Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Medieval Christmas

by Jane Gilbert

When we think of medieval Christmas, our minds are filled with images of royal banquets in halls bedecked with green, of minstrels singing festive songs, noble lords and ladies gorging themselves on roast goose. We imagine snow-topped hills, and fresh bright mornings, where the differences between rich and poor could be momentarily overlooked. Is it wrong to romanticize like this? There is evidence to suggest that our imaginations aren't far off the mark.

An Ancient Festival

The word 'Christes Maesse' surfaced in a Saxon book in 1038. But the roots of this festival stretch back much earlier. In late antiquity Christmas was not a time of revelry and fun, but instead a time for a special mass, quiet prayer and reflection. Until the fourth century, the church hadn't even fixed a date for Christmas. Eventually, Pope Julius I chose December 25th. It seems likely this was an attempt to christianize a pagan holiday that fell on that date.

Medieval folk were no strangers to Christmas excitement. William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas day in 1066. This was such a momentous occasion that the cheering inside the Abbey made the guards outside think the king was being attacked. They ran to his assistance and the coronation ended in a riot, with people killed and houses burned.

But in Medieval times 25th December wasn't the most important date: Epiphany was celebrated with more gusto. Some people say that this day, 6th January or twelfth night, is to celebrate Christ's baptism, others that Epiphany marked the visit of the three kings bearing gifts to the baby Jesus. Some people forget that Christ was born at Christmas, but they don't forget the gift giving. While the kings may have brought gold, frankincense and myrrh instead of Nike trainers and Playstations, the tradition they started continues today.

The medieval holiday of Christmas is an amalgamation of Christian and pagan, old and new. In the pagan festival of Yule, druids blessed and burned a log and kept it burning for twelve days as part of the winter solstice. The church has its own version of this -- Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin held on 2nd February. Medieval parishioners came to church with a penny and a candle to be blessed. Other candles were taken away to comfort the sick and dying or to give hope during thunderstorms. The Yule log gave the pagans a symbolic light to guide them through the harsh winter, while the Candlemas candle gave Christians solace in times of cold and hunger. The joining of these two traditions meant ordinary people could celebrate the birth of Christ and their own salvation, as well as enjoy themselves with the feasting and fun associated with pagan tradition.

But it wasn't fun for everyone. Childermass or Holy Innocents Day was on December 28th -- the day King Herod ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two in an attempt to kill Jesus. While nowadays we might expect youngsters to be playing with their new toys over the holiday season, in medieval times they were cowering in cupboards. That's because in medieval England, children were reminded of Herod's cruelty by being beaten. Many thought December 28th a day of bad luck. People were reluctant to get married on that day, or start building something and Edward IV refused to be crowned.

One example of the heady mix of Christian and pagan is the tradition of the Lord of Misrule. This was someone appointed at Christmas to be in charge of Christmas revelries, which often included drunkenness and wild parties in the tradition of Yule. Again, the church had an equivalent, called a boy bishop. This tradition seems to come from ancient Rome, from the feast of Saturnalia. During this time, the ordinary rules of life were turned upside down. Masters served their slaves, and offices of state were held by peasants. The Lord of Misrule presided over all of this and had the power to command anyone to do anything.

In the church, on January 1st's Feast of Fools, similar strangeness occurred. Priests wore masks at mass, sang lewd songs and ate sausages before the altar. It was a time of such wildness that lords often employed special guards to protect their property in case of rioting. Tenants of a manor belonging to London's St Paul's Cathedral were obliged to keep watch over the manor house, and were paid with a fire, a loaf of bread, a cooked dish and a gallon of ale -- a sumptuous Christmas dinner.

Food for Thought

But what was medieval Christmas actually like? It was certainly the longest holiday of the year, and brought with it cruelties as well as privileges. Poorer people were let off work for the festival, and sometimes were even treated to a Christmas dinner in their landlord's great hall.

If you were lucky, that is. Some manors dished out Christmas treats depending on status. One manor near Wells Cathedral in the south of England invited two 13th-century peasants -- one a large landholder and the other a small one. The first got a feast for himself and two friends, including beer, beef and bacon, chicken stew, cheese -- and even candles to light the feast with. The poorer peasant did not fare so well. He had to bring his own cup and plate. But at least he got to take home the leftovers, and he was even given a loaf of bread to share with his neighbours. This was used to play a traditional Christmas game. A bean was hidden in the loaf and the person who found it became king of the feast. This has turned into today's tradition of hiding pennies in Christmas puddings to symbolize coming riches -- even if a penny won't pay the dentistry bills for cracked teeth.

If you were higher on the social scale and were part of a knight's household, or even the royal one, you would be treated to a fabulous feast and gifts of jewels and robes. In 1482, the famously generous King Edward IV gave a spectacular Christmas gift to his people when he held a banquet that fed over two thousand people each day. Even then the pressures to give at Christmas were immense. Edward's brother, the notorious Richard III had to sell items from the Royal household, and used items from the treasury as pledges for loans in order to live up to his brother's reputation. With the money he made, Richard presented the city of London with a gold cup encrusted with jewels. He and his wife Anne spent a staggering 1200 pounds on new clothes and gifts for the court. He even licensed a merchant to bring jewels into England -- as long as he had first choice so he could give his wife impressive gifts.

But these weren't the only gifts given at Christmas. Famous medieval chronicler Matthew Paris records that in 1249 King Henry III got from London citizens 'the first gifts which the people are accustomed superstitiously to call New Year's gifts.' Portents of success for the coming year, these gifts are also related to the modern tradition of 'first footing', where the first person to set foot inside your house determined your family's fortunes for the year.

On Boxing Day, rich lords often gave their tenants a small gift, containing a moral lesson. The poor received money from their masters in hollow clay pots with a slit in the top. You had to break them to get the money out. Nicknamed 'piggies' these offerings were the earliest version of a piggy bank, although it is doubtful whether they encouraged much saving,

If you were lucky enough to be present at a noble Christmas banquet, you would have your fill of sumptuous starters and tasty treats. Medieval noblemen often had a boar's head as their main dish, served with rosemary and an apple or an orange in its mouth. In the countryside it was traditional to kill a wild boar, cutting off its head and offering it to the goddess of farming to ensure a good crop in the coming year. But if boar was elusive, you might have goose or venison. You might even be served with swan, smothered in butter and saffron -- with the King's permission, that is. (They are still royal property today.)

Less fancy tables would have to make do with whatever was left. Though not allowed to eat the best parts of the deer, a nobleman full of Christmas spirit might allow his poor tenants to have the leftovers. Known as 'umbles,' these parts were usually the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains. They were made into a pie. It's easy to see where our modern expression about having to 'eat humble pie' comes from. However, if you weren't into deer entrails, the church generously offered a fixed Christmas price of 7 pence for a ready cooked goose -- although that was about a day's wages.

Mince pies were also eaten at medieval tables. If you made a wish with your first bite people said it would come true. But don't refuse if someone offers you a pie, or you might suffer bad luck. Another big treat of the medieval table was Christmas pudding. Called 'frumenty' -- from the Latin for corn 'frumentum' -- it was made of thick porridge, wheat, currants and dried fruit. If available, eggs and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg were added.

To wash down all this rich food there were two fine festive tipples. Lambswool was a hot concoction of mulled beer with apples bobbing on the surface. There was also Church Ale, a strong brew reserved only for Christmas and sold in the churchyard or even in the church itself.

Christmas Carousing

The proximity of alcohol to the church coincides with one or two of the more lively Christmas traditions. Carols, such a staple part of today's Christmas diet, were prohibited in many European churches because they were considered lewd. They were often accompanied by dancing. The leader of the carol dance sang a verse of the carol, and a ring of dancers responded with the chorus. However, carol dances were suggestive of the fertility traditions of pagan song and dance cycles, and were thus considered too coarse for church.

A famous Christmas song of today is The Twelve Days of Christmas, where a list of presents given to the singer by their 'true love' is recounted. The gifts range from 'eleven lords a-leaping' to 'a partridge in a pear tree.' In medieval times this was a game set to music. One person sang a stanza, then another would add his own lines to the song after repeating the first person's verse. One tradition says it was a catechism memory song. It helped Catholics in post-restoration England remember facts about their faith at a time when practising it could get them killed.

Another popular form of Christmas entertainment was 'mumming'. Similar to modern English pantomimes, these were unceremonious plays without words which usually involved dressing up as a member of the opposite sex and performing comic tales. They took place throughout the twelve days of Christmas, and involved members of the troupe parading the streets and visiting houses for dancing and dicing.

Of course, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without festive decoration. A description of twelfth century London says that "every man's house, as also their parish churches, was decked with holly, ivy, bay, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green." Whilst our gaudy modern decorations would have confused a medieval person, they were still fond of a bit of greenery to brighten up the murk of winter. Christians believed that traditional Christmas plant, holly, had white berries that turned red when Christ was made to wear the crown of thorns. But holly was also important to the druids. So was mistletoe, under which we still forge romantic encounters today. Ivy, a plant associated with Bacchus, Roman god of wine and carousing, was forbidden by the church because of its immorality. (For more details, see The Holly and the Ivy, by Julia Hickey.)

The story of Christmas trees also has long roots. The oak was sacred to the druids and the Romans thought evergreens had special powers. But for both pagans and Christians, the fact that the fir tree kept its green needles throughout the ravages of winter was enough for it to earn a place as a symbol of life and renewal. This hope was vital whether you were celebrating the birth of Christ or just desperately looking forward to the first sign of spring. Even today we focus on them for Christmas merriment.

Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government tried to ban the frivolities of Christmas and some of the more vernacular traditions which developed during medieval times. But he didn't succeed for long. Many of our modern traditions come from the early mingling of the Christian and the pagan worlds. Whilst the church secured Christmas as a truly religious Christian holiday, peasants quietly continued with the old ways. The result is the rich and eclectic mixture of old and new that characterizes Christmas today. What better way to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas than this fusion of different times, religions and peoples to make a festival that has earned its place as one of the favourites in our calendar.

Writer, teacher and psychologist, Jane Gilbert comes from Devon, England, and lives by the sea in Italy. After studying English Literature, she ran away to Brazil where she travelled extensively and cuddled sloths. She likes giraffes and curl reviver.

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