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Preparing for Christmastide

You may think that many of our modern-day Christmas celebrations originated from the Victorian period but Christmas was celebrated during medieval times, with many of the traditions still in place today.

Rachel, our Learning and Interpretation Manager, tells us more in her festive blog:

Christmas during the time of King Richard III was one of the greatest feasts in the year, a time of excess and enjoyment, and as with any big celebration, it required a great deal of preparation. Pity the medieval housewife then, for Christmastide lasted for twelve days!

Beginning on the 25th December and ending with Epiphany on the 6th January, (now known as twelfth night, or the deadline for taking down your Christmas decorations), a medieval Christmas was as much about eating and drinking and making merry as it is today.

A medieval Christmas feast for a moderately wealthy citizen might have included venison or boar, goose or other game, (no turkey though), white bread known as manchet, soups and pottages, mince pies and frumenty, (similar to Christmas pudding), gingerbread and marzipan.

All of this food required lots of cooking, and enough wood or charcoal for the fire. Not all households had their own oven, and those without probably asked neighbours or used a communal oven.

A Yule log wasn’t made of chocolate in medieval times, it was a large log that was kept burning over the twelve days of Christmas. It was good luck to light it with a small piece of the previous year’s yule log.

Beer or wine had to be ordered and beer was brewed locally, as it did not travel well. Church Ale was a strong ale brewed for Christmas, and was sold in the church yard, or sometimes in the church itself. Wine was imported from Europe in barrels and sold by the Vintners Guild. Some wine was produced in England, but it was usually of inferior quality.

A medieval household of standing had to be prepared for groups of carollers and mummers who might come calling over Christmastide. Carollers would sing to entertain the household and expected something to eat and drink, preferably alcoholic, in return. Mummers were the same, they would perform a short play, wearing masks for the household’s entertainment.

A wassail bowl was a good drink to have ready for unexpected guests. This was a hot spiced alcoholic drink, usually ale or cider, often with fruit or toasted bread floating in it. The wassail cup was passed around with the toast of ‘Wassail’ and everyone took a drink, replying ‘Drink hael’.

Bringing a whole tree inside and decorating it for Christmas was not a tradition in King Richard III’s time, not until much later was this custom popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Households would still have decorated their main living space with greenery; holly, ivy, bay, mistletoe – anything still green. Spinning wheels were traditionally decorated with greenery to show that no work was being done over the Christmastide period.

There was no Father Christmas or Santa Claus at a medieval Christmastide, instead ‘St Nicholas’ brought people gifts on his feast day of 6th December, traditionally nuts, fruits, marzipan and spiced cakes.

People exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day, or the 6th January, Epiphany, the day the three Magi gave their gifts to the infant Jesus. There was a belief that gifts could foretell the luck of the household for the coming year, linked to our tradition of ‘first footing’.

Even then, London was the place to go to purchase the finest gifts, whether these were gold cups, Italian necklaces or Flemish tapestries, if you could afford it! We may complain about the cost of Christmas shopping today, but King Richard III and his wife Anne spent £1200 on new clothes and gifts for the court in 1484.

Happy Christmas!



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