Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions
“Christe Maesse,” the Festival of Christ. A season of celebration; the birth of the Christian savior Jesus Christ is celebrated by Christians world round. December 25th came to be the official birthday for the son of God, thanks to Pope Julius I at the end of the 4th century. Although, others debated it to be March 25th during the Spring Equinox. The date being officiated, the long nights of late December became a time of merriment and celebration in honor of Christ. Aspects of pagan lore and tradition melded into the festivities. Cultures across Europe celebrated the bountiful prospects of Spring, and the holiday we know today began to take shape. During Medieval times opulent feasts, presentations of song and dance, and general foolishness sprouted throughout the Christian countries of Europe. The last week of December and the first week of January was a time of relaxation and celebration. Some of these practices and traditions became archaic, while others deeply rooted themselves in modern-day society. Christmas in the Medieval times may have looked a little funny, with no Santa Claus in sight, but the period grew the holiday into what it is today. We unpacked Seven Medieval Christmas traditions below. Hallelujah!
The 12 Days of Christmas and The Advent
Traditional Christmas celebrations during the Medieval time began on Christmas Day, yet did not end on the 26th as they generally do today. Christmas was a twelve-day event honoring the birth of Christ, his circumcision, various saints, and other natal events. Christmas Day only marks the start of a long period of feasting, foolishness, and ritual that often ended in debauchery, even violence. As the dark ages rumbled, the Catholic and later Protestant Church outlawed the more hedonistic and unholy practices. For example, on the eighth night of Christmas, New Year’s Day, The Feast of Fools was held. Masters would become servants and vice versa, mimicking the Roman tradition of Saturnalia. Mass chaos would ensue, including, but not limited to, cross-dressing, masking, and the burning of old shoes. On the Fourth Day of Christmas, a “boy bishop” was appointed for a day. Other children were viciously beaten that day, only to become masters of the house throughout the rest of it. Twelfth Night, the evening of January 5th, was the pinnacle night of the holiday. A lord of Misrule would be crowned. Rising to power through finding a small bean inside a festive dessert called “King Cake.” The merriment would then proceed to topple the world order, led by their new lord. Another mirror image of Saturnalia. This celebration marks the start of the Carnaval Season and is still highly practiced today.
Christmas also marked the end of Advent. Priests performed an extended period of fasting in preparation for Epiphany on January 6th. Before Christmas Eve, priests were expected to fast for three days, known as “Ember Days,” out of the week. This abruptly ended on the 24th when priests would feast, drink, dance, and revel for the night and the rest of the holiday. This was also the time when monks would shave their tonsures. The top of their head would be shaved, a ring of hair left around it to signify their humility to God.
Feasting, Caroling, and Gift Giving
During December, the moon hung high, and the nights were long. Crops did not grow, which meant it was time for relaxation and revelry. Lords and other members of the Medieval ruling class were expected to provide a large feast to the farmers and peasants that tilled the land throughout the year. Goose was generally the original main course but was quickly replaced by Turkey as it made its way to Europe in the 16th century. In some parts of England, swans were even eaten. Deer was also a standard main course, but only for the rich. “Umble” or “Humble” pies were an odd assortment of deer “Umbles,” the heart, brains, and other unwanted parts of the animal, baked into a pie and eaten by the peasantry. In some cultures, a pig was more common. A strong drink known as “Wassail” was served. Hot and full of ale, honey, and spices, the drink would be placed into a large bowl and drunk in the spirit of wellness. Many of these items would be consumed during large feasts such as the Feast of Fools.
Caroling, an all but seemingly outdated tradition today, appeared during this period. It first took place in a church but was banished to the streets as it disrupted more serious Christian matters. Songs of well-being and joy were sung house to house. Carol was a middle English word meaning to sing and dance around in a circle. Some carols were even sung to apple trees in an odd ritual known as “wassailing.” Their purpose was to bring on a bountiful apple harvest the following Spring. Of course, this involved a large bowl of the alcoholic “wassail.”
In today’s capitalistic version of Christmas, gift-giving is at the center of what we do during the season. But this wasn’t always the case. Originally gift, giving took place on Boxing Day or the Second Day of Christmas. The rich would give money to the poor in small clay boxes known as “piggy.” The first piggy banks. The Catholic Church would later ban this practice.
Mumming and Masking
“Mumming” was a common practice in Northern Europe where “mummers” would frighten their neighbors and relatives in the middle of the night. One of the most terrifying examples of this is the “Yule Goat.” A man covered in fur would break into homes demanding bread and cake. Carrying two poles adorned to look like a goat’s head, he would strike those who did not provide him with the sweets he desired. King Henry VIII eventually outlawed this practice. Many turned criminals and were too reminiscent of the festival’s pagan past.
In Romania, men don masks, bells, fur, and animalistic costumes to perform various blessings on those around them. They sometimes traveled to different cities to bring wealth, good luck, and love to their neighbors. Similar masking traditions and dances took place in Western Europe as well. In the 12th century, many ruling class members would place the cooked heads of slain animals, often a boar, upon their heads. These later were replaced with wooden masks. Masking was also commonly seen during the more major feasts of the season.
While many of the more ritualistic aspects of Christmas have faded, banned at the hands of the Protestant Church and later reshaped by American capitalism, their roots laid the foundation for the modern holiday we have today. This is just the start of our journey through the more bizarre aspects and traditions of the Christmas season. Keep checking back daily for the 25 Days of Christmas, US Ghost Adventures edition!
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