Celebrating the New Year, Medieval Style

The Festival of Fools - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525)

How did medieval people mark the passing of the New Year? Well, interestingly enough, it wasn’t always celebrated on January 1st. That date was the first day of the Roman civil year. When Roman law was revived in the Middle Ages, in some places, January 1st was selected to signal the beginning of the New Year, but it wasn’t standard. In fact, many New Year’s celebrations were held on March 25th, The Feast of the Annunciation; a religious holiday that celebrated the coming of the Angel Gabriel to Mary with news that she would bear God a son. The streets would be filled with processions, and people would make offerings to Mary. In some places, like Venice, the New Year began on March 1st, and in others, it began on Christmas or Easter. The Anglo-Saxons celebrated December 25th as the New Year, but this switched to March 25th in the later Middle Ages, and then to January 1st in the 18th century.

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Christmas Feast

Christmas FeastsHaill, Yule! Haill!

Christmas conjures up images of a host of culinary delights and treats to modern man; as one of the most festive occasions in the contemporary calendar, the season is marked by indulgences in food and diet that normally would be restricted or frowned upon during other parts of the year. This is further punctuated by a celebratory attitude that at this time permits (and even encourages) a relaxation of one’s usual mode of eating and simply allows nearly everything that is desirable and tasty! It is a time of eating, of feasting, of sharing repasts with friends and neighbors, and of gaining the ubiquitous Christmas pounds!

Such festivity was true in medieval times as well, though there are striking differences in what was eaten and served at Christmas time then as compared to now. Simply put, there were not as many Christmas-specific foods as there are now; mankind feasted heartily, but on foods and recipes that also were available and popular during the rest of the year – these were produced in finer quality and eaten in greater amounts at this time, but there was not a specific and detailed menu on what should or should not be eaten at Christmas. Much of the festivity that revolved around food seemed to be not in what was being offered, but in how it was offered, the quantities that were available, and in the act of sharing a meal and eating together. Several dishes of healthy, tasty food and ale to last a day, along with fuel for cooking and warmth, and candles to light the long evening, was an honored and acceptable gift from the lord to his villeins. In some recorded cases, the gift of food for the day was as simple as a loaf of bread, ale to drink, and some firewood. Many lords would invite their workers and serfs to the manor for Christmas dinner; in most cases, though, the food, serving utensils, and even the fuel for cooking were usually provided by the villeins themselves. It seems the real spirit of the moment was seen in the communal exchange of food and the enjoyment of feasting with friends in front of the burning Yule Log of the lord’s hearth. Continue reading

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Medieval Christmas at the Tower of London

At the Tower of London this festive season we partied like it was 1284! Heres a selection of the medieval merriment that was on offer including carols, soldiers songs, an exquisite feast and a personal greeting from a nun and bishop!

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Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions

Christmas was an important time throughout medieval Europe, and many traditions developed during this period, some of which are still popular. Here are seven things you might see during Christmas in the Middle Ages, which range from cribs in Italy to trolls in Iceland.

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Christmas in the Middle Ages

This feature looks at the origins of Christmas and how it was celebrated in the Middle Ages.  It includes links to articles related to this topic.


Many ancient religions held great importance for the phenomenon of the winter solstice, the time when daylight was at its shortest and the night was at its longest during the year.  In the Julian calendar, this date originally fell on December 25th.  It was at this point in the year that the Romans held midwinter celebrations called Saturnalia, which was the god Saturn.  This included feasts and the custom of giving wax dolls to children as presents.  There were other traditions too, including in Celtic areas of the Roman empire, where men and women would dress in clothes of the opposite sex, and then go dancing with aninal masks on.

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Deck the Halls – where do halls originate?

anglo-saxon-christmas-bayeux-feast-300x222.jpg“Deck the Halls”  is a Victorian favourite but the refraining Fa la la-ing goes back to earlier ballad forms.  It may even be medieval in origin.

My interest isn’t in the origin of the tune or even in the boughs of holly interesting as they both may be.  This year’s History Jar advent is all about the hall – and there are a lot of them one way another – some of them are still family homes whilst others are ruins.  I shall be having a look at  Arbella Stuart whose residence was Hardwick Hall and some Jaocbite artefacts on display in Nunnington Hall if you want a taster of what’s coming. Today though I am exploring the origin of  the hall which will in its turn involve feasting – hence the image at the start of the post from the Bayeaux Tapestry involving Anglo Saxons enjoying a feast.

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Medieval Christmas AD 336 – c. 1400

Mosaics in santa Maria Maggiore: the Nativity. Source: Wikipedia

Was the medieval Christmas primarily a religious feast? Or a boisterous folk-festival? The answer is probably both!

Nativity from Sarchophagos, Circa 330-335 Palazzo Massimo, Rome © Richard Stracke CCBY
Nativity from Sarcophagos, Circa 330-335
Palazzo Massimo, Rome
© Richard Stracke CCBY

The roots of the celebration of Christmas are probably too complicated to untangle. What we know, however, is that the celebration of this major church feast was established early on. A number of celebratory sermons from the 4th century are perfect witnesses to this, as are the contours of a formal liturgy from the 6th century and onwards. In general, though the exact date has been widely debated.

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