The 12 days of Christmas in medieval times was marked by much feasting, as this miniature portrait shows, illustrated by the Limbourg brothers in the 15th century.

Medieval Christmas a time for feasting

By 
  • December 18, 2018

For your average serf of medieval Europe, Christmas was a pretty good deal, but not really a big deal.

Christmas broke the Advent fast in medieval times. Lords provided their serfs, or villeins (better than slaves, but legally tied to their lords and to the land), with firewood, a loaf of bread and ale. It was a time of feasting, so for those peasants who could manage it a mince pie or venison pie would be quite appropriate.

While Christmas was a feast in the Middle Ages, feasting didn’t involve a list of foods specifically associated with Christmas — things like plum pudding. You ate meat, drank beer and mulled wine — just like you would on any other feast day.

The yule log and all that ale from the baron in the big house was a bit of a hangover from the pre-Christian nordic and germanic tribes, who before the fifth century marked mid-winter with ale, big fires, animal sacrifices and subsequent sprinkling of blood. Gallons of ale were drunk to Odin — the god of healing, death, wisdom and royalty — at yuletide feasts. By medieval times, lasting roughly from the 400s to the 1400s, the pagan feasts of yule (in northern Europe) and Saturnalia (in southern regions more closely tied to Rome) were distant memories. Saturnalia was banned in the civil code. Christmas was Christmas. But Christmas was very far from being the major feast of the year.

“The feast of Christmas is not really a major event in the medieval world, the way it is in the modern period,” University of St. Michael’s College dean of theology and medieval scholar James Ginther told The Catholic Register. “It’s actually Easter that’s the focal point for the calendar year, the liturgical year, for medieval Christianity.”

Exchanges of gifts were associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) or Epiphany (Jan. 6),  traditions that live on in many European cultures.

The low-key Christmases of medieval Europe are no indication that medieval Christians did not appreciate or understand the theological significance of the Incarnation.

“They are interested in the Incarnation. It’s not necessarily driven liturgically,” said Ginther. “For the theologians, particularly at Paris, actually the Feast of the Epiphany becomes the opportunity for people to talk about the nature of theological work and God’s gift to humanity.”

Away from the medieval universities, Christmas was a natural time for feasting in the agrarian societies of medieval Europe. The crops were well in and there was no farming to be done until spring. Farm animals, however, would only grow thinner and less valuable as winter wore on. So it was a good time for a judicious cull, and all the extra meat that could not be easily preserved.

There was a natural rhythm of feasting and fasting that permeated cultures and defined the year for medieval Christians.

“There’s more of a penitential nature to the practice of Christianity in the Middle Ages than there is in the modern period. Now we think about fasting as a cleanse, rather than a penitential act,” said Ginther. 

Each time the calendar flips between fasting and feasting, the contrast is an important, defining moment.

King John of England held a Christmas feast in 1213 that burned through 24 hogsheads (240-litre casks) of wine, 200 pigs, 1,000 hens, 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of pepper and 10,000 salted eels. 

Each of those days in between Christmas and Epiphany would have been known and celebrated — remembering the first martyr, St. Stephen, on Dec. 26, St. John the Apostle on Dec. 27 and the Feast of the Holy Innocents who were murdered by King Herod to prevent the kingship of Jesus on Dec. 28.

“It’s back to that harsh reality of the world very, very quickly,” noted Ginther.

It wasn’t all grim, though. The Feast of the Holy Innocents was an occasion for townsfolk to elect a boy bishop. The youth would be dressed up in robes and a mitre and led in procession to the cathedral where he would preach a nonsensical, irreverent homily.

“When you parody something, you actually have to have a pretty good understanding of what it actually means,” observed Ginther. “It’s an indicator that they understood the major teachings of the Church.”

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