The Medieval Christmas Feast in England
by Angela Johnson
Ever wonder how people celebrated Christmas in England during the Middle Ages? How did devoutly Catholic English society celebrate the birth of Christ six hundred years ago? As a history lover and writer of medieval romance, I began asking myself such questions as I realized Christmas was rapidly approaching. So I did some research and here are some of my findings.
|St. Johns the Evangelist|
As with Christmas Day, each of these holy days was celebrated with a feast. In the medieval period, this was a time eagerly anticipated by peasant and noble alike during the long dark days of winter. Like today it was a holiday which enabled people an opportunity to indulge in food and drink, hang decorations, entertain, and participate in singing, dancing, and playing games.
The common peasant would not have the means to have a feast of their own, but royalty and nobility vied to see who could outdo the other in the size and scope of their Christmas season display and festivities. Even lesser magnates dispensed hospitality and good cheer to the greatest extent their resources would allow. In the Middle Ages, ninety-five percent of the populace was rural. It was custom in the countryside for barons and magnates to invite—in addition to their guests—servants and retainers of the manor, plus select other villagers, to partake of their feast.
At many Christmas feasts, boar’s head was often brought into the dining hall to the sound of trumpets which commenced the first course of a 3-6 course meal, with each course having numerous dishes to choose from.
The tradition of the boar’s head processional was first introduced by the Vikings. They sacrificed the boar to pay tribute to their god, Frey, then brought its head to the table with an apple in its mouth and decked with garlands. This pagan custom gradually became Christianized. Eventually, the animals being slaughtered for the pagan gods were instead being sacrificed for the one true God.
Other foods that would be more familiar to us today, but closely associated with Christmas, included mince pie and plum pudding. In medieval times, mince meat pie was known as Christmas pie. The original dish was a large and grand meat pie made of—beef, lamb, goose, chicken—as well as suet, dried fruit, and spices. It was usually oval in shape and easily transformed into a crib with a tiny pastry baby Jesus sculpted and set on top. It was eaten as a main dish of the Christmas feast until the 17th century when England’s Puritan-lead Parliament began to curtail Christmas celebrations. The name and shape of the pie gradually changed to avoid any association with the old traditions, and by the late 19th century, the meat and most of the spices had been removed. All that remained were the rich fruits, suet, and plenty of added sugar.
One popular type of entertainment at the medieval Christmas feasts was "mummers’ plays". These were plays enacted by masked actors. There were three types of mummer’s plays. One was the "Hero/Combat". Another was the "Wooing Ceremony". And the third was the "Sword Dance." All three deal with the themes of death and rebirth, but did so in a different way.
Medieval Feast: Decorations
Medieval people decorated their homes, manors, and halls with greenery for the Christmas season. Feast halls were draped with holly, ivy and mistletoe. Holly was thought to bring good luck to the home, and to protect it from lightning and witches. But more importantly, holly was connected to the Nativity with the evergreen leaves representing Jesus’ eternal life.
Ivy was also used in decorating medieval homes, though not as popular as holly. It was often used on the outside of households.
Mistletoe has ties to both pagan and Christian legend and was believed to have healing powers. Though the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe had pagan origins, it acquired a Christian meaning in the medieval period when a new belief began to circulate that the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified actually came from mistletoe, rather than the holly. Common people were particularly fond of mistletoe, especially at Christmas, as it provided them with a license to flirt freely with the opposite sex. Despite clerical disapproval, mistletoe became a firm part of the medieval Christmas tradition.
Amazingly, it seems that medieval people had to deal with many of the same Christmas issues we do now. Then, as today, many Church leaders lamented the secularization of Christmas celebrations to the detriment of the true purpose of Christmas—to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. They point out that the true meaning of Christmas can easily be forgotten, or overlooked, in the excitement of all the holiday festivities. I suppose several hundred years from now, those same points might still be raised each year at Christmas time, but hopefully, humanity will still be coming together to decorate, feast, entertain, and find meaning in life.
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Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/3 pint of apple juice
1/6 tsp. of ground nutmeg
¼ tsp of ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
500ml/1 pint ale
1 tsp. Honey
1. Simmer the apple juice, lemon juice and zest, spices and sugar in a pan, until the sugar has dissolved but ensuring the liquid does not boil.
2. Add the ale and honey and then heat through, taking care not to boil wassail.
3. Serve warm with lemon slices floating on top.
Recipe makes 1 ½ pints or 6 small glasses
Diehl, Daniel. Medieval Celebrations: How to Plan Holidays, Weddings, and Reenactments, with Recipes, Customs, Costumes, Decorations, Songs, Dances, and Games. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001.
Jackson, Sophie. The Medieval Christmas. Stroud: Sutton, 2005.
******About the Author
Angela Johnson fell in love with romance novels in high school. In college, she earned a degree in history. Today, she combines her two favorite passions—history and romance—into a writing career. Her second novel VOW OF DECEPTION is out now. Loving to research and spin sensual tales, Angela lives in Kansas, with Joe, her very own hero of twenty-three years. Please visit her at http://angelajohnsonauthor.com
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