Christmas in the Middle Ages didn’t just last a day, sometimes it lasted for weeks. From early December to January – even early February – people in the Middle Ages celebrated the holiday with feasts, music, and, of course, religious ceremonies.
Medieval Christmas celebrations included a ton of fun games (like having a poor guy turn into a king for a few days), singing songs while imbibing mead and honey wine, eating everything from a boar to a peacock, and enjoying masques and plays galore. Some of the rich holiday traditions from medieval Christmas celebrations are still found in our society today.
Crown Yourself a King
December 25 wasn’t only an occasion to celebrate the birth of Jesus – it was also Coronation Day for a number of medieval monarchs, helping support the idea of the Divine Right of Kings and legitimize monarchical rule.
Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on that day in 800 CE. Pope Leo III gave him the honor to gain secular protection, to lead Western Christendom, and to compete with the Byzantines. On Christmas Day 1000, Stephen I of Hungary (later known as St. Stephen) made himself the first Christian king of Hungary with a papally sanctioned crown.
Sixty-plus years later, William, Duke of Normandy (aka “the Conqueror”), was named ruler of Englandon Christmas Day. Perhaps most aptly in 1100, the French nobleman Baldwin of Bolougne was crowned King of Jerusalem in Bethlehem, Jesus’s reputed birthplace, on December 25.
Become the Lord of Misrule – And Boss Everyone, Including the King, Around
Meet the Lord of Misrule, the master of mischief during medieval British Christmas celebrations. Also known as the Abbot of Unreason to the Scots, the Lord of Misrule – who could be from any class, from noble to peasant – presided over holiday revelries. Sort of like a “king for a day,” this individual commanded all the high-ranking folks to get silly, chug ale and mead, and commanded the Christmas court festivities, becoming a “mock king” for a short while. Social order might have been inverted, but it was a whole lot of fun.
How did someone choose the Lord of Misrule? It varied from kingdom to kingdom. Some would be appointed, while others chose random methods. At Christmas banquest, a bean would be baked into a cake, and the first person to find the bean in their slice would receive the honor of the feast.
Pig Out on Peacock and Mince Pies
After fasting for a month before the Christmas season as part of the Advent, you’d feast! Mince pies might not be popular in America, but they were (and still are) all the rage in Britain. Also called “Christmas pie,” they contained “minced,” or “shredded,” leftover meat of all kinds, from goose to lamb. The pies also had tons of spices, symbolic of the Magi, and a good amount of fruit.
At the center of a royal or noble Christmas table would be a fancy creature, hunted and killed, then served in its own skin or feathery garb. For example, the meat of a swan or peacock would be roasted, then stuffed back into its glorious plumage and put in the center of the Christmas table. Talk about a gamey treat.
Slaughter a Boar Like a College Student
Consuming a boar’s head was customary during Christmas feasts, but where did the tradition come from? You can thank a university student from Queen’s College, Oxford. Legend has it that a wild boar haunted the woods near Oxford, and one careless student, who was reading Aristotle, wound up wandering into the forest.
Challenged by the beast, he took the logical approach and didn’t panic, killing the boar by shoving the book into its throat. Allegedly, he shouted, “With the compliments of the Greeks!” as he did so. He then cut off its head to get his book back. Ever since, a boar has been served at Oxford Christmas celebrations, and there’s even a Christmas carol devoted to this occasion.
Take a sip of hot, spiced ale and go caroling – or “wassailing,” as some call it. Derived from “was hal,” or “be fortunate,” in Old English, this expression was used to greet neighbors and friends, bidding them a happy, healthy holiday. “Wassail” was a pretty popular saying by the time the Normans arrived in the eleventh century, signifying toasting and well-wishes at once.
Some people would take the holiday’s special drink, called wassail (a combo of apples, ale, spices, and more), and pour it over tree roots to ensure the land’s fertility for the new year. Others went from home to home with a cup of wassail (probably in a special bowl), wishing people a happy holiday and inviting them to take a sip.
Decorate Your Home and Church With Greenery and a Yule Log
There’s a long history of decking homes and churches with Christmas greenery, ranging from arches made out of twigs, leaves, and nuts to bedecking manor halls with ivy, holly (symbolic of Jesus), and mistletoe for prosperity. The evergreen, which throve in the coldest of temperatures, also symbolized Jesus’s resurrection and eternal divine presence. Waiting for a smooch from your betrothed? You could hang up a “kissing bough,” combining nuts, fruit, and ribbons under which you could steal a peck.
And then there’s the Yule log. This was possibly a holdover from a Norse winter tradition (or the remnant of an ancient Winter Solstice celebration), in which a log would harvested from the woods, then burn to a crisp in the hearth.
Go to Church Often and Recreate the Nativity
Although Christmas is more of a secular holiday today, it was a deeply religious occasion in medieval times. Three separate masses would be held on Christmas Day with a bunch of services before and after, since there were twelve whole days to the Christmas celebration. To show off their piety, nobles would go to church a couple of times. Specific Gospels – those discussing Jesus’s conception and birth – would be read in chapel.
And modern worshippers aren’t the only ones who construct Nativity scenes. St. Francis of Assisi got permission to build a recreation of Jesus’s Bethlehem birth in Greccio, Italy, complete with a real manger and ox. Ever since this happened in the thirteenth century, the “cult of the Christmas crib” became a popular manifestation of religious devotion.
Host Pageants, Masques, and Mummers
Tons of plays took place throughout the Christmas season, ranging from the silly to the serious. After St. Francis of Assisi made Nativity recreation popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Nativity plays grew and are still enacted today. One particularly elaborate one from Benediktbeuern, Germany.
Medieval monarchs also loved hosting plays and dances. A 1388 account listed costumes for individuals performing “mummery,” silly or serious skits that ranged from the religious (like King David hanging out with the Twelve Tribes of Israel) to the comical (players dressing up in exaggerated costumes). These plays involved calling on a champion to defend the innocent from a bad guy, and viewers would raucously cheer the good guys on to victory.
Dress Yourself in Fancy Clothes and Give Your Subjects Gifts
Sure, gold might have been one of the gifts of the Magi gave to baby Jesus, but the shiny metal also had a role in medieval monarchs’ holidays. Gold was a traditional gift to a reigning king, and monarchs loved to wear garments and accessories made out of it. Richard II was particularly fond of it, whether to adorn the ceremonial sword carried in front of him or to bedeck his own belt.
In addition to dressing up, monarchs would give their subjects fancy gifts to ensure their loyalty. Richard II was also pretty fond of this, giving his wife tons of gold objects to distribute amongst his nobles, even if this didn’t wind up making these men and women faithful to their ruler. Monasteries and convents also specifically set money aside to give to the poor or purchase food for them on Christmas.
Gorge Yourself – And Your Bank Account – On Food and Party Supplies
Royals didn’t skimp when it came to Christmas dinners, showing off their splendor with tons of food, drink, and party supplies. Accounts from King John of England’s Christmas feast in 1213 are staggering. His household wrote to one of his servants:
“And we require, for our use, against that day, 200 head of pork, and 1,000 hens, and 500 lb. of wax, and go lb. of pepper, and 2 lb. of saffron, and 100 lb. of almonds, good and new, and two dozen napkins, and 100 ells of linen cloth, to make table cloths, and 50 ells of delicate cloth of Rancian, and of spiceries to make salsas [probably this word rather signifies pickles]…And ye shall send thither 15,000 herrings and other fish, and other victual…Concerning pheasants (fasianis), or partridges, and other birds, which you shall seek for our use, you shall have them from the manor.”
And that wasn’t all he ordered! One of John’s descendants, Richard II, did his predecessor proud by serving up 2,000 oxen and 200 tons of wine for a 1398 Yuletide celebration with a papal legate in attendance.