I love history, and I love Christmas, so today, I am talking about historical Christmas. Makes sense really 🙂 There’s even a Richard III reference (obviously).
Looking at Christmas then, and Christmas now, there are obviously a lot of differences, but if you look closely, there are plenty of similarities, and clear beginnings of what we consider key elements of Christmas today. For this post then, we’ll look at food, gifts and entertainment.
First, that most critical of Christmas elements – food! One of the tastiest treats of the festive periods has to be the mince pie, and these can indeed be traced back to the medieval era, when it was considered lucky to eat one on each of the twelve days of Christmas – I can go along with that! And they did also include mince, well, shredded meat at least, alongside the fruit and spices. It wasn’t until the Victorian age that the meat was removed, and the delicious sweet treat we know and love today.
One treat which hasn’t quite stood the test of time is frumenty, a sort of fruit and spice-flavoured porridge, eaten by the poor parts of society.
But what about gift-giving? Christmas was originally a time for prayer and reflection, with the church actively banning gift-giving in the early middle ages, due to suspected pagan origins. It wasn’t even necessarily the most important date in the Christian calendar, with Epiphany or Easter being generally considered more important, religiously.
However, by the end of the medieval period, gift-giving was definitely back in fashion, and the idea of generosity a critical one in society. In 1482, Edward IV held a spectacular banquet, feeding up to 2,000 people each day over Christmas, as well as lavishing his noble guests with gifts to celebrate the festivities. When his brother Richard took to the throne, the pressure to match his brother was so great that he ended up selling items from the royal household to fund the celebrations, and used items from the treasury to secure loans. Richard even licenced a merchant specifically to bring jewels into England, on the condition he had first choice of the gems, so that he could give his wife, Queen Anne, the finest Christmas gifts.
And to keep you entertained throughout the season? Well, thanks to early medieval carol singers taking things a bit too literally (‘carol’ means to sing a dance in a circle), such activities were banned by the church, forcing them out onto the streets, and setting things in motion for the door-to-door and street-based singing we know today. A broader form of entertainment was also the mummers, who moved around the country, performing comedy plays for villages and lords, either in squares or halls. In these, and the ‘mystery plays’ which also originated in the middle ages, we can see the early stages of pantomime, with men dressed as women, and vice versa, and shouting at the ‘baddies’ on stage (quite often King Herod).
Plenty in there that we can recognise in our modern plans then, and plenty of fascinating insights as to how they came about. Of course, the modern wimp in me is glad that we’re able to enjoy most of them in the comfort of centrally-heated living rooms, and without the risk of uncooked meat!