Christmas in the Middle Ages 1 of 3

 

{We are pleased to present you with another guest blog by Sir Justyn – ‘Christmas in the Middle Ages’ Part 1 of 3 for your Christmas break reading}

Celebrating a Middle Ages, Medieval Christmas

Often when we think of Christmas, we think of it as a time for holiday, family and friends, a well deserved break from the year’s labours. Some people view it as an exercise in capitalism and retail selling, others as a strictly religious affair but often what we don’t realise is that Christmas existed long before the modern era.
Many people credit the Victorian era, which is 1837AD to 1901AD, as the source of most of our Christmas traditions originated; what these folks miss is that the Victorian era saw the revitalization and an interest of the Medieval  period and it’s customs and traditions.
In the Middle Ages you might be surprised to learn that at Christmas people gave each other gifts, decorated their homes, went carolling, feasted on seasonal foods and drink and celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas the Wonder Maker, albeit on December 6th not on the 25th.

St Nicholas (St Nikola) the Wonder Maker . Photo from Wikipedia.
In fact the whole of December was a month of celebration. Recently I wrote on my Facebook page  “In the Middle Ages, December marked a time where most of the years hard agricultural work had been done and many folks could start to relax in anticipation of the celebration of Christmas. All planting had been done and animals were housed for the onset of winter. There were 12 official days of holidays and feasting spread throughout December and as a result most people had the opportunity to simply sit back and relax for the entire month! How times have changed.”

Middle Age Christmas Festivities Abounded

What did they do during this time of holiday and festivities?

  • Singing and dancing was popular.

Much like parts of continental Europe and the Middle East today, in the Middle Ages, whole communities would come together and take part in singing and dancing as a community. Imagine if you will, a hundred small villages and towns having an old fashioned country medieval barn dance and you are fairly close to how it might have been.
Music of course would accompany these activities and were mostly performed by local minstrels – often merely an average person who had a knack for playing music just as it was in many Australian communities 50 to 100 years ago. These activities involving music and dance were a staple part of any festive occasion on the medieval calendar and certainly more so during the winter month of December

  • Carols and hymns were a frequent occurrence during this time.

Carols were more of a secular type of song, whereas hymns were religious in nature. The distinction has not really changed when compared to today, except that today many songs that we call carols were actually hymns in the Middle Ages.
Carols were often ribald and light-hearted songs with a seasonal relevance whereas hymns were more austere and sung the year round.  Another distinction with carols were that even though they had spiritual or religious themes and connotations,  they were less complicated to learn and sing, They were aimed for the common folk, and usually written by laymen and not the clergy.

  • Theatre was also a popular December form of entertainment.

Plays and pageants, mumming and allegorical or festive tournaments were all forms of theatre abounding in Medieval Christmas times.
Plays often had strong moral points to them and were originally performed by monks. While they were frequently used as a way to teach common folk Biblical tales,  just as often they acted out the life and tales of a saint.

At other times  they were plays which told of ribald, slapstick characters and lewd stories causing them to be banned from church grounds and the clergy forbidden to take part in them. As unacceptable as they were to the church, even these had strong moral points to impart.

  • Pageants were something a little grander.

There was no stage present but rather wagons constructed with two levels and moved to a given place in town or city with adequate performance space. This was the forerunner of the mardi  gras as it is seen today.
In medieval York and Chester these parades with a convoy of wagons each performing a short play would travel through the streets from dawn until dusk each Christmas. Imagine if you will a train of stages coming to your place of work or home, performing plays and moving on, one after the other all day long. It could almost be seen a s a medieval form of television! Back in the Middle Ages however, acting was considered one of the lowest forms of employment or profession again something that is starkly contrasted in our own day and age.

  • Mumming was a form of medieval street theatre.

Mummers in the middle ages.  Photo from 'From Old Books' .org

This included plays, costumes, music and dance. Groups of mummers would frolic from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in a form of both structured and improvised theatre performances. It was very important that the mummers were incognito. They would apply makeup, masks, cloaks and hoods in very much what was not just a forerunner again of mardi gras but perhaps more recognizably as Carnivale or a Masque Ball.
These requirements of disguise were a superstition that went back to pagan times, as did many other parts of Christmas tradition, in that the mummers were summoning or performing to entice the sun back and shorten the winter.

It was claimed that if a mummer’s identity was revealed the magic would fail and the winter would be long and harsh. In the Middle Ages it was not as much a superstition as a courtesy. It was bad manners to publicly point out the identity of a mummer – not for reasons of pagan superstition but for the sake of maintaining the mystery of the performance and its performers.

 

Guest Blogger:  Sir Justyn
{Justin Webb a.k.a. Sir Justyn is a professional medieval performer, educator, medieval combat instructor and author, internationally renowned for public speaking and displays. He has performed, taught and spoken not only in Australia but also in England and France. He is also the leading member of Eslite d’ Corps, a high quality 14thC Living History group. You can learn more about Sir Justyn at www.sirjustyn.com and on his Facebook page.}

In part 2 of 3 of Sir Justyn’s Medieval Christmas blog articles we will look at Magic, Christmas horticultural traditions and seasonal saints.

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