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.

 

Your Day of Judgment has arrived – medieval style

In English medieval churches, it’s now almost impossible to imagine the walls as they once were – covered in lurid depictions of the Day of Judgment and hell fire for the sinful.  During the Protestant Reformation, church walls were whitewashed, the faces of saints in wood carving were hacked off and stain glass windows even smashed.  These were all seen by Protestants of a radical flavour as being idolatrous.

But in southern Europe, we can still see what the English would once have been treated to in church.  Here’s a cheerful sculpture that shows the virtuous very literally being pulled up to heaven while the bad are in flames below.  Note that some of those in the flames appear to be priests and bishops.

Judgment Day – some go up and others go down
What went wrong for these sinners?
Another image of those sinners
A similar sculpture shows a bishop in hell