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British Christmas Through the Ages: Medieval Christmas Traditions

12 Oct 2021 by Liz Tod

*Updated 21/11/2022*

Over the festive season, we’ll be looking at how we’ve celebrated Christmas in the UK in the past.

Each decade seems to have its own style and flavour, often influenced by the political or social background at the time.

We’ll take a light-hearted look at the way we decorated our houses, what food and drink we enjoyed, what Father Christmas brought children, and more.

Bring on the nostalgia!

But first we’ll hear what Christmases were like many centuries ago – in the Medieval time, to give a little background to our favourite occasion.


Christmas was a time for fun.

Christmas was established by the Christian church to mark the birth of Christ. Evidence suggests it was Julius 1, Bishop of Rome (337-352) who decreed that Christ’s birth was to be observed on 25th December.

It may well come as a surprise that Christmases of old weren’t entirely dominated by religion.

We all tend to believe that ancient Christmases must have been serious religious events in contrast to our present-day celebrations. But no!

Though it was a religious time, across Europe from the early days to the Middle Ages, there is evidence that people used this Christmas period to enjoy performing plays, singing, dancing and feasting, and the church (which was more solemn on the Day itself) had to intervene from time to time, frowning upon such behaviour!


Medieval Christmas merriment.

In the early Middle Ages, Christmas wasn’t as popular as Epiphany, (the arrival of the three Wise Men), which was celebrated on the 6th January. It was a period of quiet reflection and prayer.

But by 1000 to 1300, Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe. It signaled the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and it was a period of rest for the poor.

It was now that gift-giving and indulgence became popular – as well as Coronations!


Crowning at Christmas.

William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. This is just one of many Christmas Day coronations during the Middle Ages around the world.


Medieval Christmas entertainment.

Apart from feasting, singing, storytelling, dancing and general joviality there were troupes of boisterous entertainers who toured the towns often dressed as personalities from the Bible’s Christmas story.

They would be accompanied by musicians and often ventured into peoples’ houses to perform plays or to play games such as dice. In return they would be given food and drink.

Quite a lively time it was!


Medieval mince pies and more.

Food was a very important part of the Christmas holiday.  

England’s King John held elaborate Christmas feasts and in 1213, according to royal administrative records, his household and guests consumed at one meal, 24 hogshead of wine, 200 head of pork, 1000 hens, 500lbs of wax, 50lb of pepper, 2lb of saffron, 100lb of almonds and more!

It wasn’t just the royal courts who indulged but the wealthy too.

Popular foods were:

  • Mince pies – Did you know? These were originally made with shredded meat with fruit and spices? Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg were added to represent the gifts from the three Wise men. They were also originally made in a rectangular shape to represent Jesus’ crib.
  • Goose.
  • Venison.
  • Gingerbread.
  • Plum Pudding.
  • Marzipan.
  • Candy Canes – Did you know? Sugar was thought to be a spice and a suitable treatment for a variety of ailments? This belief is thought to have originated in medieval times.
  • Pies – meat, fruit, cheese.
  • Wine - for the wealthy, often spiced.
  • Ale- for the poor. It didn’t contain hops like today’s ale, but it was made from grain, water and yeast.


What about the poor?

The wealthy were expected to be charitable over the Christmas period and some of the poor might have had the opportunity to eat in the lord’s Great Hall on the day.

Their employers would give them leftovers from the feasts.

Did you know? The term ‘eating humble pie’ is an expression relating to the left-over parts of a deer (called Umble) that the employers would give to their employees to make pies?

And on Boxing Day the poor were given money as gifts in clay pots which had slits in the top. These were nicknamed ‘piggy banks’.

But it was a mixed bag for the poor as although it marked a time of rest and relative fun, Christmas Day was rent day!


Any tinsel or tree?

No, not yet, but medieval Britons, rich and poor, did like to decorate their homes at Christmas time.

They loved greenery. They particularly liked holly, ivy, bay, and mistletoe. Christians believed that holly had white berries that turned red when Christ had to wear the crown of thorns. Holly and mistletoe were also important to druids.


In the next post, we’ll be jumping forward a few centuries and dipping into a Victorian Christmas – which much of our present-day Christmas traditions are based upon!