While there were many holidays in the medieval European calendar, Christmas was a highlight with twelve days of celebrations. From the peasantry to the upper class, it was the longest holiday. People would not have to go to work, decorate their homes and spend time with loved ones.
Gift exchanging for the wealthy at Christmas included jewellery and fine clothes and were exchanged on both the 25th of December and the 1st of January. However, it was the food was often considered to be the best part of the celebrations. Castles would serve a huge feast in one of their most spectacular rooms, which would be decorated with festive greenery like ivy and holly. The meal would be served as an early lunch and include multiple courses. If the cooks had been aiming to really impress guests, they would have prepared something extravagant. For example, boar’s head on a platter or a swan or peacock roasted in its feathers.
Christmas was celebrated across the social classes. However, many people could not afford the luxuries of a huge feast and expensive presents.
Free labourers on estates would be given presents by their lord. This tradition developed over the centuries into servants receiving a box of presents on the 26th of December (inspiring the name “Boxing Day”).
Children would have received simple toys from their parents, such as dolls and marbles.
Peasants would have decorated their home since greenery like holly was easily found. The tradition of burning the Yule log also continued into the medieval era. This was when a large section of tree trunk would be lit on fire on Christmas Eve and kept burning for the twelve days of Christmas.
Families would treat themselves to foods they would not usually buy, such as cheese and boiled meat. They would also drink ale, which was typically brewed by peasant women.
The 1st of January was still seen as an important day, even though gifts would not be exchanged. Instead a superstition had developed where people believed that to bring good fortune in the New Year, it was important who visited a person’s home first on New Year’s Day. This was called “First-footing”.
Drinking was a large part of Christmas festivities and there are accounts of Lords worrying about riots over the holiday season.
Games were also popular, including board games like chess that are still played today.
Christmas meals were typically followed by singing carols, dancing, music and sports. Popular musical instruments included flutes, lutes and drums. The medieval version of football involved moving the ball to a predetermined location and had very few rules. People also tied the shin bones of horses to their feet to try to skate on frozen lakes during the winter.
You can celebrate Christmas at the Castle this holiday season with a lantern led tour or a visit to Santa’s Grotto. Book your tickets now: https://www.oxfordcastleandprison.co.uk/christmas-at-the-castle/