What did Christmas look like in the Middle Ages? There are plenty of movies depicting medieval Christmases, such as The Lion in Winter, but they tend to depict modern practices that are familiar to the viewer. Conventions varied greatly according to region, but since this is an English-language blog and my studies have focused on English-language literature, I’ll focus on what I see appearing in that tradition. (I’ve not used documentations since this is very general information and is likely common knowledge for many of you.)
In the Middle Ages, Advent was nearly as important as Lent. Today it remains important for Christians, though due to many reasons, it is not quite the penitential period it used to be. Advent was the time to prepare oneself for Christmas and it had a largely religious function that did not involve cute little calendars counting down with chocolate (I can’t bash the chocolate Advent calendar too much, though—mine still goes up every year).
Since Advent was a holy season, penitential practices were observed, though not as intensely as in Lent. Rules varied as to whether or not meat was eaten throughout the period (I believe it was—trying to find documentation), but Christmas Eve was a meatless day. The purpose of Advent was to spiritually prepare oneself for Christ’s birth, a holy day second only to Easter in importance.
Mass was the central feature of a medieval Christmas. In fiction, Christmas is usually marked only by the characters attending Mass, meaning that though Christmas revelry was certainly enjoyed, it was not as prominent as it is today. Since medieval societies were often religiously homogenous, the Church was the central feature of most villages, so Christmas Mass would have been very much a community activity.
Christmas during the Middle Ages held an importance that has been lost in many places today. It was, literally, the Christ-Mass, one of the most important holy days. This doesn’t mean that it was all seriousness. This was a joyful holiday, accompanied by both the reverence appropriate to God and the festivities appropriate to an important birthday. Next week, I will mention some secular medieval Christmas traditions, the revelries enjoyed outside of Mass (with documentation).