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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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.