Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guest Author, Angela Johnson - The Medieval Christmas Feast in England

Thanksgiving is over, and December is now upon us, which means its holiday season!  On History Undressed, we'll have a few special holiday related posts coming up, starting today with guest author Angela Johnson, whose written a fascinating article on medieval times, Christmas and feasting!  She's also included a delicious looking recipe for a medieval beverage that I will be trying!

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
The first recorded use of the word Christmas is from the twelfth century. It is derived from the Anglo Saxon word Christes Maesse, meaning the "Mass of Christ". Since the 4th century, the Roman Catholic Church has celebrated Christmas on December 25th. But in the Middle Ages, Christmas Day marked just the beginning of a cycle of feasts and Saint’s Days celebrations that lasted over a period of two weeks. This period was known variable as "Christmastide", or the "Twelve Days of Christmas", and it made up the Christmas season.

The various holy days celebrated during Christmastide were St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), St. John the Evangelist’s Day (December 27), Holy Innocent’s Day (December 28), St. Thomas a Becket’s Day (December 29), and ended on Twelfth Night, or the Epiphany (January 6).

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.

Christmas Feast: Food and Drink

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.

The sumptuousness of the feast varied depending on the extent of the resources of the celebrant. The same was true whether it was a feast for a wedding, tournament, or Christmas day. Though the foods served at the feast were wide and varied, a number of dishes were traditional fare of a Medieval Christmas, like boar’s head, and roasted peacock and swan.
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.

Sometimes at Christmas feasts, several wild foul were also brought to the table with the same grand ceremony as the boar’s head. Peacock and swan, delicacies of the rich, were often made to look alive, as though they’d just been persuaded to sit upon the platter to be carried into the feasting-hall. This affect was achieved by the carcass being carefully skinned, feathers and all, then roasted, and then replaced back into its skin. The head and neck were stuffed to ensure they stood up so the bird looked as though it were still alive. Peacock was presented with their full tail and gilded head crest proudly displayed.

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.

During medieval times, a wide variety of beverages were also available. One alcoholic beverage, though, was brewed especially for consumption during Christmas. It was known as wassail. This was a brew of ale, apples, spices, and later on, sugar (when it was available). It was often served in a special "wassail bowl", or container made of wood, and decorated with ribbons. The drink was passed around from guest to guest with the person offering the drink expressing his/her well wishes in the form of a toast --- “wassail” or “wes hal”, which means “Be thou hale”, “be in health” or “be well”. The recipient was expected to reply with “drink hail”, meaning “drink in good health”. The drink was very popular and often drunk to excess.  (Recipe included below this article...)

Christmas Feast: Entertainment

A medieval Christmas feast would certainly not be complete without several forms of entertainment. Guests at feasts were treated to singing, dancing, various games, and mummers’ plays. Christmas music in the form of hymns and carols were very popular. Hymns were of a religious nature. They were written and sung in Latin by the clergy. Carols were often composed by lay persons. They were written and sung in the vernacular, and brought a new element to the celebration of Christmas. Some were bawdy and related little to the religious festival, while others narrated stories of the Nativity.
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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Christmas Wassail


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
28g/1oz sugar
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

Back Cover Blurb for VOW OF DECEPTION

Your first allegiance is to your heart…

As a knight, Sir Rand Montague’s allegiance is to King Edward I. But when the king orders Rand to escort Rosalyn Harcourt to court in order to wed her off to Sir Golan—a crass knight Rand abhors—he’s torn between duty and desire. For Rand has never forgotten the woman he spent one unforgettable night of passion with…

After suffering abuse at the hands of her deceased husband, Rose wishes to never wed again. But when Rand rescues her after Sir Golan attempts to compromise her, she agrees to marry Rand in name only. However, sharing such close quarters with Rand brings back memories of their torrid rendezvous—and tempts Rose to give in to an all-consuming desire…

Leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of VOW OF DECEPTION.


Unknown said...

Wonderful and fascinating! Did they also do role-reversals around Christmas, or am I thinking of something else?

Gossip Cowgirl said...

Great post, Angela. Can't wait to read your new book. And thanks, Eliza, for letting us know about this post. It's gotten me in the mood to read a medieval romance now... :-)

AJ said...

Interesting post. I'll have to bookmark it in case I ever decide to write a story around Christmas.

Chicks of Characterization said...

What a great and informative post Angela! My mom is from England and so she always made mince meat pies at X-mas. Blech! I never could get used to them, actually, I avoided them like the plague! Now her trifle, that was a different story! YUMMY! Can't wait to have it this year!

Thanks so much for sharing1 And PLEASE put me in the running for a copy of VOW OF DECEPTION becuase I CANNOT wait to get my hands on it!!!

Best wishes,


Angela Johnson said...

@Ms. Rachael--Glad you liked my article. Yes, they did role-reversal at Christmas time where superiors waited on those of inferior rank. The custom was known as Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule was chosen randomly from among the common people to rein for the duration of the festivities.

Angela Johnson said...

@ Rebecca--I'm so glad my post has inspired you to read a medieval romance. Have a Merry Christmas season.

Angela Johnson said...

@ AJ--Thanks for reading about The Medieval feast. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

Angela Johnson said...

@ Andrea--That's so interesting that your mother came from England. I admit I've never tried a mince meat pie. I'm a very picky eater and it always sounded like it tasted disgusting, so I never tried it. But that trifle you mentioned does sound YUMMY!

Thanks so much for all your support and best wishes.

Julie Robinson said...

Thanks for this informative post, Angela. Very interesting.
And I'm going to have to try that Wassail recipe.

Angela Johnson said...

@ Julie--Glad you liked the post. Doesn't that wassail recipe sound delicious? Have a Merry Christmas.