Medieval Christmas – eight centuries ago!

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Getting to grips with a medieval Christmas!

Christmas back in the Middle Ages when the Knights Templar were fighting crusades. What was it like? Did it resemble our modern Christmas? Let’s get in a metaphorical time machine and journey back eight hundred years to a Templar Christmas and see what we find.

The day of Christmas roughly corresponds to the Winter Solstice. That is the shortest day of the year when darkness reigns. Harvests had long been gathered in, livestock slaughtered and salted and the average medieval peasant was knuckling down to the arduous task of surviving winter.

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There’s no central heating, lighting or much by way of entertainment on demand. So, our medieval peasant was fixated on the absence of sunlight. In this season, farms lay barren and only the hardiest crops endured. Ancient cultures imagined a battle between light and darkness at this time of year where, eventually, light won out. The sun returned!

This was a matter of life and death to the medieval farmer at Christmas. A long, bitter winter could reduce a family to starvation. So, with that gloomy prospect looming overhead, people went a bit mad. The Romans had the festival of Saturnalia where slaves were allowed to boss around their masters and one lucky slave was appointed head of the house.

This tradition continued in medieval England with a Lord of Misrule nominated to oversee the riotous feasting at Christmas. In Scotland, this person had the rather more sober title of Abbot of Unreason. Games would be played such as Blind Man’s Buff. You may recall that involves somebody blindfolded reaching out and trying to identify the person he or she touches. The only difference in the Middle Ages was that the blindfolded person was “buffeted” – hit, beaten or whipped as they went around. Hilarious!

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There seems to have been a notion that the dark could be pushed back through excess merriment. That entailed a large amount of food. Up until Christmas Day, there would be fasting and fish was prominent on the menu. On Christmas Day and afterwards, there was a switch to meat and lots of it. Well, not for everybody. The poor might have “feasted” on a loaf and some ale. If you were lucky, the lord of the manor was a generous sort who might invite all his serfs up to the castle for some hearty grub.

No turkey at a medieval Christmas

Turkey was nowhere in sight as that bird was an import to Europe from the New World. The wealthy would tuck into a boar’s head. There’s even an early Christmas carol celebrating the head of a boar. Venison accounted for a large percentage of meat wolfed down. And instead of turkey, the bird on show would have been goose and if you were super rich…..peacock!

Carols appear in the Middle Ages as part of an activity called “wassailing”. This involved going from door to door, knocking up your neighbours. A sort of Christmas trick or treat. And your group would have a large bowl of some kind of alcoholic beverage. And there was lots of singing. One of the early carols is In Dulci Jubilo and in the 1970s, the musician Mike Oldfield recorded a version that I still love today. Enjoy!

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