A Medieval Christmas

Medieval Christmas
24 December 2017 0 Comment

Believing in God and the Devil for that matter was real for Medieval Europe while in the Renaissance period such devotion was optional. Many of our Christmas traditions were born in medieval times and none more enduring than the nativity scene. The tradition of making a crib (crèches) or nativity scene has been traced back to St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 constructed one in a cave in the town of Greccio and held Christmas Eve mass and a nativity pageant there. References to the presepi (nativity scene) date to 1272 in Rome and 1343 in Naples, with the practice spreading to other parts of Europe throughout the later Middle Ages.

Up to the sixteenth-century the presepi would consist of three figures – the baby in the crib and two beasts who kept him warm. These were placed next to the altar where Mass was celebrated. By the end of the Middle Ages the figures of Mary and Joseph were introduced, and gradually the nativity scene became more complex by adding the adoration of the shepherds, making some of the figures moveable and including music.

A Medieval Christmas Feast

Food glorious food was in abundance in rural Medieval Europe over the winter months after the crops had been harvested and there would be little to do on a farm. If animals were not to be kept over the winter, it was also a good time for them to be slaughtered for their food. This could leave a bounty of food that would make Christmas the perfect time to hold a feast.

While royalty and the aristocracy indulged themselves with feasts of gargantuan proportions feasts were also held among the peasants, and manorial customs sometimes revealed that the local lord would supply the people with special food for Christmas. For example, in the 13th century a shepherd on a manor in Somerset was entitled to a loaf of bread and a dish of meat on Christmas Eve, while his dog would get a loaf on Christmas Day. Another three tenants on the same manor would share two loaves of bread, a mess of beef and of bacon with mustard, one chicken, cheese, fuel for cooking and as much beer as they could drink during the day.

For a fliting moment over Christmas life was good in Medieval Europe unless of course you lived in Scandinavia and parts of Germany?

Where Evil Lurked at Christmas?

From Christmas Eve until the Twelfth Night, young men in northern parts of Europe would go about in the middle of the night scaring people in the streets or in their farms. They would be wearing frightening masks, and would be “disguised according to the old fashion of the devil.” During these long, dark nights the young yule mummers would try to scare people by pretending to act like ghosts, trolls or other strange creatures.

There was none more cruel, frightening and ancient than Frau Perchta, part of the mysterious folklore of Bavaria and Austria, Perchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. If they had, they might find a small silver coin next day, in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year.[9] She would also slit people's bellies open and stuff them with straw if they ate something on the night of her feast day other than the traditional meal of fish and gruel.

And so this is Christmas? Such stories are still believed in various parts of Europe today and it would be a wise person to have his family locked away safely in the house warm and cosy before night falls and where Christmas might turn into your worst nightmare.


Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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