The Medieval Christmas Season

We celebrate Christmas: a rush of gift buying, cooking, baking, and decorating, culminating in one big day. The medieval Christmas was more of a full season of special days, from Advent to at least January 6, the Epiphany.

Christmas Eve was known as Adam and Eve day. From the early 14th century, “miracle plays”– performances that told Bible stories for a largely illiterate population– were performed on that day.

To a modern reader, the connection between Adam and Eve and the birth of Christ may or may not be immediately apparent. But the plays highlighted the importance of Christ returning, to bring us redemption from the Fall; to remind the people that once we had paradise, and, thanks to Christ coming to Earth as man, we may have Paradise again. It stressed the importance of the Christmas season and Christ’s coming, in their lives.

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Christmas trees were called “Paradise Trees” because they originally were used as a prop in the Christmas Eve miracle plays centering on Eden, or Paradise. The decorations on the tree stem partly from the apples hung there to symbolize Adam and Eve, and partly from the legend that says evergreens bloom at midnight on Christmas Eve, thus leading to the tradition of decorating the trees with both fruits and paper flowers. Round white wafers– representing the communion host– were also hung in the boughs as a reminder of redemption coming through the birth of Christ. The fall of man was a key component to understanding the significance of the birth of Christ.

Adam and Eve Day, on the 24th, and Christmas Day on the 25th, were immediately followed by St. Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day on December 26, a day popular for visiting friends and family.

From the middle ages, Boxing Day was a day in which servants received a yearly gift much like our current Christmas bonuses, and were free of their duties for a day, in exchange for having made sure their masters had a smooth and pleasant Christmas, some say. Traditionally, it was also a day to give money to the poor, and has been a public holiday in Scotland since 1971.

In Ireland, which, in the middle ages, shared a very similar culture to the Scottish highlands, the same day is also called Wrens Day, after the tradition of carrying an effigy of a wren, or even capturing a live one to carry in a cage. The ”Wrenboys” or “Mummers” who carried these wrens traveled from house to house, singing, dancing, and playing music.  A look at the wren in the cage was exchanged for treats.

A popular rhyme, later turned into a song, began thus:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,

Although he was little his honour was great,

Jump up me lads and give us a treat.

Tomorrow… more on some very interesting traditions associated with December 28.

And if you're beginning to think about some unique meals inspired by medieval traditions, look for my medieval recipes, from Food and Feast: a gastronomic historic poetic musical romp in thyme under my medieval recipes label.  Or buy the book! (Over 200 recipes, medieval and modern.)


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