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Medieval Christmas

Dr Iona McCleery

Detail from The Book of Hours Brotherton Collection MS 1, fol. 12r (photo copyright Leeds University Library)

Medieval Christmas

Christmas is the second most important festival in the Christian religion, celebrating the birth of Jesus. Originally, there was no agreement on when Jesus was born. Gradually his birthday was combined with a pagan Roman festival celebrating the Winter Solstice and the return of light to the world. It was always a feast day that involved lots of eating and drinking!

Book of Hours, calendar page for February, Brotherton MS 1, folio 2. Photo courtesy of the Brotherton Library, University of LeedsIn the Middle Ages, Christmas did not begin until 25 December and lasted for twelve days. The rest of December was Advent, a period of fasting like Lent. People were not supposed to eat meat or dairy during this time, but the rich would have spent a lot of money on fish and seafood like sturgeon, eels and oysters. Different households and regions would have had their main Christmas feasts either on 25 December, on 1 January or on 6 January.

There were several other holy days during the twelve days: St Stephen’s Day on 26 December, Holy Innocents on 28 December (commemorating the day that King Herod massacred all the baby boys while looking for Jesus) and the festival ended with Epiphany on 6 January which traditionally was the day when the three wise men came to visit Jesus. The feast of St Nicholas (Santa Claus) was on 6 December and already linked to gift giving.

Book of Hours, calendar page for February, Brotherton MS 1, folio 2. Photo courtesy of the Brotherton Library, University of LeedsWe know most about the food of the rich at great feasts, but we also know that most lords hosted a feast for their tenants and servants at least once over the festive period. On 1 January 1413 Alice de Bryene, a Suffolk heiress, fed over 300 ‘tenants and other strangers’, going through 12 gallons of milk. On Christmas Day 1547, Henry Willoughby, a wealthy gentleman from the Midlands, fed his tenants on beef, mutton, 10 geese, 9 pigs, 6 capons, a swan, 16 rabbits, 3 hens, 2 woodcocks and 16 venison pies.

Gingerbread was a popular food for Christmas, using expensive and exotic spices. Spices, nuts and candied fruits were popular from St Nicholas Day onwards. Mince pies originally always contained minced meat as well as lots of fruit, sugar and spices. The meat probably began to drop out of the recipe in the 18th century. Mince pies are sometimes still not vegetarian as they may contain suet (beef or mutton fat).

Caroline Yeldham holds up a roast pigs head (photo courtesy of the IMC, Leeds)People did not eat turkey until the later sixteenth century the Middle Ages (as this bird is native to South America and not known to Europeans before 1492). Instead, other expensive birds were goose, swan and peacock. Peacock was known not to taste nice but it looked spectacular!

Another very popular dish was a roast boar head. The boar’s head would be brought into the hall in great ceremony with trumpets blowing or to the singing of a special carol.

Between courses there were also brought in special Christmas displays or subtleties made of wax or sugar. These would be images of the Angel Gabriel or the three wise men and their gifts. The hall itself would often be decorated with special tapestries for the occasion. At the royal court there might also be jousting every day.

Further reading:
Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Westport, 2004)
Mark Dawson, Plenti and Grase: Food and Drink in a Sixteenth-Century Household (Totnes, 2009)
Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 1995)
Philip Slavin, Goose management and rearing in late medieval eastern England, c. 1250-1400', Agricultural History Review 58 (2010), 1-29
Ffiona Swabey, Medieval Gentlewoman: Life in a Widow’s House in the Later Middle Ages (Stroud, 1999)
C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain (London, 1973)

Read more on this subject in a recent article written by Dr Iona McCleery in The Conversation on What would you have eaten for Christmas in medieval times? (published 16 December 2014)

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