Christmas in Medieval England was very different to Christmas now. The Church ensured that Christmas was a true religious holiday. Celebrations were for the birth of Christ as opposed to simply peasants enjoying themselves.
The first recorded use of the word “Christmas” was in 1038 when a book from Saxon England used the words “Cristes Maesse” in it.
Also of note for Medieval England was the fact that William the Conqueror had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066. Those noble men allowed inside Westminster Abbey cheered so loudly when the crowning ceremony was taking place that the guards outside thought something was happening to their master inside the abbey. They rushed inside, attacked people and houses near to Westminster Abbey were burned down.
However, some of the problems experienced at Christmas then have had a knock-on effect for us. For example, carol singers going from house to house now is as a result of carols being banned within churches in Medieval times. Carol singers in Medieval times took the word “carol” literally – it means to sing and dance in a circle. So many Xmas services were spoiled by carol signers doing just this, that the Church at the time banned them and ordered the carol singers into the street.
The Christmas crib originated in Medieval times but in Medieval Italy. In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have used a crib to explain to the local people of Assisi the Christmas story. It seems that the part played by animals in the Christmas story also comes from the early 13th century even if the Bible does not mention them !
December 28th is a day children may not have enjoyed in Medieval times. December 28th is “Holy Innocents Day” or “Childermass Day”. This is the day when King Herod ordered that all children under two years of age be killed. In some European towns it was the custom for a boy to be given charge of a town for one day after being made a bishop for just December 28th. In Medieval England, children were reminded of Herod’s cruelty by being beaten. December 28th was seen by many then as a day of bad luck. No-one would get married on that day; no-one would start a building on that day and Edward IV refused to be crowned on that day.
What was eaten on Christmas Day? Certainly not turkey. Turkeys naturally come from America and only got to Europe after the discovery of that continent in the late 15th century. So turkey would not have been on the Christmas menu of anybody in England. The rich would have eaten goose and, with the king’s permission, swan. If they could be caught, woodcock would also be eaten. To make a roast bird look even more tasty, medieval cooks used to cover the cooking bird with butter and saffron plant. This would give the cooked bird a golden colour by the time it was served. However, if the poor could afford it, the Church had a fixed price of 7 pence for a ready cooked goose. An uncooked goose would cost 6 pence – about a day’s wages.
Venison from deer would also be on the menu. It has also given us a famous saying !! The poor would not be allowed to eat the best parts of a deer. However, in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, a decent lord might let the poor have what was left of the deer. These parts were known as the deer’s ‘umbles’. These were the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains. Mixed with whatever else a cook could get, they were made into a pie. Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie’. Nowadays, if you have taken a tumble in life and have to live a standard of life you would not usually be used to, it is said that you are having to eat ‘humble pie’.
Mince pies are a tradition now for Christmas. In Medieval England a large mince pie was always baked. However, they were filled with all sorts of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. This recipe only changed in Victorian times when the shredded meat was left out.
It was also believed that if you made a wish with the first bite of your first mince pie, your wish would come true. If you also refused the first mince pie someone offered you over Christmas, you would then suffer bad luck.
Christmas puddings in Medieval England were spicy porridge and known as “frumenty”. This was considered a real treat. It was made of thick porridge (or boiled wheat). Currants and dried fruit were stirred in. The yolks of eggs were also added and, if available, spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The mixture was left to cool and set before being served.
A less than Christian practice at this time and found only really in the countryside was the practice of killing a wild boar, cutting off its head, and offering it to the goddess of farming so that you would have a good crop in the following year.
Christmas Day was also a “quarter day”. This meant that the poor had to pay their rent on this day!
“Mumming” was also practiced at Christmas. This was where actors performed plays and dances in villages or castles. Mystery plays were also performed in which the story of Christ was told. King Herod would be in a mystery play and he would be the equivalent of a ‘baddie’ in a modern pantomime.
Boxing Day has traditionally been associated with the rich giving gifts to the poor in boxes. This is not strictly true. On Boxing Day, the poor did receive money from their masters but in hollow clay pots with a slit in the top. These had to be broken to get the money out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies”. As a result, we now have piggy banks for collecting money in.