The celebrations surrounding Christmas have changed dramatically throughout the centuries. From the simple roots of early Christianity evolved into a grand celebration incorporating traditions from other festivals – most notably the Yule celebrations of the Norse, as I discussed last week. One period truly stands out however, for the level of decadence and revelry which is encouraged: the medieval Christmas.
Medieval Christmas was a celebration as long as it was both solemn and bawdy. The season dominated the Christian calendar, beginning with the 40 days of St. Martin which began on the December 11.
This period saw the ramping up of preparation for the upcoming Christmas celebrations. This season, now called Advent, heralded the start of the Christmas celebrations, but by the 12th century the focus of the majority of the festivities was centred around the 12 days of Christmas, or Christmastide, beginning on the December 2 and ending on January 5.
Originally, the Epiphany (the 12th night of Christmas) was the major focus of the Christmas celebrations. By the high middle ages, however, Christmas day quickly grew to be the emphasis. A traditional Christmas day involved both solemn religious ritual and raucous and decadent celebration. Three masses were held during the day – the midnight, or angel’s mass; the dawn, or shepherd’s mass; and the final daytime, or mass of the Divine Word. These masses symbolized Christ’s birth bringing light to the dark, cold world and helped instil the importance of the festive season on its attendees.
Faith and solemn religious ritual are certainly an important part of Christmas, but so is (as I’m sure everyone will agree) merriment and celebration – and no one did it bigger (or better) than the people of the later middle ages. The end of the Christmas masses heralded nearly a fortnight of wild festivities, full of food, games, song and drink.
Perhaps the most important celebration was the Christmas feast. While a modern Christmas meal may seem somewhat excessive today, if you were anyone of note in the medieval period the feast you provided would put even the ‘Chelsea-est’ of footballers to shame. Take for example the Bishop of Hereford in 1289. He held a feast for 41 guests in which they consumed, ‘two carcasses and three quarters of beef, two calves, four does, four pigs, sixty fowls, eight partridges, two geese and bread and cheese.’
There is no account of how much beer was consumed, but it was noted that the 42 in attendance did drink 40 gallons of red wine and 4 of white. The peasants, while obviously not indulging in such opulence, were often given a satisfactory meal by their lords. One such example from Somerset being three tenants being given 2 loaves of bread, a ‘mess of beef and bacon,’ a chicken, cheese, mustard, cooking fuel and as much beer as they could possibly drink for the day. Hardly a feast fit for a bishop, but given the difficult life of a medieval peasant, certainly a meal to look forward to.
Beyond the gastronomic excesses of the Christmas feast, the 12 days of Christmas were a hedonistic time of revelry, where the many of the norms of medieval society were turned on their head. This can best be exemplified by three particular events: Boxing Day, Childermas and the Feast of the Fools. Boxing Day, perhaps the best known of the three, saw the master, or landlord switch roles and offer their apprentices or tenants gifts, often in the form of clay jars containing coins.
In order to access the money, the jar (nicknamed a ‘piggy’) would have to smashed – hence the origins of the term piggy bank. Childermas, or Holy Innocents Day, was a strange festival celebrated on December 28. Commemorating the order by Herod to kill all the male children of Judea, the festival originally saw children beaten, though by the late medieval period it had taken a much different path.
On this day a child would be elevated to the level of Bishop. The boy would then be allowed to give mass and say a sermon, collect gifts of money and perform marriages (which were only valid as long as the boy was bishop – just for the day).
A similar event, known as the Feast of the Fools (and widely condemned by the church) was held on January 1. This ‘feast’ usually saw sub deacons or other lower clergy, pretend to be bishops and mock their behaviour – often giving drunken sermons, wearing masks, singing lewd songs and even throwing sausages at the congregation!
This wild behaviour was mirrored by the public, who chose a ‘Lord of misrule’ to oversee the drunken festivities of the 12 nights. These festivities included carolling, which far from being the mundane and vanilla tradition of today was one of bawdy songs and excessive drinking. It was in many ways similar to the Viking ’mumming’ I talked about last week. Games of chance and gambling were also extremely popular, as sports, such as football, were discouraged during the period.
All this drunken revelry had to come to end, however, and it did on January 6 –the Day of the Epiphany (although not without a bang). In the middle ages, it became popular to celebrate the ending of the Christmas season with a game of mob football –something which had not been allowed over the previous fortnight. These matches often involved entire villages against each other, attempting to move an object to a predetermined location (similar to rugby). Examples of this exist throughout Europe, particularly in Britain and France – and probably best exemplified locally by the Haxey Hood (which I hope to take part in this year).
While January 6 generally ended the Christmas festivities it did not end the Christmas season. This occurred nearly a month later with the Candlemas of February 2. This festival, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, saw parishioners bring a candle and a penny to church to be blessed.
This blessing offered the faithful hope of light, warmth and prosperity during the dark winter months – similar to the Yule log of the Norse tradition. This was also when Christmas decorations were taken down, thus officially ending the Christmas season for another year.
Our modern Christmas has been toned down greatly over the proceeding centuries through a combination of cultural evolution and protestant moderation. Our modern holiday season does, however, share some similarities: the importance of merriment and feasting with family and friends and enjoying games with them and the wider community. The medieval Christmas is something that could never fit in to modern society – a politically incorrect, often anti-social mash of faith and frivolity- but it sounds like it was a good time while it lasted.