Sarah Peverley is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool and a regular broadcaster on television and radio. She is also a Leverhulme Research Fellow. Sarah appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to compare medieval Christmas traditions with our modern-day approach.
Professor Peverley has also written pieces on Christmas at Court, complete with images of medieval winter sports - here they appear to have been fond of snowball fights.
6 Christmas facts to fill your stockings
- Christmas medieval-style had a more practical focus
Forget the mad, last-minute shopping rush – Christmas in the Middle Ages was a more reflective affair. But there were still plenty of important tasks to do in the build-up to Christmas Day.
Animals that couldn’t survive the winter were slaughtered and the meat prepared, and any final agricultural tasks were completed. Periods of fasting and reflection were also common, says Sarah, with people “thinking about the coming festival, [and the] celebration of Christ’s birth”.
- Christmas trees are a relatively new concept
Racing down the stairs and unwrapping gifts under the Christmas tree is a relatively new concept.
In the Middle Ages, the idea of a Christmas tree did not exist, in the UK at least, although people did decorate their homes and churches with ever-green plants like holy and ivy.
There is a long-standing German tradition of decorating a tree with things like sweet meats and apples, and later with artificial baubles. But it wasn’t common in the UK until the 19th century, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, popularized it.
“So the trees that we have in our homes are really the kind of things the Victorians promoted and enjoyed using,” explains Sarah.
- There were no presents on Christmas Day
Gift giving tended to happen on two occasions. The first was the feast of St Nicholas on 6th December, when gifts were given to the church as part of the general festivities around the celebration of St Nicholas – traditionally the start of the Christmas season.
The second was New Year’s Day, when adults would exchange gifts. Among wealthier people, gifts might include fine clothing or jewellery. For others, it might be more practical gifts, like food, firewood or working clothes.
The idea of exchanging presents on 25 December is, according to Sarah, “more of a later thing that comes in with the advent of the Protestant Reformation”.
- Santa Claus did not come from the North Pole
Today’s Santa Claus is a combination of St Nicholas, a fourth century bishop from what is now modern-day Turkey, and Father Christmas – or Old Man Christmas – who first appeared in the UK as someone who would bring gifts and look after children in the post-Reformation period.
Sarah explains: “Santa Claus… is this kind of amalgamation of a very early saint who was honoured and revered in medieval times, but not celebrated as a Father Christmas-figure on 25 December. But certainly, by the time you get to the 18th century, he’s cropping up as this gift-giving patron associated with 25 December.”
- Celebrations could last much longer than 12 days
If you were fortunate enough to come from a wealthy background, Christmas could be something of a marathon.
Most wealthy people celebrated for 12 days (from 25 December through to 6 January) with music, good food, dancing, and entertainment. But there were some particularly extravagant households where the festive period was extended and ran for 40 days through to 2 February (Candlemas).
For poorer people, Christmas was a rare chance to eat meat. But for the rich, the gluttony was unchecked. Sarah explains: “There would have been an abundance of meat and breads and cheeses and pies and stews and puddings and sweet delicacies.”
- Spiritual reflection was much more prominent
As Christmas has become ever more commercial, Sarah suggests that a major aspect of the festive period has been lost since medieval times – that is, the time to reflect on our selves, our lives and our role in the world.
Christmas in the Middle Ages, she says, was a time “to think about your own life; the things you've done right, the things that you've done wrong. To have a period of abstinence before a period of excess and to reflect upon, not just yourself, but your role in the greater world.”
These days, with our high-tech, always-on lifestyles, “Christmas is no longer a time to switch off from that norm.”
At least, not until all the turkey has been eaten.
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