Monday, November 28, 2016

I am dreaming of a Medieval Christmas

It is the time of the year when many of us begin the celebration of Christmas. So in the next several posts we examine how people in Europe celebrated the birth of Jesus. This post will deal mostly with the food which was served on this day.
During the middle ages, food was prepared in a simple manner. After the period of the Crusades, the knights returned with different forms of spices and food. When trade began to flourish, the meals became more varied and richer in flavor.
Many of us eat turkey on this day; this certainly was not the case as turkeys are native to North America, and did not arrive in Europe until after its colonization. However, some of our traditions with turkey came from medieval times. The rich would eat many birds at this time; the most popular for the rich was goose, or even swan if it was available. The chefs would cook the bird with saffron plant and tons of butter. The result was to give the skin of the bird a golden color, similar to what we see with our turkey dinners today.
The poor, as always, would be at the mercy of their lord; this also included the Christmas meal.  Many times these kings and lords would eat venison. What was left as their feast, such as the tongue, heart, brains, feet were given to the poor. The poor would then turn it into a meat pie. These parts are known as “Umbles”, and hence the poor ate, what later would be known as, Humble Pie.
Even when the lord was generous to his servants, allowing them to fish or hunt on his land. The poor tenants could not take game such as squirrels, or hedgehogs. The other game such as deer and trout, were reserved for the lord himself.

Another down side for the poor at Christmas, is it is a “Quarter Day” in England. This was one of the four times a year where all debts had to be resolved; this meant the poor has to pay rent to the lord for use of the land.
One of the earliest and continuing holiday meals is the Boars Head. This dates back to Roman times, when the boar was one of the fiercest animals in the forest. The boar was hunted down as a public service, and a feast was then conducted after the hunt. In Early Europe, a boar’s head was offered to the goddess of farming to ensure a good season in the next spring.
Christianity replaced the pagan festival, now the defeat of the boar represented Christ overcoming sin. As a result, the Boars Head Festival was always surrounded by a religious ceremony. The Boars Head Feast occurred at Christmas, and also the feast before lent.
Later, after the decline of the boar in the wild, a hog would then be dressed up to appear like its wild cousin.  In the feast the head is garnished, but it is not eaten. This festival has continued over time, not only in private homes, but also at many universities. This college ceremony is not only celebrated in English, but also in America at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. The oldest continuous Boars Head festival is held at the Hoosick School in Hoosick, New York.
During the celebration at Christmas, the meals sometimes were jovial. Take the case of the “bean” or mock king.  A bean would be hidden in bread. Whoever found this bean would then be declared “the bean king” and he would reign over that day’s festivities. This may have originated by the Roman holiday called Saturnalia, we will go into this in much detail in one of the upcoming following posts.
No matter how joyful the celebration was, the church made sure that the holiday was also a recognized as a religious holiday. There would be three masses as Christmas; the only other time this occurs is at Easter.

Next time: More information about a Medieval Christmas.

W.A.Rusho is a part time historian, professional wrestler and author. You can reach him at his website, or email him.


  1. Really interesting, especially learning the origin of the term "Humble Pie". Somewhere long ago I must have come across a reference to the bean in the bread tradition because that sounds familiar. Looking forward to the next post in this series!

  2. Interesting post, William. You must have been reincarnated from medieval times as it certainly takes a priority in your current life. Have you ever had a past life reading done? Very interesting thing to do if you've not already.

    I bet the term "Golden Goose" may be related to the saffron oil on the goose. Fascinating stuff.

  3. This post brings back great memories of the professor I had for a course on early British Literature. I took it fall semester, and at the end right before Christmas, she had us bring items that would have been found at a medieval feast.

  4. Thank you for providing some back history on Christmas in the medieval time.

    How sad that the poor were left with the scraps of meat even at time of celebration.

  5. William, you are a true scholar! I mean that in a very good way. I notice and thoroughly enjoy the passion with which you approach your topics. The details you provide are rich and intriguing!

    I recall visiting some place in England many years ago that provided a replica of the kind of royal kitchen King Henry VIII's court would have had. Fascinating! One vivid detail I recall was the roasted peacock adorned with its crest and brilliant blue feathers. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that people would roast and eat peacocks. But then, why not, if every other fowl was up for grabs for the dining table?

    The peasants had it rough. So many must have simply perished due to their difficult lives.

  6. I enjoy hearing about life in medieval times although I must admit I'm glad I wasn't living then. I definitely would not have belonged to the rich and the idea of eating venison brains or feet is a bit of a turnoff. Rather have the turkey.

  7. Life, including Christmas, in the Middle Ages, I have absolutely no interest in experiencing. Imagine living in a cold country during that era. That alone is enough to put me off.

  8. Lovely post William like to know how the festival is celebrated vastly I had visited Goa 2 years ago during the Christmas and it was fun this year will be visiting my friends place to celebrate with him and his family.

  9. Thank you for providing some back history on Christmas in the medieval time.

  10. Thank you for sharing some back history on Christmas in the medieval time.