There are many elements of medieval Christmas celebrations that are similar to our modern traditions and some that are very different. Here are just a few ways that medieval people enjoyed the festive season (or not).
The three weeks leading up to our modern Christmas are, for many of us, a time of parties, over-indulgence and Advent calendars filled with chocolate treats. However, for our medieval forebears Advent was a time of fasting. During the fast you were meant to give up meat and animal products like milk, cheese and butter. If you were well-off, you could swap meat for fish instead. Many people at this time couldn’t afford much meat on a regular basis so giving it up for the fast was not as difficult for them as it might be for us today.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Today, we often joke that Christmas comes earlier each year and some organisations are starting to hold their office Christmas parties in November. However, in medieval times the main celebrations began on Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas, from 25 December until 6 January, were a time for fun and feasting. As well as Christmas Day there were other feast days such as St Stephen’s Day on 26 December, the feast of St John the Evangelist on 27 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December and Epiphany on 6 January. There was a break in the festivities for a while until Candlemas on 2 February where people would take candles to churches to be blessed and feasts were held to celebrate the formal end of winter.
Money boxes and boy bishops
Money is a common Christmas gift today and in medieval times Boxing Day on 26 December was when children and apprentices could smash open their money boxes and spend their savings on Christmas treats. Part of the medieval festivities concerning children that might be less well-known is the tradition of the Boy Bishops. On St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) a boy would be chosen from the choirboys of a church and declared ‘bishop’ until 28 December. His duties varied from church to church (churches in many places across the country had Boy Bishops, including several in London). He generally wore child-sized bishop’s vestments, sang, officiated at church services, took part in parades and collected money from spectators. The Boy Bishop at St Paul’s Cathedral even had to deliver a sermon on 28 December!
Ice-skating rinks are all the rage in London throughout the winter these days, with temporary rinks popping up at museums, squares and tourist attractions across the city. The situation was similar in the medieval period, when the marshes to the north of the city at Moorfields froze over, creating a great spot for skating. The 12th-century writer, William Fitzstephen, describes how people would tie bone skates onto their feet and shoot along the ice ‘swift as a bird in flight’.
Many of us will spend large parts of Christmas slumped in front of the telly, waiting for the turkey to cook. In 12th-century London, pre-dinner entertainment was rather different. William Fitzstephen writes ‘In winter on almost every feast day before dinner either foaming boars and hogs, armed with tusks lightning swift, themselves soon to be bacon, fight for their lives, or fat bulls with butting horns, or huge bears, do combat to the death against hounds let loose upon them.’ However, many of the other medieval Christmas entertainments would be very familiar to us, such as singing, playing games, and watching plays. The medieval equivalents of carol singers were ‘wassailers’ (‘was hail’ meant ‘be well’ in Old English) who went from house to house, singing and handing out wine or ale in return for food or money.
So ‘Wassail’ everyone – many best wishes for your good health this Christmas!