Europe, Christmas in Medieval

Europe, Christmas in Medieval

Medieval Europeans celebrated Christmas without Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and Christmas morning gift exchanges. Not only would we fail to spot these familiar elements of contemporary Christmas celebrations if transported back in time to medieval Europe, but we would also witness a number of extinct Christmas customs now strange to us. Nevertheless, the Christmas season and a few of its enduring customs first took shape during this era.

Christmas Season

In the fourth century Church authorities chose December 25 as the date on which Christians would celebrate the Nativity. They placed Christmas near two important Roman feasts, Saturnalia (December 17 to 23) and Kalends (January 1 to 5). Moreover, they scheduled it on the same day as the Birth of the Invincible Sun, a festival dedicated to the sun god. This meant that the major Christian feasts of Christmas and Epiphany (January 6) opened and closed a thirteenday period during which many recent converts were already accustomed to celebrate.

Eventually, the Church decided to accept this inclination to celebrate a midwinter festival rather than fight it. In 567 the Council of Tours declared the days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany to be a festal tide. This decision expanded Christmas into a Church season stretching from December 25 to January 5. This Church season became known as "Christmastide," but ordinary folk called it the Twelve Days of Christmas.

As Christianity became more firmly rooted in Europe, political leaders declared the Twelve Days to be legal holidays. Near the end of the ninth century King Alfred the Great of England (849-899) mandated that his subjects observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, outlawing all legal proceedings, work, and fighting during that time. The Norwegian King Haakon the Good (d. c. 961) established the Christian observance of the festival in Norway in the middle of the tenth century.


Medieval Europeans celebrated throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. They might attend religious services or watch mystery plays that retold biblical stories pertinent to the season (see Feast of the Ass; Nativity Plays). In addition, the well-to-do made music, played games, danced, told stories, hunted, jousted, and feasted. In late medieval times the elite of some European countries began to celebrate the season with roving, costumed events known as masques. In a more homemade version of this custom, ordinary folk dressed as mummers or received a band of mummers into their home or tavern. In England peasants who worked on large estates rested from their customary chores during the Twelve Days. Moreover, they partook of a communal feast provided to them by the lord of the estate, offering him in return a gift of farm produce. In England Christmas festivities ended on Plough Monday, when farm laborers went back to work.

Christmas Feasts in Medieval Europe

In the late Middle Ages, the typical English Christmas dinner probably included roast meat, chicken, or wild fowl, white bread (a medieval luxury), and ale or cider. The rich, of course, fared somewhat better. When the Bishop of Hereford hosted a Christmas feast for his household and 41 guests in the year 1289, his kitchens sizzled with a wide variety of roasted meats. The bishop's hard-working chefs butchered and cooked two oxen, four pigs, four deer, two calves, sixty fowls, eight partridges, and two geese. In addition, they brewed beer, baked bread, and prepared cheese for all. The assembled company washed down their meal with forty gallons of red wine and four gallons of white wine, as well as an "unscored" amount of beer.

A wide variety of what we might consider unusual fowl could appear on a medieval Christmas menu, such as swans and peacocks. The chefs of the well-to-do strove to present these beautiful birds in artful ways. For example, they might decorate the roasted carcass, often enclosed in pastry, with the bird's plucked feathers and place a lighted wick in the bird's beak. In addition to peacock and swan, medieval diners also relished heron, crane, bittern, plover, snipe, and woodcock. Chefs searching for a make-ahead dish that would resist spoilage often created large fruit, meat, and butter pies for the Christmas table. These pies later evolved into the dish we know as mincemeat pie.

The wealthy and noble often served wild boar for Christmas, commanding their pages to bring the roasted boar's head to the table with great ceremony. Indeed, boar's flesh (known as "brawn"), as well as pork were favorite Christmas meats. The English often accompanied these roasted meats with Christmas ale and wassail. Lastly, like their counterparts in the rest of Europe, medieval Britons celebrated throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. The largest and most festive meal was often served on Twelfth Night, or on Epiphany.

The French also celebrated the Christmas season with lavish feasts and openhanded hospitality. Castle doors were thrown open and wayfarers welcomed to feast at the lord and lady's table. When poor folk appeared at the door they were given food and, sometimes, clothing as well. Like their English counterparts, cooks in French castles served swan, peacock, and, occasionally, even stork to their guests. These guests might number into the hundreds. After they had sated their appetites, the guests could relax and enjoy entertainments provided by storytellers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, or traveling musicians. (See also France, Christmas in.)

Famous English Christmas Feasts

In the Middle Ages English monarchs sometimes threw Christmas feasts of legendary proportions. Often these feasts doubled as affairs of state, with the king hosting foreign dignitaries, local nobility, visiting knights, and other important guests. The assembled company might easily number well into the hundreds; some records declare the thousands. Moreover, this legion of hungry guests might stay for some or all of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Knowing the scale of these dinner parties helps to put some of the royal menus in perspective. For example, in 1213 King John of England (1167-1216) provided his guests with one of the largest and most sumptuous Christmas banquets on record. The shopping list for this gargantuan feast included 200 pigs, 1,000 hens, 15,000 herrings, 10,000 salt eels, scores of pheasants, partridges and other birds, 27 hogsheads of wine, 100 pounds of almonds, 50 pounds of pepper, and 2 pounds of saffron, as well as other spices. At some point in the preparations the cooks feared they were running short and sent for an additional 2,000 hens and 200 head of pork. King Henry III (1207-1272) is reported to have entertained 1,000 noblemen and knights at York one Christmas. His cooks slaughtered 600 oxen for the feasts, and accompanied the resulting roast beef with salmon pie, roast peacock, and wine.

Needless to say, with such long guest lists, royal cooks could prepare quite a wide variety of dishes for the Christmas feast. Although most of the surviving menus seem to focus on roast meat and fowl, King Henry V (1387-1422) treated his court one year to a diverse Christmas banquet featuring a wide variety of seafood in addition to the traditional brawn and mustard. The assembled company sampled herbed pike, powdered lamprey, jelly colored with flowers, salmon, bream, roach, conger, halibut, crayfish, sturgeon, lobster, whelks, porpoise, carp, tench, perch, turbot, and more. Altogether the king's cooks prepared over forty species of freshwater fish. Afterwards the royal chefs presented the king's guests with a dessert of marchpane (a forerunner of marzipan).

Adapting Pagan Customs

Many researchers believe that medieval Christmas celebrations absorbed a number of pre-existing pagan customs. Church policy itself may have had something to do with this. In the early Middle Ages missionaries found many recent converts unwilling to give up elements of their former celebrations. In the year 601 Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter to St. Augustine, missionary to Britain, advising him on how to deal with this problem. The letter reveals that missionaries were often encouraged to suggest a Christian significance to old pagan customs, rather than try to abolish them. Pope Gregory reasoned that: . . . because they [the Anglo-Saxons] are wont to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in the place of this, so that on the day of the dedication of the churches, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are placed there, they may make for themselves tabernacles of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance; so that while some outward joys are retained for them, they may more readily respond to inward joys. For from obdurate minds it is undoubtedly impossible to cut off everything at once, because he who strives to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps [Miles, 1990, 179].

Indeed, the ancient custom of decking homes with greenery may have infiltrated medieval Christmas celebrations in just this manner. According to some writers, the roots of this custom lie in the Roman practice of celebrating their midwinter festivals by decorating homes and temples with greenery. Moreover, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia by electing a mock king to preside over the customary feasts. Many mock kings sprouted up during the medieval Christmas season, perhaps as echoes of this ancient custom. They included the Bishop of Fools, who presided over the Feast of Fools, the King of the Bean, the Lord of Misrule, and the boy bishop. The old pagan beliefs of the north may also have contributed a few items to medieval Christmas lore. Some writers suspect that Berchta, the female spirit that haunted the Twelve Days of Christmas in German-speaking lands, may have evolved from an old Germanic goddess. They attribute the same origin to the band of spirits known as the Wild Hunt. Finally, medieval Germans honored Christmas by burning a Yule log, another custom that may date back to ancient times.

Creating Christian Customs

On the other hand, a good number of medieval Christmas customs grew out of Church practices or Christian folklore and legends. For example, the customs and festivities associated with the many saints' days scattered throughout the Christmas season blossomed during the Middle Ages. So did the observance of Advent, Epiphany, the Feast of the Circumcision, and Midnight Mass. Nativity plays, the Nativity scene, and Christmas carols also became popular during this era. The paradise tree, a possible forerunner of the Christmas tree, accompanied one of these medieval Nativity plays.

Surviving Medieval Customs

Many of these medieval customs and observances have now faded away. Nevertheless, we still celebrate Christmas by feasting, resting, decking our homes and churches with greenery, and partaking in popular forms of entertainment. Christmas carols remain with us, as do Nativity plays, although we know them today as Christmas pageants or as the Hispanic folk dramas of Las Posadas and Los Pastores.

Further Reading

Chambers, E. K. The Medieval Stage. Volumes 1 and 2. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1903. The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Maplewood, N.J.: Time-Life Books, 1963. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Murray, Alexander. "Medieval Christmas." History Today 36, 12 (December 1986): 31-39. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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