And so we also dust off the Medieval Christmas post.
Medieval Christmas. What images are conjured for you? A roaring yule log in the hearth, perhaps? Velvet-gowned ladies stringing garlands of greenery over doorways? Pretty close.
There was no commercialism associated with Christmas as yet. These were a people consumed by their faith with the other side of the coin being a fear of the unknown with a hearty superstition of same. This was, therefore, a sacred time of year. As with most seasons, they were dominated by the Church’s liturgical calendar. Advent, the period before Christmas, is a penitential season leading up to the feast of Christ’s birth, or Christ-mas. It was also referred to by an early pagan and later Anglo-Saxon term of “Yule”, though the exact origins of the word seem murky. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the modern form descends from Old English eól, Christmas day or Christmastide.” Apparently, in the older sense, it also meant December (se rra eóla) or January (se æftera eóla). In Old Norse we have jól, a heathen feast lasting twelve days, and also iuli, recorded by the Venerable Bede, again, as the name of December and January.
In a penitential season, certain foods are not allowed. You are supposed to be deprived so that you concentrate on other-worldly matters. Sometimes this worked. Sometimes not. That’s why the anticipated feast was such a celebration. The wealthy would have a boar’s head for the table. Mmm. Your middle class merchant would have a roast goose. (Funny how things change. I just looked at my grocer’s the other day, and a frozen goose was over $60 bucks! Not exactly middle class fare.) Turkeys were New World birds and wouldn’t be imported to the English table until Henry VIII’s day. Plenty of other meats, fish, fowl, and cheeses would be part of the table as well (vegetables and salads were not tops on the list. They would likely end up in pottage and tarts).
Festive greenery was brought in as part of the pagan tradition of the winter solstice to chase away the drabs of a cold and dead season, hence evergreens began their transformation to a Christian symbol of eternity and life. But no Christmas trees yet. That was much later—a German tradition—that was brought to England by Queen Victoria to please her consort, the German Prince Albert. But garlands of evergreens and even the tradition of mistletoe was utilized indoors, as well as the Yule log, a chunk of wood brought in with much ceremony and then the burning of it (there are a lot of “fire” rituals in England, including any excuse to have a bonfire. The fact that it’s bloody cold in the winter was, no doubt, a factor, but there are plenty of summer bonfires as well. Every little village, it seems, has its own bonfire celebration. Look, they just like fire.) Since mistletoe blooms at the winter solstice it became an early Druid symbol of the promise of renewal and eternity, and later commandeered by Christians as a symbol of rebirth. The kissing part is Scandinavian and stemmed from men-at-arms meeting in the woods and laying down their weapons as a sign of peace under the sacred plant. This became a kiss of peace and then transferred toEngland as a part of the Christmas tradition since the English were the only ones to regularly bring mistletoe inside.
Were presents exchanged? Not as such. Gift-giving is a modern event. December 6th, the feast of Saint Nicholas the Bishop, and his secret and charitable giving, became associated with the feast of Christ’s birth and then the idea of the wise men presenting gifts to the baby Jesus perpetuated this idea of gift-giving. Prior to that in ancient Rome, gifts were given to the emperor on the feast of the birth of the Sun God, which happens at the winter solstice. When the date of Christmas was changed to the winter solstice in the fourth century, it was no coincidence that the Christians wished to gather in the pagan beliefs and overtake them. The birth of the Sun became the birth of the Son.
In the Middle Ages, since this was a special feast, the king, his noblemen, and even craftsmen and merchants would give coins to their servants and apprentices—a traditional gift, good for all occasions as it is today—to show how charitable they were. And, of course, the day after Christmas, Saint Stephen's Feast Day (the first Christian martyr) or Boxing Day, as it is known in England, was the day the alms boxes were opened and distributed to the poor.
Wassail is also a tradition in these cold months. “Wassail” is an Anglo-Saxon toast, wæs þu hæl, "be thou hale.” When we think of wassail we think of a hot, spiced fruit punch, like apple cider, but it was really a hot, spiced ale or mead.
The feast days continued until Twelfth Night (the twelve days of Christmas. They come after Christmas, not before.) Twelfth Night is the feast of Epiphany, when the wise men came to Jesus as the first non-Jewish witnesses, or the Adoration of the Magi. It is also the end of the Christmas season.