For those who were following the advent calendar on our facebook page, we have answered the request from some to see it again in its entirety. Please enjoy our 24 days of a Medieval Christmas!
Welcome to Lions and Lilies Advent Calendar
The Kissing Bush
A Medieval Christmas did not have a Christmas tree. Instead they hung a large bunch of holly on a wooden frame from a slender chain in the hall. It was known as the kissing bush.
In medieval England and Europe an early form of the Nativity scene developed which incorporated an ‘advent image’ or a ‘vessel cup’. It consisted of a box, often with a lid that was covered with a linen square and contained two dolls representing Mary and the baby Jesus. The box was decorated with ribbons and flowers (and sometimes apples) and it was thought to be very unlucky if you had not seen one before Christmas Eve.
The Yule Log
The largest possible log the hearth could hold was cut from a tree and brought into the hall on Christmas Eve and lit. It was to be kept burning for the entire twelve days of Christmas so that its last embers still smoulder on Twelfth Night. A small section of the last piece would be carefully preserved to ignite the new Yule log in the following year.
Deck the Halls
The medieval practice of decking churches and halls with greens for the season had its roots in ancient custom. The early Church had banned the use of evergreens because of their ties with pagan winter festivals, but by the Middle Ages, these plants had been given Christian interpretations and were brought in to brighten and decorate during the shorter dark and cold days of winter.
Letting in the Season
Before the ceremonies of the Christmas feast can begin, the festive joy must be invited into the hall. This is called ‘Letting-In the Season.’ Usually it is a ‘mummer,’ dressed in green and wearing bands of bells. Wassail! He dances his way in, inviting good fortune to fly in with him. He must be dark-haired too (for Judas was thought to have been a red-head!)
The Feast of Saint Nicholas the Bishop
December 6th is the feast of Saint Nicholas the Bishop who is remembered for secretly assisting and providing gifts for the poor. He became associated with Christmas with the idea of the wise men presenting gifts to the baby Jesus.
Before the Christmas food was served a ceremonial light would be lit. A gigantic candle was placed on the high table so that all in the hall could see and admire it. Specially crafted throughout the year and made from multiple layers of coloured wax, one for every month, taking twelve months to complete. The base was surrounded by holly. The candle was lit each night of the twelve day celebration and extinguished on Twelfth Night.
A wide variety of what we might consider unusual fowl appeared on the medieval Christmas menu, such as swans and peacocks. The cook would strive to present the birds in artful ways by decorating the roasted carcass with the bird’s own feathers.
The Yule Boar
Among the preparations for winter is the hunt and one of the favourites was the hunt for the Yuletide boar. Great praise was lavished upon the hunter who managed to snare the beast for the Christmas table, often the centrepiece complete with an apple or orange in its mouth. Carried out on a huge tray, it was delivered to the high table with much pomp and ceremony.
No medieval Christmas was complete without a goblet of warm, spiced mead. Many families had their own recipes, passed from one generation to the next, but all contained the basic ingredient of honey with added variations of fruit and spices, warmed traditionally by having a hot poker plunged into the jug.
A mummer was an amateur actor who performed in village plays at harvest time and special feasts. Often they performed in masks to hide their identity, a pagan tradition in which they were enticing back the sun to end the long winter but if their identity was revealed, the magic would fail. In medieval times, mummers were hired to entertain with religious plays at Yuletide. Using a wagon as a stage, they could move from village to village, performing.
Mince Pies were so called because they contained shredded or minced meat and were baked in oblong shaped pans or casings, to represent Jesus’ crib. The pies were not considered authentic unless the contained three particular spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) – the three gifts presented to the Christ child by the Magi, the three wise men from the East.
In addition to serving whole birds in plumage, another creative dish was the multi-roast.
Some historians claim that these roasts emerged during the middle ages, while others believe they can be traced back to ancient times. At Christmastide, a twelve-bird roast would have included such birds as a woodcock, partridge, pigeon, pheasant, quail, guinea fowl, mallard, aylesbury duck, chicken, duck, and a goose, all within a swan, one bird for each month. The birds would be carefully boned out and folded, one within the other, the smaller birds side-by-side. One multi-roast could feed up to 130 people. But such creations were not limited to just birds. A medieval recipe book Le Viandier de Tailleven (origins late 13thC, early 14thC) gave us the ‘Helmeted Cock’ in which the capon rides a pig and is outfitted in the coat of arms of the honoured Lord. And in Greenland 400 auks (a type of seabird) were stuffed inside a seal!
From the thirteenth century, the four week period leading up to Christmas was celebrated as Advent. It was also considered to be the start of the church year.
The fourth century saw the introduction of the holidays of All Saints and All Souls, followed on November 11th by the feast of Saint Martin or Martinmas. The next four weeks were then a time of preparation, penance and fasting similar to those of lent.
Yule dolls were gingerbread figures made with honey, nutmeg, saffron, lemon and currants. Eyes and nose are raisins and the smiling mouth is a curl of orange peel. The first piece could be offered to a favourite animal incorporating the ancient custom of giving gifts of food to the animals so they will be healthy for spring. They were served only during the twelve days of Christmas and thought to be best eaten with a tankard of perry!
Wassail (Old English wæs hæl,) is a medieval toast or salute which literally means ‘be you healthy.’ It originates both from the salute ‘Waes Hail’ and the drink of wassail, a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk at Christmas. ‘Wassailing’ was an ancient southern English custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good apple harvest for the coming year. Wassailing also has its origins in Yulesinging or Caroling and during the medieval period the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging, whereby the singers would receive food and drink in return for a blessing, delivered in the form of a song or carol.
Frumenty is a sweet simple dish made of cracked wheat (hence its name which derives from the Latin word frumentum meaning ‘grain’), boiled milk, egg yolks, honey, fruit and spices and was considered a real treat. The mixture was left to cool and eaten with a spoon. One of the oldest documented recipes for frumenty survives in a 1390 manuscript The Forme of Cury written by a master cook from the court of Richard II (Black Prince’s son, 1377-1390). It is one of the oldest cookery manuscripts in the English language. The preamble to the manuscript explains that the The Forme of Cury contains recipes for ‘common pottages and common meats for the household, as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely,’ as well as food designed to impress at royal banquets. Frumenty falls into both categories and there’s a basic recipe for cooking the dish with broth but there’s also frumenty with porpoise, a dish fit for kings!
Christmas puddings in Medieval England may have had the same shape and dark rich colour that we see today, but they certainly would not have tasted very similar. The medieval pudding was made with a spicy kind of porridge, or frumenty. Once the wheat had been boiled, currants and dried fruit were stirred in. The yolks of eggs were also added and, if available, spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The mixture was left to cool and set before being served.
In the 14th century, the numbles (or noumbles, nomblys, noubles) was the name given to the heart, liver, entrails etc. of animals, especially of deer – what we now call offal or lights. The word numbles became ‘umble’ and it is often used to refer to the pie of lesser value than the pie with the rich meat. Therefore, the poor would often eat ‘umble’ pie. Nowadays, if you have taken a tumble in life and have to live a standard of life you would not usually be used to, it is said that you are having to eat ‘humble pie.’
Saint Francis of Assisi performed Midnight Mass in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223 in front of a life-size nativity scene (crib or creche) built by Giovanni Velita, with live animals. This is often credited as the first nativity play. Medieval society loved entertainment and in particular plays. Christmas offered ample opportunity for everyone to become involved in the presentations, which were performed both in open public spaces and within larger private homes, with the Nativity Play being a particular favourite.
Frankincense and Myrrh
Drawn from the tale of Christ’s birth, frankincense and myrrh were prominently displayed in the homes of wealthy people during the Middle Ages. The two precious tree resins were presented to the baby Jesus at his birth and were later often placed in or near nativity scenes. Housed in elaborately carved trunks, the resins were also burnt as incense and thrown into the fireplace to perfume the smoke. Today, frankincense and myrrh are readily available at import stores and are an effective way of lending atmosphere to homes decorated in the medieval style.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Carolling, or traveling to different homes to offer or sing Christmas cheer evolved, as we know, from the tradition of ‘Wassailing’. No one is quite sure when the custom started, but it did give us the song, ‘Here We Come-A-Wassailing’ — sung as carollers wished good cheer to their neighbors in the hope of getting a gift in return. The song gradually became the popular ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ — its last verse, ‘Bring us some figgy pudding’ stems from the wassailers’ original intent of requesting food in return for a blessing.
The Shepherds’ Play
The Shepherds’ Play (also known as The Second Shepherds’ Play/pageant) is a famous medieval mystery play. It acts as a prelude to the nativity play where it becomes clear that Christ is coming to Earth to redeem the world from its sins. Although the underlying tone of The Shepherd’s Play is serious, many of the antics that occur among the shepherds are extremely farcical in nature. The biblical portion of the play, a retelling of the Visitation of the Shepherds, comes only after a longer, invented story that mirrors it, in which the shepherds, before visiting the holy baby outside in a manger, must first rescue one of their sheep that has been hidden in a cradle indoors by a comically evil sheep-stealing couple. Once they have discovered and punished the thieves, the storyline switches to the familiar one of the three shepherds being told of the birth of Christ. Although nothing is known about the author, or the origins of the play, it is agreed by several scholars that it dates sometime between 1400-1450.
12 Day of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (25 December) – which was also known as Christmastide and Twelvetide. The Twelfth Day of Christmas is always on Epiphany Eve (5 January), but the Twelfth Night can either precede or follow the Twelfth Day according to which Christian tradition is followed;
Day 1 – 25 December: Christmas Day.
Day 2 – 26 December: St. Stephen’s Day. This day is mentioned in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas.’
Day 3 – 27 December: Feast of Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle.
Day 4 – 28 December: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children ordered murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The traditional Christmas song “The Coventry Carol” describes this event.
Day 5 – 29 December: The feast day of Saint Thomas Becket.
Day 6 – 30 December: The feast of the Holy Family.
Day 7 – 31 December: The feast of Saint Sylvester. In Scotland this day is known as Hogmanay.
Day 8 – 1 January: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Before the Second Vatican Council, it was also observed as the Feast of the Holy Circumcision of Jesus.
Day 9 – 2 January: Octave day of St. Stephen or the feast day of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. In England, the Lichfield Martyrs are also celebrated on this day.
Day 10 – 3 January: Feast of Saint Genevieve or the most holy name of Jesus.
Day 11 – 4 January: The octave day of the feast of the Holy Innocents or the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint. In medieval times this was The Feast of Saint Simon Stylites.
Day 12 – 5 January: In the UK this was the Feast of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England. The rest of Europe feasted St. Julian the Hospitaller on this day. The evening of the 5 January is also Twelfth Night.
Lions and Lilies
wish all their readers a very Merry Christmas
A safe and prosperous New Year