Long before Santa Claus, Christmas carols and light-dotted Christmas trees, the people of medieval Europe celebrated the Christmas season with 12 full days of feasting and merriment culminating in Twelfth Night and the hoarse coronation. of a “King of maladministration”.
Christmas in the Middle Ages was preceded by the month-long Advent fast, during which Christians avoided rich foods and excess. But all bets were off from the morning of December 25, according to Anne Lawrence-Mathers, a historian at the University of Reading in the UK where she specializes in medieval England, a period that roughly spans from 5th century AD to 1500 AD.
“Once Christmas day came, if you had the stamina then you had to eat, drink, be merry, dress up, play games, go dancing around the neighborhood for 12 days before collapsing in a heap.” , she says. .
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In the Middle Ages, the holiday began in earnest before dawn on Christmas morning with a special Christmas mass which marked the official end of Advent and the start of the holiday season, which ran from December 25 to January 5. .
The degree of Christmas decadence depended on your social status, but Lawrence-Mathers says most people would have at least one pig slaughtered in November and salted and smoked in preparation for Christmas bacon and hams.
In the countryside, the wealthy lords of the manor had to give their sharecroppers at least 12 days off and also serve them a festive meal. It is difficult to know exactly what was on the menu, but in “Le Bonhomme de Paris”, a text written in 1393, the author describes the dishes required for a “special feast”. The meal began with a dish of pâtés, sausages and black pudding; then four dishes of fish, poultry and roast meats; and a final dish of creams, pies, nuts and sweets.
Medieval royalty took the art of Christmas celebrating to a different level. For a Christmas dinner held at Reading Abbey in 1226, King Henry III ordered 40 salmon, heaps of game and wild boar meat, and “as many lampreys as possible”. Henry V, who reigned in the early 1400s, included even more exotic specialties on his Christmas menu like crayfish, eels and porpoises.
“One thing that stood out very clearly is that drinking was as important as eating, if not more,” says Lawrence-Mathers, noting that beer and spiced cider were the drink of choice for commoners, while lords and royalty swallowed hard. wine. by the ton (literally). In just one year, Henry III ordered 60 tons of wine for Reading Abbey, one ton equivalent to 1,272 bottles.
2. Mumming, Hoggling and the Fool’s Day
It may have been a byproduct of all drinking, but dress-up games and role reversals were a surprisingly important part of medieval Christmas celebrations, some of which were remnants of earlier pagan customs around. of the winter solstice.
For example, mumming was a popular Christmas pastime in medieval English villages. Mummers dress up as animals or dress up as women, then go door-to-door singing festive folk songs and telling jokes. Some mummers did it for fun, while others expected a few coins or small gifts in return.
The animal masks may have been linked to another bizarre Christmas tradition practiced by royalty, in which revelers paraded through the party hall wearing whole animal heads (baked, thankfully) and singing special songs. The most common costume was a boar’s head, which, according to Lawrence-Mathers, was replaced by a wooden boar mask in later periods.
In the midst of the 12-day feast was the Feast of Fools, held on January 1, during which priests, deacons and other church officials were given a brief permit to attend. be stupid. Role reversals were popular, in which humble sub-deacons delivered sermons, and things got out of hand at times. According to a 15th century French account condemning this practice:
“You can see priests and clerics wearing masks and monstrous faces during office hours… They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing crazy songs. They eat blood sausages … while the celebrant is saying mass. They play dice… They run and jump in the church, without blushing in their own shame.
3. Bean cake
Celebrated on the night of January 5, the Twelfth Night or Twelfth Tide was a feast in its own right in the Middle Ages and represented the culmination of 12 days of mirth and mischief. Shakespeare probably wrote his famous comedy Twelfth Night like a play on Twelfth Night, hence the disguise heroine and the pranks.
The centerpiece of Twelfth Night was the bean cake, a rich fruit-filled cake in which a small dried bean was hidden.
“Whoever had the piece of cake with the bean in it was ‘king’ for the night and could give people silly packages. [penalties] which they had to obey, ”says Lawrence-Mathers. Another term for the king was the “Lord of Error,” who had the power to overthrow social hierarchies and demand embarrassing tasks from authority figures like parents, schoolmasters and others. the Lords.
Twelfth Night was the culmination of nearly two weeks of feasting, drinking, disguises and rule-breaking that characterized medieval Christmas.
4. Predict the future
Oddly enough, the 12 days of Christmas were also of special significance to medieval pseudo-science of prognosis, says Lawrence-Mathers.
The priests looked at texts called “prognostics” that explained the Bible-centric practice of interpreting signs of nature – including storms, high winds, and rainbows – to predict the weather. ‘it will do for the coming year and also predict important events.
“The idea being that God sent signs for those who could read them, and that 12 days of Christmas was a special time,” says Lawrence-Mathers.
If it was sunny and clear on Christmas Day, for example, it was a sign that spring would be warm and balmy, leading to successful harvests and general good health. However, strong winds on Christmas Day signaled a bad year for the rich and powerful.
READ MORE: 25 Christmas Traditions and Their Origins