Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.
Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!
So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:
- Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
- Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
- Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
- No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
- Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
- Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
- Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe. The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
- Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.
Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.