A medieval Christmas

Yesterday was Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ. Since the original 13 colonies were from England, our Yuletide is largely based on English traditions. Let's turn back the clock a thousand years and see a Medieval English Christmas. We can also see some traditions that have been lost or modified.

The tradition of burning the Yule Log was brought to England by the Vikings.

The winter solstice usually falls on Dec. 22, then the sun starts back north. The Vikings celebrated the return of the sun by feasting and dancing while the Yule Log burned. We adopted this festival. Christmas is still the Yuletide Season. The 12 days after Christmas supposedly mirrored the weather in the coming year. Christmas Day was January, the 26th was February and so on.

Ashes of the Yule Log had special powers. They were collected and shared by the whole village. Keeping Yule ashes in your home protected it from lightening strikes and accidental fires. Pack some in a decayed tooth to banish toothache.

Like today, homes were decorated with winter greenery, like ivy, holly and pine. These evergreens carried the message of a renewal of life, a central idea for all Christians.

The tradition of First Footing is almost forgotten. The first man to set foot in your home on Christmas morning was a harbinger of the coming year. He should be a dark haired man. Why — Long before, the fair haired Saxons had arrived and subjugated the dark haired Celts. To overcome this curse, dark haired men raced from house to house to bring them luck. Having a red haired man as your first visitor was a disaster. Judas Iscariot was believed to be a redhead.

Holy Innocents Day procession was on Dec 28. Village children paraded to honor the innocent children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by King Herod. (Matthew 2-l6). This was a Catholic tradition. When Henry VIII established the protestant Church of England in l534, he cancelled the procesion.

The Christmas carols we enjoy were centuries in the future. However, villagers did serenade each other with Latin hymns they had learned in church. The first true Engish carol was "A Childe Is Boren Amonges Man," written about 1225.

The Feast of the Ass was part of the Medieval Christmas. A donkey would be led into the church and honored with a special mass. The humble donkey had carried Mary and her infant son to safety when they fled into Egypt. This tradition survived until forbidden by Oliver Cromwell, who ruled Britain 1649-60.

The centerpiece of the Christmas Feast was a roast wild boar with the head reserved for the most honored guest. Mercifully, this tradition has died. King James I had a queasy stomach but he was stuck with the tradition. In 1616 he was served roast turkey for the first time. He liked it and it did not upset his digestion. Thanks to James, turkey became the new Christmas dinner.

Wassail was both a drink and a greeting. Some wassail was poured on the roots of fruit trees to insure a good harvest. In Old English "wes hal" meant "be in good health." This evolved into wassail. Here is a recipe for Christmas Wassail.


Juice of one lemon

1 cup apple juice

2 tablespoons sugar

2 cups ale

1/4 teaspoon each nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon

1 teaspoon honey

PREPARATION: Simmer apple juice, lemon, sugar and spices until sugar is dissolved. Add honey and ale. Mix and heat but do not boil. Serve warm.

Share This Story