Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

How the Middle Ages made Christmas

‘Christmas’, the term that conjures imagery of celebration and excess, derives from ‘Christes Maesse’, an Anglo-Saxon phrase first recorded in 1038, meaning the ‘mass’ or ‘festival’ of Christ. Although perhaps in the modern era the true nature of the holiday has been bypassed through its commercialisation, this was certainly not the case in the Middle-Ages.

In this period, the church orchestrated the primary celebrations, centralising them to the anniversary of the birth of Christ. Yet as the actual date of Jesus’ birth was never recorded in scripture, the date of the ancient winter solstice, the 25th December, was chosen as this was a significant date of celebration in the Roman calendar.

The annual tradition of carolling celebrates the frivolities of Christmas through song which is spread around the neighbourhood and encompasses a long standing history, deriving as far back as the thirteenth century. In this period, carol singing was undertaken solely in the church at Christmas time with the word ‘carol’ being taken literally, as an act of singing and dancing in a circle. Over time however, the yearly ritual became so disruptive to the services of the church that they were ordered onto the street to perform for their neighbours friends and neighbours.

Although the traditional ideologies of Christmas have been heavily overshadowed by consumerism over the past two centuries, the idea of gift giving was very rarely seen in the Middle Ages, especially where Christmas Day was concerned. Of course, as the act of passing on gifts at Christmas is reflective of the story of the nativity, with visitors such as the Three Wise Men presenting gifts to baby Jesus, the origins do stretch back to the period where the celebrations of Christmas were formed. Yet instead of presents on the 25th December, feasts took the place of gifts.

However, a Roman tradition of the ‘new year’s gift’ was enjoyed by all in the Middle Ages, yet these ‘gifts’ were mainly superstitious, such as wishing your friends and neighbours luck and success for the forthcoming year, and the defining of the modern tradition of ‘first-footing’, where the first person to step foot into your house in the new year defined your families fortunes for it.

With regards to the Christmas feast, your social status determined the types of food and drink which you would be enjoying at this time of the year. Goose was the staple equivalent of turkey for the wealthy, as the latter wasn’t introduced to England from America until the sixteenth century. Surprisingly, those at the opposite end of the social scale didn’t do without meat either at Christmas, as they enjoyed bacon, salted beef or mutton, with some lucky families even enjoying the fruits of their lord’s Christmas feast through the popular Christmas act of charity.

Another popular festive foodstuff, the mince pie, (so called because they originally contained shredded or minced meat) was enjoyed in the middle ages, and was representative of the Christmas story by being of an oblong shape to represent Jesus’ crib. They also contained three spices, commonly cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, to represent the gifts presented to Jesus by the ‘Three Wise Men’.

Aside from the recognisable traits of Christmas traditions during the middle ages, many of their festive activities are now absent from modern day celebrations. Such traditions include the annual ‘Beating of the Children’ or ‘Holy Innocents Day’ of the 28th December, when, in remembrance of King Herod’s ordering of all children under two years old to be killed in the story of the birth of Jesus, children were beaten. The day became connotative of bad luck, with Edward IV even refusing to be crowned on this day.

More local Christmas traditions also grew out of this period, as seen in villages such as Haxey in North Lincolnshire with their festive activity of the ‘Haxey Hood’, a rugby-like game in which teams have to transport a leather tube called a ‘hood’ to one of four pubs, where it remained until the following year’s game.

As we enjoy this year’s festivities, then, we should not forget the origins of our favourite Christmas traditions that were formed in and around the Middle Ages. After all, without the warm comforts of the mince pie or the uplifting tones of our favourite Christmas carols, it is not hard to imagine that one of our favourite holidays of the year would be barely recognisable to us.

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