How would a Knight Templar celebrate Christmas?

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A Victorian take on the medieval Christmas

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.

 

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Bethlehem – my visit and my photos!

We all know Bethlehem, birth place of Jesus. Clearly to the Templars and crusaders, capturing Bethlehem in 1099 had huge spiritual significance. Like the rest of the Levant, it had been taken by Muslim armies from the control of the Byzantine empire four hundred years before. Now it was back in Christian hands.

The Church of the Nativity had been built by the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, in the early fourth century CE. Helena had been on a visit to the Holy Land to promote the new state religion and she certainly left her mark, discovering both the sites of Christ’s birth and death. Immediately, basilicas began to be constructed over these places.

It was destroyed during a revolt by the Samaritan population but then rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Somehow the church survived various invasions including the Muslims and even the rule of the insane caliph Al-Hakim who smashed up the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Then the crusaders arrived in 1099. The first king of Jerusalem, Baldwin, was crowned in the basilica, recognising its importance.

I visited in 2012. Bethlehem is on the Palestinian side of the wall separating their territory from Israel. So you have to go through the high wall built by the Israel authorities. The town now is slightly depressed economically and the basilica has been ravaged by both ancient looters and earthquake damage. It’s a bit dowdy and unloved but at the same time, not over restored.

Here are my pictures of both the church and the wall you have to get through before arriving.