset saw wonderment in things that elude us these days, and interesting traditions existed for choirboys, children becoming a bishop for a day, and beatings.

The lord of the manor

Life for those who resided in the manor went up a notch during the season of goodwill. Sumptuous food was consumed, and gifts were exchanged. The Christmas feast was a treat to behold. Dishes included boar’s head on a platter, roasted swan – feathers still in place – huge salmon with oysters and eels, venison roasted on a spit, goose, suckling pig, and even lark. Plus, they gorged on fruity, custardy puddings.

A benevolent lord would ensure that his servants ate well too. Not in such fine form as the dishes that graced his table, of course, but their fare would have included goose and hen… and, the leftovers from his feast.

A peasant’s view

Yes, it was a cheery time for peasants too, but there were aspects that will have brought the mood down a bit. Serfs were expected to present their lord with a gift. It could be a humble one, such as extra bread or eggs, but it was expected all the same.

Interestingly, people who were considered free labourers – examples would include the shepherd and swineherd – were fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of gifts from the lord at Christmas.

Other medieval traditions

Many homes will have burnt a yule log over the season. This will have been a big chunk of wood that was lit on Christmas Eve and kept burning throughout the 12 days of Christmas.

And one mustn’t forget the festive entertainment, which included travelling players, acrobats, jugglers, music, dancing, and games.

One traditional game, King of the Bean, harked back to Roman times. A bean was hidden in a loaf of bread or cake, and whoever found the bean became king or queen of the feast. For the rest of the celebration they could lord it up and mimic the role of the monarch. It was traditionally played on twelfth night, and no doubt will have caused much hilarity amongst peasants.

It will have been a time for pitting your athleticism against others too. Sports games will have been arranged, including archery, wrestling, and medieval football – and no, the offside rule didn’t exist then.

And to conclude things at the end of the festive break, the field workers would arrange a ploughing race on the first Monday after Epiphany.

Overall, Christmas will have been a time that folk across the board looked forward to. 12 days of feasting, religious concentration, warmth, and good will. The Christmas we experience now is focused on a single day. However, with the commercialism that surrounds it all now, we’d say that’s a relief. And thus, here’s to wishing you all a wonderful Christmas, and a year of peace and goodwill in the new year to come.