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!

31 thoughts on “The Fun and Frolics of a Medieval Christmas

  1. Two weeks?! Lucky sods, they obviously had a much better Christmas than we do now – one day and it’s all over and onto Easter.

    I’ll happily play a few games of Nine Men Morris with you, and enjoy a glass or two of mead whilst you sing a verse or two about Arthur and his Knights.

    Cheers and Merry Christmas my love.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think nowadays we’re definitely missing out on raucous fun (the best kind in my book) and anything lively as entertainment. Christmas sounded great fun back then – I wouldn’t have liked the winter fasting beforehand though – I get cold enough without fasting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aren’t we just? I had a feeling you’d say exactly that, and yes it was great fun back then. Can’t stand all the hype and then it’s all over in two days. Should be the full two weeks if you ask me. Heaven knows we could all do with a decent break!

      I know what you mean about the fasting, I’d struggle with that too. But it wasn’t every day – just a few days a week during Advent, but you were expected to solemnly prepare for the coming of God in Jesus through the season. On the other hand, I guess the restraint and abstinence wouldn’t have hurt, and would have made the Christmas feast and holiday all the more appreciated – nowadays most people are usually already burnt out by 25th! 🙂

      Anyway, I hope you have a great Christmas, Carol, and a happy and prosperous New Year, and I look forward to reading about all your great hiking adventures in 2022! 🙂

      Like

  3. This post about a medieval Christmas has so many things to talk about Alli that I don’t quite know where to start. Fasting before feasting, music and merriment, games and gambling, pageants and pantomimes, and not forgetting the archery and alcohol. It sounds just like another normal weekend in the Templeton household.

    Another fabulous post that describes the perfect Christmas. I hope you all have the one that you wish for, and that the New Year does that and more 🎄 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the great – and very well crafted (love all the alliteration!) – comments, Malc. Of course it’s a normal weekend in the Templeton household! 😀

      Glad you enjoyed my Christmas offering – if only it was still like that. The thing I can’t stand is that after about six weeks of hype and stressful preparations, it’s all over just after Boxing Day now, and the supermarkets have taken down all their decorations and moved in the Easter eggs before New Year – that’s before the true Christmas season has even finished! All that fuss and pressure for two days off. Madness.

      Still, I hope your own Christmas is long and lovely, and I wish you all the best of everything for the year to come. Who knows, maybe we’ll get that drink in 2022?! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your thanks, Alli and I agree that it seems so much fuss for such a short space of time. The magic of Christmas is best for our childhood days I reckon, but even that magic seems to be changing. Gone are the days when a satsuma and sugar mouse in a Christmas stocking was enough to brighten up a young face 😊 One thing that would still brighten mine up though was if we did manage to have that drink somewhere in 2022

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s true, Malc, childhood’s not what it used to be, but I think we had the right version of it. Somehow, things were much more magical – and even more Christmassy – back then. 🙂

        Let’s see if we can make it happen next year then. I’m sure we can sort it out somehow. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Of cours, Malc, no worries. In a way the same applies to us – you know by now how much we’ll have going on next year. Still, it’ll happen when the time’s right, I’m certain. In the meantime, relax and take care of yourself. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Back in the olden golden days of my youth, my first husband and I decided that New Year’s Eve was too competitive, but no one had anything to do on New Year’s day. Soooo … we had a feast. I did a mountain of cooking. Jeff made the world stronger and most caloric eggnog. Everyone came over, ate too much, drank MUCH too much, and went home happy. We used to have fun. I’m really glad I’m not working anymore. It has just gotten worse and worse with each passing year. I wonder if anyone (who isn’t retired) even remembers what it feels like to relax and kick back. We used to know, but we seem to have lost it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right, Marilyn, though, we have lost it, and I think that’s rather sad. Nowadays its a load of pressure and stress through Advent and then it’s all over in two days – and we haven’t even had time to unwind.

      But your golden days New Year celebrations sound wonderful, and reading through your account, you could say that you were celebrating medieval style! That’s the way to do it!

      Merry Christmas, Marilyn, to you, Garry and all your family. Try and make it last… 🙂

      Like

  5. Fascinating post Ali, I loved reading about all the feasting and fun of those times. I wonder though if we’re heading back towards their notion of a proper break from work? In recent years I’ve heard more talk about ‘Twixmas’ – an ugly word but a nice concept, that of making the most of the days between Christmas and New Year! A time to stay cosy at home or see friends and family, eat up all the goodies you didn’t have room for on Christmas Day and maybe get out and enjoy a crisp walk somewhere lovely 🙂

    By the way, my mother introduced a version of Snap-dragon to our childhood birthday parties, with dried fruit balanced on a heap of flour which we had to pick up with our mouths. The result was a lot of laughter, a lot of flour all over our faces and the floor, and probably some very unhygienic sharing of germs! But at least no one got burnt 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the lovely comments, Sarah. 🙂 I’ve not heard of the ‘Twixmas’ concept before, but as you say, it’s a nice idea. As you also say, it’s an ugly word, and not necessary either, as the time between Christmas and New Year is, as we know, still part of the true Christmas season. But if it means people will get more downtime, then so much the better. It’s what we try to do nowadays. 🙂

      Great also to know that you played a floury version of Snap-dragon! It all sounds like good, harmless fun to me. Well done your mum! 🙂

      Thanks for reading, and I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging much at all lately. We’ve been desperately trying to get the house decorated from top to bottom, which we’ve just about achieved now. Still, I hope to catch up soon, and in the meantime, have a great – and long! – Christmas, and all the very best for 2022. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s