Whether you celebrate Christmas as a devout follower or just really like driving past the lights or posting pics in matching Christmas jammies; many of our Christmas traditions, songs, and even sayings are deeply rooted in history.
Today we will be looking at Christmas traditions that are rooted in the Middle Ages. In a later piece, we will look at Victorian inspired traditions as well as Pagan influences.
Observation of Advent
Advent meaning “arrival” or “in anticipation of arrival” marks the period of time from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas day where believers are “awaiting the arrival of the Christ child”.
In 567 AD, during the Council of Tours, monks were instructed to fast during the advent season. By the Middle Ages, that practice had spread to the common populace.
During this penitential, fasting season, one was prohibited from consuming the following:
While the common peoples diets rarely contained meat anyway, the nobility and upper classes swapped meat for fish.
All classes were encouraged to also abstain from sex. You can imagine doing without so many of life’s indulgences made for an even greater celebration on Christmas day when these limitations were lifted.
Many modern Christians observe similar practices during not only Advent but Lent as well.
December 21st: The Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle
Saint Thomas was known for going throughout the world, as far as India, to spread the gospel. On December 21st, peasants would go door to door asking for donations towards Christmas.
Traditionally, these peasants were given a bowl of flour.
December 24th: Christmas Eve
Evergreen plants, mainly ivy and holly, but also rosemary, bay, and pine were used to decorate homes and churches. Hence the term “deck the halls with boughs of holly”.
Fun fact: Decking the halls with holly originally came from the Pagan tradition of Yule. Christians later repurposed holly, with the red berries representing the droplets of blood from Christ, the thorns representing the crown of thorns, and the green leaves representing everlasting life.
Mistletoe As A Fertility Potion?
Mistletoe was once used by Druids to make fertility potions during their festival that took place in Mid Winter.
Due to this, many churches to this day do not decorate with mistletoe due to it’s “pagan origins”.
Hence, the “kissing under the mistletoe” actually stems from the idea that mistletoe increases vitality and fertility.
These have largely fallen from popularity in modern times, but during the Middle Ages, a kissing bough was a super popular decoration to see in someone’s home.
Two hoops were placed together and then wrapped in evergreen leaves. A pomander or apple (or a fruit that was available at the time) was placed in the center; and hanging from the bottom was a sprig of mistletoe.
If a couple walked under the “kissing bough” they were obligated to share in a kiss; every time a kiss was given under the bough, the man would take a berry from the bough. Once all the berries were plucked, the kissing bough was empty and no more kisses were required.
I think we should bring this decoration back.
Even More Ivy and Holly
Ivy was considered a female plant and holly was considered a male plant. So if a home was decorated in more holly than ivy, the man was in charge of the home; and vice versa.
During the 12 days of Christmas, single women would wrap holly leaves in a handkerchief and place it under their pillow; this was done in hopes of dreaming of their future husbands.
Bringing In The Greens Symbolized Good Luck and Prosperity For the Year Ahead
On Christmas Eve, it was tradition to bring in evergreen plants into the home to decorate.
Unlike today, where it seems that people decorate earlier and earlier in the year, in the Middle Ages it was considered bad luck to decorate your home any earlier than Christmas Eve.
Yule Logs, Another Pagan Tradition
Seems we are coming upon a theme here, doesn’t it?
Men would chop down a tree and bring in a very large log into the main hall and this log would provide light and warmth for the entirety of the 12 days of Christmas.
Christmas Vacation Lasted A Fairly Long Time
In the Middle Ages, we see primarily agrarian societies. It was expected that all work would be ceased during the 12 days of Christmas. This was for religious as well as practical purposes.
Most of the work had been completed during harvest and there just wasn’t as much to do during the winter. There was also less light and therefore non agrarian work like spinning or sewing was more challenging with dwindling daylight.
Some jobs must go on no matter what holiday it is. Certain jobs like meal preparation and feeding of animals would still be done.
Ironically, most of these jobs were done by women (who never seem to catch a break during the holidays no matter what time period we are looking at).
But these women were crafty. It was common practice to “decorate your spinning wheel” with evergreen so you wouldn’t have to complete sewing work during the observation of the Christmas holiday. I wonder if I could do that with my laptop?
Midnight Mass Kicks Off the Official 12 Days of Christmas
Christmas in the middle ages did not begin officially until the chiming of the bells for midnight mass. Symbolizing that the Christ child had been born.
Now we can get the party started. It makes sense when you think about it. Wouldn’t the happiest of days be after the birth vs the preparation for arrival?
Eastern Orthodox churches still observe this practice.
December 25: The First Day of Christmas
December 25 is the official first day of Christmas.
This was observed with mass at dawn on Christmas day followed by a huge feast to break the fast of Advent.
Typical dishes served were plum porridge, mince pies, and plum pudding. All of these used expensive spices that were imported. So these were a special treat that most families saved up for all year.
Wealthier families served a boars head with mustard sauce. They even decorated the boars head with holly and other evergreen foliage.
Swan, peacock, turkey, and roast venison were also served in more aristocratic homes.
As far as desserts for the wealthy, marzipan (which is a super fun word to say) and sugar plate were both on the menu.
Gingerbread which is still popular today (hello, gingerbread men, my fave!) was served as well across all classes of the Middle Ages. These were also used as decorations in windows.
During the Christmas feast, a tradition that actually has roots in Saturnalia, was the Lord of Misrule, in which a peasant was made lord for the day and could order his master around. (Yet another tradition I think we should reinstate).
The Lord of Misrule was also in charge of games, revelry, and all around fun.
To conclude the Christmas day celebration after games, feasting, and drinking; everyone would go back to mass for one more service. I think that Mass was probably wayy more entertaining that the morning service. Just my opinion.
Second Day of Christmas: December 26th The Feast of St Stephen
St. Stephen was known for helping the poor and also being stoned to death. He is also considered one of the first martyrs of the church.
This was a day reserved for charity and assisting the poor. Lords and landlords would provide feasts for their tenants and it is believed the term “Boxing Day” was due to the church’s offering boxes being open on this day to receive alms and offerings for the poor.
Third Day of Christmas: December 27th The Feast of St John
John the Evangelist, according to legend, in a test of faith was challenged to drink poisoned wine to see if God would save him. He drank the wine and survived.
This miracle was observed by drinking copious amounts of wine on the feast day of St. John.
Those who could not afford wine would drink ale instead. Lots of it.
Fourth Day of Christmas: December 28th Childermas
Childermas is in observation of the killing of the “Holy Innocents” (even typing that gives me chills). In the Gospel of Matthew, we see the Magi who were seeking the Christ child. They stopped at the palace of King Herod to ask directions.
When King Herod learned that the “King of the Jews” had been born as was prophesied, he ordered the murder of every male child under the age of two.
Joseph (Christ’s father) was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to save Christ. Which he did. While the Christ child was saved, every other male child under two was not so lucky.
In celebration of Childermas, children were in charge. There was even a boy bishop who was named and even performed a sermon.
Children were allowed to pull pranks and generally just have a great time. The tradition of giving children gifts during Christmas would not gain popularity until the Victorian Age.
Fifth Day of Christmas: December 29th The Feast of St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket rose to become an advisor to King Henry II and Bishop of Canterbury but got into a disagreement with the King over religious protocol. St Thomas Becket was later beheaded at the hands of knights.
After his death, St Thomas Becket was canonized.
And his feast day on December 29th is celebrated with mass and a large meal.
Sixth Day of Christmas: December 30th
There is no Saints Day for this one. It’s just the sixth day of Christmas. With a break from mass attendance and observed traditions. This day was a day for leisure and doing whatever one wanted.
Seventh Day of Christmas: December 31st New Years Eve
Games, sports, and hunting were the mainstays for New Years Eve. Popular games like tag, hide and seek, and “blindman’s bluff” were the rage then.
Card games, dice games, archery, and parlor games were also super popular.
Eighth Day of Christmas: January 1st New Years Day
In Medieval Europe, the New Year actually began on March 25th NOT January 1st.
But people celebrated the Roman festival of the “New Year” and called it the feast of the circumcision, eight days after the birth day of Christ.
Germany swapped to the new calendar observing January 1st as the beginning of the year first and the rest of Europe followed suit.
Gift giving was popular on New Years Day especially to garner favor with the King, higher ranking lords, etc.
Ninth Day of Christmas, Tenth Day of Christmas, Eleventh Day of Christmas (January 2nd-4th)
These were just regular days off of leisure during the celebration of the Christmas season.
It was common to play futbol (but it was more like rugby), card games, dice, etc.
Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 5th Twelfth Night
An appropriate name for the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Medieval people would have one last bash with masques, balls, dancing, singing, and acting (sign me up).
Following the dancing and revelry, there would be one more feast to conclude the celebration.
There also was a Twelfth Night Cake. A fruit cake that had a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who found a bean in his slice would be the King of the Bean, while the woman who found a pea in her slice of cake would be Queen of the Pea. They were in charge of the fun and games for Twelfth Night.
January 6th, Epiphany
The Feast of Epiphany is the day the Magi arrived to give gifts to the Christ Child.
Mass of course would be attended and then most would feast on roast lamb followed by a jam tart for dessert in the shape of a star.
The Yule log would be put out and kept in the house for good luck. The remaining part of the Yule log would be used the following year to light the new Yule log.
Holly and Ivy would be left up until February 2nd for Candlemas.
This was the first day back to work in England following the celebration of the twelve days of Christmas. The community plow would be blessed in a public ceremony and the men would drag it around the neighborhood asking for donations for the local parishes.
To be honest, I think we need to revive the 12 days of Christmas. Why not celebrate more?
I do want to add, as this was not previously touched on that it is believed by some scholars that the twelve days of Christmas were observed in that duration due to half of the European continent following a lunar calendar and the other half following a solar calendar. Meaning there was about a twelve day discrepancy between the two, and this celebration of Christmas was a great way to get the calendars aligned.