Medieval Christmas

The Christmas of 2017 has finished and what a year it has been! I graduated from the University of Lincoln in September and started my MA in Medieval Studies later that month. The first semester has been brilliant. In our Research Methods module, we discussed questions I had never properly considered before. Another module, Saints and Scholars, introduced me to the engaging world of medieval hagiography, through which I examined the truly fascinating case study of Sainte Foy of Conques, that became the focus of my last research project. And last but not least, Medieval Latin has been a rewarding challenge (more on that to come soon in another post).

The Medieval Christmas Market at Lincoln
The Medieval Christmas Market at Lincoln

With the festive period just gone, I’ve been thinking about Christmas celebrations in the medieval period. I remember that this curiosity became prominent at the beginning of December, when I went to the Medieval Christmas Market in Lincoln. The market is always an enjoyable experience and it takes place in the beautiful Bishop’s Palace. But I do always wonder how “Medieval” all this really is…

Despite the fact that the market’s contents have nothing medieval about them (or perhaps a vague stylistic inspiration) the atmosphere of merriment and cheer was an element of winter festivities inherited from the pre-Christian, which continued throughout the Middle Ages. This is an interesting aspect that Alexander Murray discussed in History Today (1986).

Murray explained how Christianity adopted and adapted existing pagan feasts celebrating the winter solstice to take control of seasonal festivities. The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times. From the creation of the Julian Calendar in 46 BC the celebrations have fallen on 25th December. The Bible does not disclose the exact day of Christ’s birth so it is easy to see why the Feast of the Nativity, first recorded in 336, took place on 25th December.

As Christianity started to take part in winter celebrations it would adopt aspects of pre-existing seasonal feasts. Murray cites three feasts as the major influences for Christian Christmas. The first is the Saturnalia, which celebrated Saturn in late December. Another was Kalends, which took place on 1st January for high officials taking office that year. Both of these were of a roman imperial nature, celebrating pagan gods and the bureaucratic structures of empire respectively, which allowed their customs to be more easily adopted because the imperial identity transcended ethnicity, geographical origin and religion. The third feast that influenced Christian Christmas was Yule, celebrated outside the Empire meaning it was rooted more in paganism, Christianity’s main competitor at the time.

The roots of medieval and modern Christmas can be found in these feasts. Presents were given at both imperial feasts. Greenery was used as festive decorations at all of them; evergreens in the south and conifers in the north. With Saturnalia, Kalends and Yule being feasts food took centre stage. Special pies and cakes were present at Saturnalia and Yule. The Yule boar was a centrepiece in Northern Europe, Turkey would arrive in 1531 from Mexico. The Christmas feasts of the high orders in the Middle Ages could get excessive, for example, at Richard II of England’s court in 1377 28 oxen and 300 sheep were eaten.

The Medieval Christmas Market inside parts of the Bishop’s Palace
The Medieval Christmas Market inside parts of the Bishop’s Palace

Christianity created a whole festive period centred around the Nativity feast with Advent in place by 500 and other feasts, such as that of St. Nicholas, also taking place in December. In the Carolingian chronicle of 829 Louis the Pious had a 57 day period of festivity dating from St. Martin’s day until Epiphany had passed on 6th January.

During the medieval period Christian Christmas absorbed elements of pre-Christian feasts and built up a winter festive season which used food, decorations and presents to create a sense of social harmony and cheer, an atmosphere which is replicated with the assortment of gifts, food and drink that are at the heart of Lincoln’s Medieval Market as well as modern Christmas in general.

Further Reading

Cabaniss, Allen. ‘The Christmas of 829’, Chuch History 43:3 (1974), 304-307.

Murray, Alexander. ‘Medieval Christmas’, History Today 36: 12 (1986), 31-39.