Nativity

The Medieval Origins of Christmas Tradition


From listening to the Queen’s speech after dinner, to watching the afternoon film on the television, every family has their own favourite pastimes at Christmas.

Apart from these more modern events, though, many of the traditional things associated with Christmas date back to the medieval period. For example, the practice of carol singers going from door to door is the result of their being banned from the Medieval church. During that period the word “carol” didn’t refer to just a song, but to singing and dancing in a circle. This was frowned upon by the Medieval churchmen, as it detracted from the seriousness of the occasion, so carol singers were ordered out onto the streets.

Another church-related tradition that had its origins in medieval times is the Christmas crib scene. In Medieval Italy, in 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi used a crib to explain the Christmas story to the local people (as depicted in the painting above). It is believed that this was the first time that animals such as the sheep and the donkey were added to the Christmas story, even though the Bible does not mention them. The earliest Christmas puddings also date from Medieval England, although they were rather different to those we eat today. They were made from a spicy porridge known as frumenty, which had currants and dried fruit stirred into it, along with egg yolks, cinnamon and nutmeg.

The majority of Christmas dinners in the UK this year will feature a roast turkey. However, turkeys didn’t reach Britain until the late fifteenth century, so in Medieval times the rich ate goose, while the poorer families would roast woodcock. Those lords who had royal permission to eat Venison, would also serve that at Christmas. Traditionally, the heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains (a concoction known as the umbles) would be mixed together and made into a pie to give to the poor. This became known as humble pie.

Whereas today we might go to see a nativity play at Christmas, in Medieval times the people could look forward to seeing Mumming. This was when travelling actors performed plays and dances in villages, manors, or castles. Mystery plays were traditionally performed, in which the story of Christ’s birth was told. The part of King Herod within the mystery play was the first role that can be seen as the equivalent of a ‘baddie’ in a modern day pantomime.

 

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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