Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Medieval Christmas

The holiday season is upon us! For most of us, in some form or another, we are preparing to celebrate a significant holiday, and in the spirit of the season, I'll be giving away gifts throughout the month, ranging from books, swag, surprise goodies and even Amazon gift cards! To be eligible to win, there is a question you must answer at the end of each post. If you don't already know the answer, all of the answers can be found somewhere on the blog – you simply have to do a little search. Placing your answer in the comments automatically enters you for a chance to win! Winners will be selected randomly.

To kick off the celebration, here's some information I've picked up about various holiday traditions in medieval England.

It's no secret I have a particular affinity for the period in England's history that occurs during the reign of Edward I. He plays a significant role in Warrior's Possession. He was considered one of the greatest kings England ever had, or one of the most evil, depending on whom you're speaking to.

I've talked before about his adoration for his beloved Queen Eleanor, and the way he built crosses in her honor upon her death. I've mentioned how ruthless he could be. He called for the expulsion of all Jews from England, a ban which lasted until 1657. There are many accounts of his fits of rage, which could pop up with the slightest provocation. He was very tall – 6 foot 2 – and was an imposing presence. He was also a great strategist and warrior, by all accounts, and almost all of the time, whenever he set out to defeat his enemies, he did.

Overall, a many faceted man, with both faults and admirable traits. Not as despicable as some other leaders throughout history, or even today, and his legacy is evident in much of England's modern government.

Today, I'm going to talk a little about how Christmas was celebrated during Edward's time. While I do include a couple of feast scenes in Warrior's Possession, the celebration of Christmas rose to a whole different level.

Like all European royalty of the era, the Christmas feast celebrated by Edward and his court would have been extensively lavish. There are household records that still exist to this day and they reveal the day-to-day expenses of a royal household and how much went into serving a feast fit for a king. For such a special occasion as Christmas, which lasted for several days, the cost would have run into at least hundreds of thousands of dollars by today's standards.

The Christmas season began on November 11, St. Martin's Feast (the kickoff of the Forty Days of St. Martin, or what we now call Advent) and lasted through January 6, or the Feast of the Epiphany. Often the Epiphany was more raucously celebrated than Christmas Day. There would be music and entertainment by court jongleurs, minstrels and mummers. But it was the food that was often the main attraction, just like today.

Traditional dishes, such as goose and boar, were served, but in the king's household, there would also be venison and swan – and a lot of it. After all, the king's court and household consisted of hundreds of people. Hundreds of animals would have been slaughtered to feed them all in a manner befitting the season.

The swans in particular were quite a delicacy, and only a king could give permission for it to be served on another noble's table. The birds were prepared by roasting them after being covered with butter and saffron, and many times, they would be arranged with their feathers reattached and their long necks elegantly set as if they were still alive. I imagine they made quite a beautiful sight when carried in to be set before the king. 

Served with the venison is a dish called frumenty, a porridge made from cracked wheat, eggs and either a meat broth or almond milk. Some versions also included dried currants and fruits. There were also mince pies, a tradition even back then, though in those days they included shredded meat inside as well. If I remember correctly, the meat was removed from most common recipes in the Victorian age.

Just like today, there were many customs involved in the Christmas celebration. Many of our current traditions have their roots in the celebrations of the medieval era, though they came about in unexpected ways. And just like today, some of these traditions were whimsical, some more somber. The king's celebration would be no different, though was likely more lavish than those celebrated amongst the villagers they ruled.

One tradition was that of the Christmas Bishop. This consisted of the appointment of boy bishops, chosen by the local church elders, and often occurred on December 28th, the day of the Feast of Holy Innocents massacred by King Herod (more on that in a bit). The boy, likely from a lower class than the nobility or royalty, might be dressed in vestments and celebrate a mock mass and even include a sermon. After mass, he would then go out in a procession, and gifts of money and food would be bestowed upon him. In 1299, Edward I himself had one of the boy bishops say vespers before him. That would have been quite an honor, for both the boy and his family. Think about it - being noticed by the king or his nobles was the networking of the time, and since it was literally face-to-face rather than online social media, probably more impactful for those involved.

That tradition of Christmas Bishops, however, is much more benign than another one connected to the same day that is thankfully not celebrated anymore. There are a few names for this day, but the most common are "Holy Innocents Day" or "Childermass Day." As mentioned before, according to the Bible, December 28th is the day King Herod ordered the deaths of all male children under two years of age, in an effort to kill the Baby Jesus. If you weren't lucky enough to be selected as a boy bishop (or if you were a girl), you marked the day by being beaten, as a reminder of Herod's cruelty. For most people, the day was also considered to be bad luck, so chances are folks would have simply laid low until the day ended and not undertaken any significant action in their lives, be it getting married, building a home or making a monetary contract.

On a lighter note, caroling is another custom that, while still in practice today, was quite different in medieval England. In those days, "Carol" quite literally meant to sing and dance in a circle and when church-goers did exactly that, the bishops banned caroling and forced the singers to take the revelry to the streets. Made for quite some fun and gaiety amidst what the Church tried to keep a somber and sober remembrance. Personally, I think the people had it right – if you believe, then you should celebrate!

The final and most extravagant celebration came on Twelfth Night, or The Feast of the Epiphany, when the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh made Jesus known to the world, according to Scripture. There have been many ways to interpret the meaning of these gifts, but basically, this telling of the birth of Jesus is what led to the gift-giving of today. Back in Edward's day, it was the nobles who did a lot of the giving - to their villagers and servants, or serfs who worked the lands. The gifts usually consisted of clay pots with a slit in the top, and contained money. These pots had to be broken to get to the money inside, and were called "piggies," the forerunners of today's piggy banks.

Clearly, the medieval Christmas celebration was quite extravagant, and encompassed all manner of celebrations, both serious and silly. And many of those traditions have evolved into the familiar traditions many of us celebrate today.

The first prize I'm giving away this season is a copy of one of the titles in my backlist, in either print or e-book format, along with some other fun goodies. Answer this question by putting your answer in the comments below:

Name one of the "Eleanor Crosses" built by Edward I that is still standing.

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