A Brief History of Christmas
Before Christmas was Christmas, there was a Roman winter festival called Saturnalia. In ancient Scandinavia a similar celebration called Yule was held at around the same time. Neither celebrated the birth of Christ.
In the early days, Christians of the Roman Empire celebrated local winter festivals, or at least hung the obligatory holly on their doors to prevent being singled out for persecution. As early as the 2nd century, Christians privately celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, on January 6th. This was the day they honored the Magi and in a lesser degree, Christ’s baptism. After Rome fell and Christianity began to spread, Christian leaders (Constantine the Great and later Bishop Liberius of Rome) set out to eliminate Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations that competed with Epiphany.
Phasing out the pagan winter festivals turned out to be quite the challenge since they were so deeply entrenched in Roman and European culture and society. Winter Solstice, Yule and Saturnalia had to be replaced with something familiar and equally as fun. So Christians adopted the most acceptable pagan holiday traditions and gave them a religious spin, adding their own new traditions along the way.
Prior to the 4th century there was no formal celebration of Christ’s birth due to the lack of an actual recorded birth date. For reasons known only to him, Pope Julius I (papacy AD 337-352) decided that December 25th was the special day. The nativity was certainly celebrated from that point on, but didn’t become an “official” religious and civic holiday until Emperor Justinian declared it as such in 529 AD. The formerly quiet and reflective ancient celebration for Epiphany was extended twelve days to begin on December 25th and it ultimately overpowered the pagan holidays. These twelve days were named Christmas (Christ Mass), a blend of old traditions and Christian theology.
Christmas in the Middle Ages
A medieval Christmas was actually twelve full days of feasting and raucous fun. Mid-winter was a perfect time for such festivities, since many laborers and farmers had extra time on their hands and winter can be depressing. Prior to Christmas was Advent, a 40-day period of fasting and piety. The last day of Advent was Christmas Eve, and each day after that until Epiphany became more and more grand. In the early days, Epiphany was a much bigger deal than Christmas Day, and soon became intertwined with the pageantry and entertainment of Twelfth Night, which was the last day of feasting. Twelfth Night (January 5th or 6th) was especially popular for the wealthy few who had the means to keep partying with gusto into the new year.
Christmas traditions came and went over the centuries and of course each region or country had its own unique cultural influences. Many of our modern Christmas traditions like gift-giving originated in the Middle Ages.
Some interesting medieval Christmas and Yuletide traditions:
- Mumming- People would dress up and pantomime. Some liked to scare others at night and others put on elaborate plays.
- Caroling and dancing were originally banned in churches, so party-goers would instead go door to door to sing. Eventually sacred carols were written to incorporate Christmas celebrations into Mass.
- Many towns would elect a boy bishop as a joke around December 28th (in France on Jan. 1- the Feast of Fools). Depending on the town or region, he might hold a fake mass in a funny voice, have a procession and receive gifts. He even had other duties and would actually be able to marry couples. These “marriages” were legitimate, but only for one night…
- Games like dice and cards were very popular. In some places there were organized hunts or sporting tournaments.
- Nativity scenes began with a baby in a crib with two beasts keeping him warm. By the Renaissance, other figures had been added and some of them even moved! Nativities and crib-making were especially popular in Italy. The first recorded living nativity scene was created by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223.
- Nobles sometimes hired a lot of unnecessary seasonal lower-class staff, giving them a chance to be part of court festivities for the holiday. A noble household grew exponentially during the season, partially because winter travel was difficult. Therefore, the long journey needed to be “worth it” so courts and upper-class homes went all out for Christmas.
- Christmas trees were not found in homes until much later (Germany started that in the 16th century), but churches did decorate trees with apples for “Adam and Eve Day.” It was far more common to hang branches of fir trees or holly in the house.
- St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children and in many places a man dressed in bishops’ robes would ride on a donkey to deliver gifts to children.
- Religious authorities attempted to ban certain activities that were considered immoral or too rowdy for a Christian holiday, but some of these traditions were too entrenched to avoid (see boy bishops and Feast of Fools). For this reason, taverns were required to close early during Christmas to avoid brawling in the streets.
What would Christmas be without carols? Back then, “carols” were not strictly designated for Christmas, or even for holidays in general. There are carols about war, like the Agincourt Carol, and some for Easter.
For hundreds of years there were very strict rules about which kind of Christmas music could be played in churches. Styles changed and shifted as monophonic (one-voice) became polyphonic (two/many voices) and harmonic. Religious hymns provided most of the approved Christmas material, and many songs focused on the Virgin Mary, the Christ child and other related saints with upcoming feasts. However, there was also a whole world of secular music that was more lively and much easier to dance to. Most of this music wasn’t written down until the late medieval era due to it being generally frowned upon by clergy. Medieval folk tunes were repurposed in later centuries and given the famous Christmas lyrics that we all know today. For example, Good King Wenceslas was originally a 13th-century springtime carol but the lyrics were changed in 1853.
Some of the more familiar medieval carols include In Dulci Jubilo, Boar’s Head Carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Coventry Carol, There is No Rose of Such Virtue and Personent Hodie. Other great but not widely known Christmas songs from the late Middle Ages are Gaudete, Nova Nova and Angelus Ad Virginem. There are also “traditional” carols like The Holly and the Ivy that were published or attributed much later but could have easily originated sometime during the medieval era.
Food and Feasting
Advent was a very important and strictly enforced period of fasting. Christmas Eve still fell within Advent, so the feast would not include land-dwelling animal meat, eggs or dairy. A traditional Christmas Eve feast would be fish or other “Lenten” foods often containing almond milk. This ushered in twelve full days without any fasting, so each day of Christmas was a feast full of extravagant and rich foods that hadn’t been allowed for over a month.
There were not yet many Christmas-specific foods, but anything fancy with meat and dairy were the most popular. Certain foods and dishes were more prevalent during winter anyway because they could be preserved: figs, plums, raisins, apples, dates, etc. It was common for middle class and poor citizens to only slaughter animals during the winter because it was too expensive to feed and house them until spring. For the poorest peasants, winter might be the only time they would eat any meat at all. Certain spices were thought to be “warming” and were best eaten during winter: ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Consequently, many desserts now associated with Christmas contain these spices.
Giving alms and sharing with family, friends or the less fortunate was expected of upper-class citizens. Wealthier homes would invite others to feast or give villeins/peasants food as gifts (mincemeat pies, bread, cheese). A lord would often supply his villeins (peasant tenants paying rent) with food, ale and fuel for Christmas Day, even including bread for the family dog. In many cases peasants or poor classes would give the lord homemade ale in exchange for food.
Typical dishes served at feasts:
- Boar’s head. Arguably the most important Christmas food of all! It wasn’t a proper Three Kings Day feast without it. Not everyone could afford to serve an actual boar’s head so merchant classes instead made a pie or a cake in the shape of a boar.
- Goose and venison and, if they were lucky, swan. Turkeys did not exist in Europe at this time.
- Pease pudding, frumenty, fruits soaked in brandy for preservation and taste.
- Meat pottages and rich sauces (pork, rabbit, etc.).
- Spices and sugar were still expensive, but this was the best time for sweets like gingerbread.
- Cakes with chopped fruits (fruitcake!). Don’t forget the King’s Cake on Epiphany to commemorate the Magi.
- Mincemeat pies or their sweet meat pie ancestors, Chewettyes and Flampoyntes. These were often given to peasants as gifts by local nobles or landlords.
- Lower classes who couldn’t afford much had to make do with the cheap leftover animal parts like kidneys and liver which were graciously donated to them by the wealthy elite. These scraps were baked into a pie: the Umble Pie.
Large feasts consisted of at least 3-4 courses, each course being a combination of as many as twelve sweet and savory dishes. Courses weren’t broken up by type (appetizer, main, etc.) like they are today. Some health-related rules applied to certain foods regarding which course they should be presented. At least one meat dish would be served per course, as well as a pottage, sides and desserts.
If you plan to make a medieval-style Christmas feast at home, you could serve pork roast or roast chicken with a rich sauce, stuffed goose, fancy meat pottage (like egredouncye), peas or wortes for the vegetables, rice dishes for a meat day (like ris engoule), and pears in wine sauce. Nuts and dried/candied fruits were eaten as snacks between courses during periods of entertainment or at the very end to finish up the meal.
Throughout the month I will be posting some of my favorite medieval Christmas recipes. Check back often or follow my blog so you don’t miss out! The first in the series will be a 15th century Gyngerbrede.
Despite the 17th century Puritans outlawing Christmas in both England and the New World, the holiday continued albeit in a reinvented state. Americans largely rejected Christmas and its pagan-ish revelry until the 19th century when they began to embrace the nostalgic and family-centered traditions inspired by literature like that of Charles Dickens. Christmas wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday in the United States until 1870. In other parts of Europe the pagan roots still run very deep, particularly those more closely associated with Yule like Scandinavia and Germany. Depending on where you live, you may celebrate any number of other feasts and holidays during Advent and the Christmas season like St. Nicholas Day, St. Basil’s Day, St. Lucia’s Day or Boxing Day.
Just as worldwide Christmas traditions vary today, a medieval Christmas celebration would have followed the local customs. But while the modern holiday has changed quite a bit over the centuries, it is amazing how many of the old traditions, carols and foods have managed to survive the test of time!
Sources and Further Reading
Featured photo by Liz West via Flikr.
- Anderson, Douglas. Christmas Music During the Middle Ages. The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
- Gies, Joseph and Frances. Life in a Medieval Castle. HarperCollins, New York. 1974. Print.
- Henish, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. Pennsylvania State University Press, USA. 1976. Print
- Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. Simon &Schuster, New York. 2008. Print.
- Ridgway, Claire. Twelfth Night and Epiphany. The Tudor Society. 2016.