Legends & Lore: Medieval Christmas
With 2020 coming to a close I have a feeling that this holiday season will be unlike any we have had in the past. While we may have to forego some of our favorite traditions and replace them with new ones, the spirit of Christmas will continue on. This week on Quoth the Raven, as we hang our stockings by the chimney with care, we are hopping in our time machine and exploring some of the traditions and lore behind medieval Christmas celebrations. What did Christmas look like for peasants? What about royalty? Keep reading and find out!
Christmas was a much-anticipated time for all because it wasn’t only the longest holiday on the medieval calendar but was also celebrated by every social class. The 12 Days of Christmas isn’t just a popular jingle, but in fact is how long the original celebrations would last. This began on Christmas Eve, December 24th, and would wrap up on January 6th.
Since Christmas falls directly after crop season, and due to the lull in business, it is said that peasants were often given the entire two weeks off. No matter if you were a merchant, peasant, or nobleman, it seems as though this was a time for all to enjoy a much-deserved break. For the wealthy, it would continue even longer as travel back in the middle ages was quite treacherous. There would need to be plenty of rest between travelling as the colder weather brought even harsher conditions.
It is important to note that many Christmas festivities derived from pagan traditions (such as burning of the yule log). Another prevalent pagan tradition that wiggled its way into medieval celebrations is wassailing. Wassail is a hot mulled cider beverage and tradition says a bowl of wassail was carried around as a group of singers made its way door-to-door offering those who resided there a taste in hopes for an exchange of gifts. Sound familiar? Traditionally this was done on the Twelfth Night, either January 5th or 6th. This exchange was typical for feudal lords and their peasants. Wassailing was not seen as an act of begging but more along the lines of a reciprocal deal. “Here We Come A-wassailing”, a song I myself grew up singing having no idea what it meant, refers to that very act.
Decorating was prevalent across the board regardless of class. Yule logs burning, mistletoe hanging, garlands as far as the eye could see, and wreaths abound. Unlike our Christmas trees that take front row in the décor category, these did not become the centerpiece until the 16th century. Instead, many families would use mistletoe as the key focus in regard to decorations. Ancient communities used to believe that mistletoe could serve as a symbol of fertility and protector of crops and many medieval families used this as their flagship décor for the holidays.
Games like chess, checkers and backgammon were played frequently and festive entertainment such as plays and pageants were popular. Performers would travel all over and would often share key stories from the Bible. In exchange for entertainment performers were often rewarded with food or drink. A game called “king of the bean” was a staple in many households where a bean was baked into a cake or loaf of bread and the person who found the hidden bean would get to be “ruler” for that night. Those partaking would honor the finder of the bean and act as if they were the king or queen. This would typically happen on Twelfth Night and even today you will see examples of this special treat (i.e. King Cakes, which many people associate with Mardi Gras and New Orleans).
So now I ask you the question: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I mention the holidays? For many it means lots and lots (and lots) of food, and this was no different for peasants and lords alike. For the upper class, the dining area was adorned with ivy and garlands, a roaring fire would be crackling in the background, and drinks were endless. Wine was a popular choice, but you would also find beverages such as beers, ciders, and ales. Drinking was an integral part of day-to-day activities during this time of year. These feasts had multiple courses and began with soups, broths, or stews of some kind. On the table it was common to find a thick slice of one-day-old bread that would be used in place of a plate. While the rich ate meat such as goose and venison far more frequently, this time of year called for finer delicacies such as a boar’s head displaying on a platter or… get this: swan or peacock roasted in its feathers! Far different from our ham or turkey! The servants would receive a generous serving of this special occasion meal and the leftovers from the feast were typically given to the peasants or poor that would wait outside. On occasion peasants were invited to the feast, usually the poorest, and even invited to bring a friend along with them. The celebrations hosted by the elite were grandeur to say the least, but it’s Christmas, so why not! In 1398 it has been rumored that Richard II of England would host up to 10,000 guests…. EVERY DAY! Now that’s what we call a jolly good time.
A peasant’s Christmas meal, while not as extravagant as the more affluent, would still consist of delicacies they did not get to enjoy during the year such as meats, cheeses, eggs, and cake. Ale, often considered a poor man’s drink, was shared and enjoyed. Some were lucky enough to have a local lord that would supply those less fortunate with extra bread or other special delights like a dish of meat. Remember how we talked about the boar’s head? Well of course not many families could afford such a treat and instead of serving a boar’s head, they found an alternative: a pie in the shape of a pig.
While taking a closer look at medieval traditions could easily fill up a whole day, we’re going to finish off this week’s blog with a tidbit about a tradition that was totally foreign to me prior to my research: julebukking. Think Halloween, but weirder. Julebukking is when people would dress up (costumes, masks, you name it) and go around and see if neighbors could identify them. Sometimes they would carol and sometimes they would be rewarded with candy for their efforts. It is said that another important part of this custom was indulging in plenty of ale before taking off to see the neighbors.
Thanks for joining us this week on Quoth the Raven! We hope you learned something new and that perhaps you may choose to start your own holiday/winter traditions this year. Not sure where to start? A visit to Ravenwood may the best place!