The Fun and Frolics of a Medieval Christmas

Each December, as the midwinter feasting season approaches, I set aside a little time amid the frenzy of preparations to delve into my medieval history books. In this precious little escape from the modern commercial hype I research some elements of Christmases long past that I can resurrect for my own celebrations. So now, each year we venture out with some secateurs and bring in the Christmas greenery, we listen to some early carols, and on New Year’s Day a new Templeton tradition sees us light a fire in the garden, rinse out the cauldron and cook up a delicious medieval feast. This year my research promises to add some real fun, because I’ve been getting a tantalising taste of medieval Christmas entertainments.

Medieval people knew how to celebrate

Contrary to the common belief that life in the Middle Ages was all drabness and drudgery, medieval people really knew how to enjoy themselves, and they actually had more time off than we do today. The Catholic calendar ensured the year was punctuated by saints’ days and religious holidays that everyone was expected to observe and celebrate, and the two most important of these were Easter and Christmas. In today’s mad world, following the long commercialised build-up to Christmas we scrape by with just a few days or a week off if we’re lucky, but back then everyone got a real chance to kick back and unwind. Even if you were a peasant living under the thumb of your lord, the lack of agricultural activity at this time of year meant you were granted a whole fortnight of downtime, from Christmas Eve until the feast of Epiphany on 6th January. And although religious observation was central to medieval life, so was fun, frolics and feasting.

The Nativity story was at the centre of Christmas in the Middle Ages, as depicted in this medieval manuscript, although Mary looks shattered and Joseph looks as though he could do with a good party…

Just as it is today, the most important part of the entertainments was the Christmas feast, but for medieval people the main meal would have been particularly appreciated. Whereas today’s season of Advent usually involves indulgence in mince pies, chocolate calendars and a series of get-togethers and parties, during the Middle Ages the period running up to Christmas was a time for the complete opposite – fasting, abstinence and repentence in preparation for God’s coming, or in Latin, his Adventus. So by the time Christmas Day arrived people would have been ready for a hearty meal and a good knees-up.

With the abstinence of Advent over with, it’s time for a hearty festive feast

Of course, the traditional turkey dinner was a long way in the future, but the manors and castles around the land rang to the sounds of jollity and music while an elaborate procession of food was brought into the bedecked great hall with its cheering fire, headed up by a showpiece of a traditional decorated boar’s head on a platter. The extensive menu might include vegetable soups or stews, an array of poultry dishes and beef, game or fish, together with accompanying richly flavoured sauces made with wine, spices and herbs and thickened with breadcrumbs. Another popular dish was the Chistmas, or ‘shredded pie’, containing different types of leftover meat minced and cooked with suet, spices and fruit, all arranged in layers and baked in a pastry case. The pie was usually topped with an oval lid to represent the crib with a little pastry baby Jesus placed on top, and this full-sized  high-status dish was the ancestor of our mince pies. Also on offer would have been plenty of cheese, bread and nuts, while the sweet treats included fruit custards, various pastries and exotic fruits such as oranges, figs and dates, all washed down with generous helpings of wine, mead and ale. The culinary delights even continued between courses, when a selection of decorated nibbles glazed with sugar and honey, called entremets, were brought out for the diners’ delectation.

But it wasn’t just the upper crust who dined in style at Christmas. The lord’s tenants owed him bread, hens and ale, but in return he was obliged to give them Christmas dinner – as long as they brought their own trencher, napkin and some fuel for the fire. Still, I can’t imagine there were many that turned down the opportunity to dine at the castle and get a taste of how the other half lived…

Making merry at the feast…

But Christmas in the Middle Ages was about much more than Catholic masses and a posh meal. With much emphasis on recreation and merriment over the festive period, there were all kinds of entertainments on offer. The big feast was followed by more drinking, singing of songs and carols with dancing to the music of pipes, lutes, flutes and drums. Professional minstrels and acrobats would perform tricks and tell witty tales in verse, while puppet shows were staged and folktales were told, embellished from year to year to thrill the eager audiences. The appetite for midwinter revelry was so great that sometimes it was feared things would get out of hand. Often the lord would appoint a special watch force to keep an eye on the Christmas celebrations in case rioting broke out.

Musicians played while the revellers sang and danced…

And then, of course, there were the games. Sports featured prominently in the festivities, with competitions of archery and wrestling, and ball games such as medieval football. This took the form of a rowdy contest in which two teams of unlimited numbers, sometimes from neighbouring villages, each attempted to move a ball to an agreed destination. But with huge teams and few, if any rules, participants often sustained injuries, and some even died during the chaotic matches. On the coldest days, frozen lakes would become a playground for the adventurous, who would strap animal bones to their feet and, clutching a pole for propulsion, enjoy an exhilarating skate on the ice.

Festive sporting competitions included wrestling, sometimes it seems even on piggyback!

The sometimes lethal game of medieval football
(Source)

In other pursuits, Christmas was a time when you could get away with a bit of gambling, and a favourite activity was to have a little flutter playing at dice or cards. There were board games such as Chess, Backgammon and Nine Mens Morris, and if you didn’t mind a bit of lively horseplay or personal injury, there were several other parlour games to be enjoyed. In Hoodman Blind, an early version of Blind Man’s Buff, one person was blindfolded with his own reversed hood before being struck and pushed around by the other players until he managed to catch someone else, who then took his place. Another, more barmy game called Snap-dragon involved a large amount of dried fruit floating in a bowl full of brandy. So far so good, but the brandy was then set alight, and the contestants had to snatch a piece of fruit from the flames and eat it as quickly as possible, resulting in lots of burnt fingers and mouths. Not sure that one will make it into the canon of Templeton Christmas traditions…

A spot of seasonal gambling added to the entertainments…

Towns and cities might play host to seasonal pageants, in which a procession of wagons would carry folk dressed as characters from the Christmas story, while troupes of masked pantomime artists, sometimes numbering over a hundred, roamed through the streets accompanied by bands of musicians. These ‘mummers’, elaborately dressed as knights and lords or cavorting around in animal masks would enter people’s homes to entertain the occupants, dancing or playing dice for which they would receive payment in food and drink. Short plays could also be perfomed, often featuring scenes from famous legends such as St George and the Dragon, with recurring characters of a fool and a man dressed as a woman.

Mummers sporting animal masks ready to entertain the crowds

The merriment would continue until Twelfth Night, an important date in the medieval calendar that marked the end of the Christmas holiday. Steeped in superstition and custom, this was another occasion for feasting and frolics, but also for looking ahead to the coming year and the all-important growing season. This was a time for wassailing, when a group of revellers would go to the orchards with a bowl full of a warm spiced alcoholic drink, singing and banging pots and pans as they went, with the intention of warding off any bad spirits and pleasing the good ones in the hope of a bountiful harvest in the year to come.

At this time, normal rules did not apply. A tradition derived from the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, the midwinter revels saw the social order turned on its head. For this brief interlude, the lords became the servants and the lower orders took over. A Twelfth Night cake was baked, with a bean concealed in one half for the men and a pea in the other for the women. The man who found the bean in his slice – assuming he didn’t choke on it first – became the king of the bean, while the woman took on the role of queen of the pea. The honoured couple then ruled over the proceedings for the night, lording it over everyone who had to follow their example, whatever they did at the table. The game doubtless made for a thoroughly raucous party for the last day of the festive fortnight. What a way to end Christmas…  

The best way to do Christmas: twelve days of feasting and leisure…

So what can I take from these medieval entertainments into my own family Christmas? Well, I can certainly foresee a new tradition of an annual archery contest, and I’ve remembered I have a gaming set of Nine Mens Morris tucked away in my wardrobe, so that will be brought out for a go at a medieval board game. It’d be fun to learn a carolling dance, and during the long nights, when there’s nothing worth watching on the telly, I might well dust off my copy of the Legends of King Arthur and tell a good story – possibly even in verse – beside the fire.

When it comes to Christmas, medieval people certainly didn’t hold back, and health and safety clearly wasn’t much of a concern. But while games involving blazing booze and team violence are best left in the past, it’s clear that in these over-commercialised, work-obsessed times, in many ways we’re missing out on much of the fun and recreation that our medieval forebears enjoyed. So my Christmas wish for all my readers is: I hope you can switch off entirely, forget the everyday stresses of life and work, have fun and take as long a break from modernity as you can. Christmas past has a lot to offer…

and I wish you all a joyous festive fortnight, and a New Year filled with health, wealth and happiness!