Christmas in Medieval Times
by Dana D’Angelo
The term “Christes Maesse” was first introduced in a Saxon book in 1038 AD.
One source I found claimed that Christmas gradually became popular by a succession of rulers such as Charlemagne (800 AD), Edmund the Martyr (855 AD), and William I of England (1066 AD) who chose Christmas Day to become crowned.
Another source suggested that the Church didn’t have a fixed date for Christmas Day until the 4th century. And they chose December 25th in an attempt to superimpose on a pagan holiday that fell on the same date.
But whatever the case may be, there is no denying that the Druid or pagan traditions integrated with the Christian ones to form new ideas about celebrating and feasting during the holidays.
Over a twelve day span, the merging of these two customs allowed people to indulge in food and “misrule” (drunkenness, promiscuity and gambling), which was a large part of the pagan celebrations. At the same time, these same people were able to commemorate the birth of Christ and their own salvation.
By the time the High Middle Ages rolled around, Christmas became so wide spread that that writers of the time noted how influential people celebrated the holiday. In 1377 AD, for instance, King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas banquet that served twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep!
In terms of gift giving, this act was usually done between people with a legal relationship such as a tenant and landlord. While it was customary for noblemen to give tenants and workers time off to celebrate the “holy days”, it wasn’t customary for them to give gifts. However if a landlord decided to show his generosity, he may have offered coins to servants and apprentices, or treated the poor to a supper in the great hall.
However whether the people were poor or wealthy, they appreciated the holiday fare. Throughout the year, they were constantly hungry and the holidays were the only times that they could indulge in food.
Some popular foods and drinks the people enjoyed were:
- Wassail – A powerful, hot drink that was made from a mixture of ale, honey and spices. The host served the drink from a large bowl. With friends present, he would cheerfully call out “waes hael” or “be well.” The friends, meanwhile, would reply with “drink hael” or “drink and be well.”
- Baked Mince Pie – Minced pie was baked in an oblong shape to symbolize the crib that Jesus slept in. It consisted of shredded meat, fruit, and three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) to represent the three gifts offered to Christ from the Magi. The people held a belief that a wish made on the first bite of the pie caused the wish to come true. However if a person refused that important first bite during Christmas, bad luck would follow him in the new year.
- Pudding or Frumenty - Essentially a spicy porridge made from boiled wheat, currants, dried fruit, yolks and spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. The mixture was cooled and then allowed to set before it was served.
- Golden Roasts - In noble homes, the cooks strived for artistry in their culinary creations. For example, to make a roasted peacock look visually appealing, they would add butter and saffron to paint the meat in a golden hue. When the peacock was finished cooking, they often redressed the gilded bird in its old skin and feathers.
- Boar’s Head - A boar’s head, with an apple or an orange in its mouth, was placed at the trestle table during an extravagant banquet. This rosemary and bay scented center piece was considered a noble dish and eagerly enjoyed by dinner guests.
All in all, the history of Christmas during the Middle Ages was an interesting one. While it seemed that new traditions emerged, they were in fact heavily grounded by the old ones.