This year, I think we all need to celebrate Christmas that little bit harder. Because there’s a tough 2023 ahead of us. So, why don’t we plan for a medieval Christmas? And why is that so much better than the modern version? Well, for a start, you get twelve days of fun instead of just one measly day of celebration. In this post, I’m going to explain the medieval Twelve Days of Christmas? What were they? And is it possible to recreate the festive mayhem of yesteryear?
Let’s go back in time seven or eight centuries. Our medieval festivity starts with midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The first incidence of a midnight mass was recorded by a chronicler writing around 400AD taking place in Bethlehem. Followed by another mass the next morning on Christmas Day. The word Christmas, by the way, is from the old English for Christ’s Mass.
First Day of Christmas – the birth of Jesus
So, the first day of Christmas is the Nativity – the birth of Jesus in a manger to Joseph and Mary. But this is just the beginning of your medieval Christmas and not the main event. In the Middle Ages, the twelve days were a feverish build up to Twelfth Night on January 5 and the Epiphany on January 6 when the Three Kings arrived bearing gifts.
Christmas Day then was not the focal point it is today, but one of several days of feasting and ritual.
Second Day of Christmas – Saint Stephen’s Day
Saint Stephen’s Day followed Christmas though we refer to it as Boxing Day now. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death by the Jewish priestly authorities in Jerusalem as a blasphemer. So not exactly a jolly historical landmark.
However, it was transformed into something more upbeat across Europe with gift giving, processions, and dancing. In Ireland, it became Wren Day where young male villagers would go door to door banging a drum – the ‘bodhran’ – and carrying a dead wren asking for contributions to bury it. Wrens were apparently blamed for chirping and giving away St Stephen’s hiding place when he was being hunted down for martyrdom.
On this day, priests wore red vestments to note the blood shed by Stephen for the Christian faith.
Third Day of Christmas – Saint John the Evangelist
Not to be confused with John the Baptist whose special day is in June – still celebrated wildly in countries like Portugal. He was born before Jesus if you recall.
But this John is the one who is said to have written the Gospel with his name attached as well as the Book of Revelation. But many bible scholars today believe these were two separate people. On this day, priests replaced red vestments with white as John escaped being martyred – unlike the other apostles (except Judas Iscariot who committed suicide).
According to one story, there was an attempt to kill Saint John with poisoned wine. He drank it and survived. This miracle was celebrated in the Middle Ages by getting wrecked drinking a lot of wine. Or ale mixed with spices and cooked apples.
Fourth Day of Christmas – Holy Innocents
Day four was Holy Innocents or “Childermas” marking the slaying of children on the orders of King Herod. The innocents were deemed to be companions of the baby Jesus, who avoided death.
To mark this incident in the bible, a choir boy would be selected to become a “boy-bishop” for a day. This practice was ended during the Protestant Reformation and seen as utterly unacceptable by the end of the 16th century. There is a surviving sermon from one boy bishop who wished that all his teachers at school would be hanged at Tyburn – the gallows to the west of London.
One horrible tradition in the Tudor period was to beat children severely in the morning to remind them of the suffering of the Holy Innocents but then let them take charge of the house for the rest of the day. Pretty sure that pleasure didn’t cancel out the earlier pain.
Fifth Day of Christmas – Saint Thomas Becket
The fifth day of Christmas was dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket – the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on the orders, allegedly, of King Henry II….at Christmas. He’d fallen out with the king by insisting on the power and privileges of the church, pushing back against royal power. For that, his head was split open at the altar of his own church, Canterbury Cathedral, by four knights. The whole of Christendom was shocked and Thomas became a martyr and saint giving rise to a cult around his holiness that spread across Europe.
On St Thomas Becket’s holy day, the fifth day, villagers would get into disguise, including scary masks, and burst into their neighbours’ homes to scare the living daylights out of them. The problem was – this got a bit out of hand. And was often a cover for criminal or violent activity. So much so that King Henry VIII outlawed this popular Christmas pastime in the early 16th century imposing fines and imprisonment on those who wore mumming masks.
FIND OUT MORE: Murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Christmas
Sixth Day of Christmas – Saint Egwin
Saint Egwin’s Day! Well, you can be forgiven for having no inkling about St. Egwin. He was a poster boy of the Benedictine order of monks in the Middle Ages who founded a massive monastery at Evesham, smashed up during the Protestant Reformation.
Seventh Day of Christmas – New Year’s Eve
This was the feast day of Saint Sylvester who was said to have converted the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century AD – and cured him of leprosy. In Austria, people would walk their pigs on leashes round the village to bring good luck. While in Belgium, a young woman who didn’t finish her housework by sunset on Saint Silvester’s Day would not get married in the year ahead.
The average medieval peasant didn’t really regard this as the end of the year and start of the new. That was marked by the Spring or Vernal Equinox in March. The Roman Catholic church Christianised that pagan festival by celebrating the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would experience the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the Son of God. Nine months after March, Jesus was born.
Eighth Day of Christmas – New Year’s Day
So, up until the 18th century, New Year was in March with the return of daylight. Though this wasn’t the case everywhere. And it could cause a great deal of confusion. A medieval traveller across Europe in the 13th century could find themselves in Venice in the year 1245, journey to Florence and return to 1244, jump ahead inexplicably to 1246 in Pisa, and when getting to France slide back to 1244. Simply because not everybody agreed when new year should be celebrated.
What was beyond argument was that the eighth day of Christmas marked the circumcision of Christ. It also became the Feast of Fools in the 12th and 13th centuries. This meant role reversal between masters and servants reminiscent of the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia. In the church, lowly sub-deacons could take on the duties of a bishop. But by the year 1198, Pope Innocent III demanded that the clergy stop messing around and mark the circumcision with more respect.
Ninth Day of Christmas – the Cappadocian Fathers
OK – if you thought Saint Egwin was a bit out there, the ninth day celebrated Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Naziansus – the so-called Cappadocian Fathers. Fourth century AD fighters against the Christian heresy of Arianism which dared to suggest that Jesus, son of God, had not been eternally coexistent with his father but created by him. Therefore, the son was not quite as divine as the father.
Well, the church was obviously riled enough about this belief for centuries to feel the need to celebrate its defeat at Christmas.
There’s not a great deal to be said about the tenth and eleventh days of Christmas – suffice it to say, the feasting continued!
Twelfth day of Christmas – Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night the evening before the Epiphany. That is the evening of January 5. It marks the day when the three wise men or kings arrived in Bethlehem to visit Jesus on the following day.
Before Christmas Day became the central focus of the seasonal celebration, Twelfth Night was arguably more important. This was the real celebration with riotous parties and the eating of Twelfth Night Cake.
Inside that cake, a dried bean was placed. Whoever got a slice with the bean in it became the Lord of Misrule for that night. In charge of turning the world and its social order upside down. More of the Saturnalia-type anarchy that I mentioned earlier.
And there was an activity called ‘wassailing’, a forerunner of carol singing. Only this was often done in orchards with the peasants singing to the apple trees, begging them to begin once more the cycle of growth and renewal. The wassailing would also go door to door with a wassail bowl full of an alcoholic beverage that included roasted apples.
And for all you Christmas pedants…
Some of you will argue that the twelve days of Christmas began on the 26 December and ended on January 6 – the Epiphany. There is a difference of opinion on this which stretches back centuries. And as I know one of you will make contact to make this point, I’m acknowledging it now. Opinions are divided. But hey – I’ve gone with Christmas Day being the first day of the twelve which makes more sense to me. And I believe – until you convince me otherwise – that is more historically accurate.
As you can see – Christmas was a time of feasting and drinking for just under a fortnight that must have wiped people out. Before the twelve days was a more sombre period of fasting during Advent. And then afterwards, it was the countdown to more fun at Easter and the Annunciation.