Medieval Christmas was significantly different in that celebrations were focused on the birth of Christ as instructed by the Church.
The word ‘Christmas’ was first used in 1038 when a Saxon English book used the phrase ‘Cristes Maesse’. William the Conqueror declared himself king of England and was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066.
Interestingly, problems that arose during Christmas in medieval England have become known as tradition to us today, such as carol singing. Carol singers interpreted the meaning of carols very literally - ‘to sing and dance in a circle’, which is exactly what they did during Christmas services before being banned by the Church and forced out onto the street, where they went from house to house instead.
The traditional Christmas crib originated in Medieval Italy. Saint Francis of Assisi supposedly made use of a crib in 1223 as a way of explaining the story of Christmas to the Assisi locals.
28 December is known as ‘Holy Innocents Day’ or ‘Childermas Day’ when King Herod commanded all infant boys under two to be killed in his attempt to get rid of the new baby king (Christ). Within certain European towns it was customary for boys to be made head of a town for one day after becoming a bishop for 28 December. Children in medieval England were beaten as a reminder of how cruel Herod was and the day was seen as being bad luck, so people refused to marry or start a building and Edward IV would not be made king.
Turkeys did not exist during Christmas as they originate from America, and this was not discovered as a continent until the end of the 15th century. Rich people would eat goose and sometimes swan with the permission of the king, along with woodcock if it was able to be caught. Medieval cooks had a knack for making a roast bird look more appetizing - they covered it with butter and saffron plant which would give it a golden colour by the point of serving. The Church would have a goose ready cooked available for seven pence, sold to poor people who could afford it, while a raw goose would be sixpence - the equivalent of one day’s wages.
The venison taken from deer would be eaten too, but peasants could not eat the best sections. However as it was Christmas, a lord may have let them have the deer’s leftovers known as ‘umbles’ - liver, heart, tongue, ears, feet and brains. These were all mixed into a pie with anything else that was available to cook. So the poor would have ‘umble pie’ which is where the modern day phrase ‘eating humble pie’ comes from - describing a living standard or experience which you are not used to.
Mince pies are now a major Christmas tradition, and a large mince pie in medieval England would always be baked and filled with shredded meat, spices and fruit. In Victorian times the recipe was changed to leave out the shredded meat, though the association ‘mince’ has not been removed from its title.
Traditionally people believed if someone made a wish on the first bite of their first mince pie, it would come true, and if the first mince pie offered to someone over Christmas was refused, it would bring bad luck.
Medieval Christmas puddings were made from a spiced porridge known as ‘frumenty’ and it was viewed as a great treat. Frumenty was made of boiled wheat or thick porridge along with dried fruit and currants, egg yolks and possibly spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It was then put aside to cool and set before serving.
The poor were required to pay rent on Christmas Day as it was a ‘quarter day’.
Actors put on dances and plays at Christmas in castles or villages, known as ‘mumming’. The story of Christ would be told in mystery plays and would feature King Herod who was the same as a modern day pantomime villain.
Boxing day is seen to be associated with rich people giving the poor gifts in boxes, but in actual fact the masters of the poor would give them money, it was in a hollow clay pot with a slit on top which had to be broken in order to remove the money. These were given the nickname ‘piggies’ which is where piggy banks originated from.
See also: The Longbow
"Medieval Christmas". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.