Our volunteer Mollie has very kindly written a few blog posts about how Christmas was celebrated in the time of Richard III. Here’s her second post, about winter pastimes:
As the farming work came to an end, those who worked on the land would be granted their longest period of rest in the calendar – twelve days for Christmas.
The most common activity featured in the winter calendar is one of feasting and warming oneself by the fire. There were games like cards and dice, (which included a bit of gambling), and board games such as chess, checkers, backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris. The singing of songs including carols would be accompanied by group dancing and music from flutes, lutes, drums and pipes. Carols from the medieval period can still be heard at Christmas today, with the popular carol “Good King Wenceslas” originating in thirteenth-century Finland (though the carol that we all know and love wouldn’t be given its popular English lyrics and melody until 1853) as well as “Christ Born on Christmas Day” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice”, which originated in fourteenth century Germany.
Traditional Christmas games included the ‘king of the bean‘ in which the lucky finder of a hidden bean in the pudding would be ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the feast. That honoured person then had the right to lord it over everyone else who often had to mimic whatever action the king or queen did at the table. Dress-up games were a big part of Christmas celebrations, with folk dressing up in animal masks or men disguising themselves as women, going door-to-door singing festive folk songs and telling jokes.
Snow sports of many varieties such as sledging and ball games taking place on the frozen river were common amongst the peasantry during the winter. For those who were members of the nobility, a popular activity which combined sport and the acquisition of food was boar hunting. Snowball fights were common in the later middle ages, as depicted on illuminated manuscripts and frescos from the fourteenth century.
Whilst ice skating has become a more popular pastime, if not a symbol of winter today, with ice rinks popping up across the country, including in Leicester’s Jubilee Square throughout this month, ice skating was a lot more uncommon for those in Medieval England. Whilst the climate of neighbouring northern European countries made ice skating a common practice, skating was much less developed in England. It is thought that the first mention of skating came during the twelfth century, but skating remained for the less faint of heart until the seventeenth century.
Winter wasn’t all fun and games, the period was often more challenging than fun for many as they braced themselves against the cold. The lead-up to Christmas was perhaps a happy distraction, when people could enjoy time with one another and be merry as a community, something which can still be said about Christmas in the modern age. Despite the colder weather and the dark evenings arriving much earlier, like medieval people, the winter brings about pastimes that bring friends, family and community together.
If you missed Mollie’s first blog post about gift giving in medieval times, find it here