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Christmas in the Middle Ages: What food and drink would you have eaten at a medieval feast?

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Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

The word "Christmas" was first recorded in 1038, and it comes from the word "Cristes Maesse," meaning "Christ's mass." The church in Rome formally began celebrating Christmas on December 25 in A.D. 336.

The four Sundays leading up to Christmas is the season of Advent – a solemn time of prayer and fasting. While modern Christmas festivities last one day, celebrations lasted for 12 days during the Middle Ages. Christians in medieval Europe would hold elaborate festivities with sumptuous feasts and roisterous activities starting on Christmas and lasting until Epiphany on January 6 – where they commemorated the arrival of the Magi after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

"In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh," according to Historic UK. "Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signaling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today."

Christmas feast with a boar's head

Boar's head was arguably the most coveted Christmas food – for those who could afford it.

"The boar's head was the heart of the medieval feast for England's elite," according to English Heritage. "As a desired target of the great medieval hunt, the boar was considered difficult to catch and kill, and therefore worthy of esteem; indeed, boar in royal forests were protected by specific laws since at least the 12th century."

The boar's head was so beloved during the holiday feast that there is a Christmas carol celebrating the swine aptly titled: "Boar's Head Carol."

The boar’s head in hand bring I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry01
Quot estis in convivio02

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino
03

2. The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.04

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

3. Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.05

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

The Boar's Head Carol www.youtube.com

Medieval Christmas menu

"For a Christmas dinner held at the Reading Abbey in 1226, King Henry III ordered 40 salmon, heaps of venison and boar meat, and 'as many lampreys as possible,'" History.com noted. "Henry V, who ruled in the early 1400s, included even more exotic delicacies on his Christmas menu like crayfish, eels and porpoise."

On Dec. 25, 1406, Richard Mitford – Bishop of Salisbury – entertained 96 people who enjoyed a special carnivorous Christmas dinner of "half a cow, three sheep, 24 rabbits, a pig, half a wild boar, seven piglets, two swans, two woodcocks, four mallard ducks, 20 snipes (long-beaked wading birds that bleat like goats), 10 capons (castrated cockerels), and three teal ducks."

Other foods on the medieval Christmas menu include venison, pease pudding, mincemeat pies, and even peacock.

"During the Medieval ages, some wealthy Europeans dined on peacock at Christmas dinner. The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out," Mental Floss reported. However, the meat was said to be "tough and coarse."

Christmas spirits for the Middle Ages

The 12-day celebration not only had food but also drink. The wealthy enjoyed wine while everyone indulged in ale.

A popular Christmastime adult beverage was a spiced wine called "hippocras."

"One thing that comes out very clearly is that drinking was as important as eating, if not more so," Anne Lawrence-Mathers – a historian at the University of Reading in the U.K., where she specializes in medieval England – told History.com, which added, "In just one year, Henry III ordered 60 tons of wine for Reading Abbey with one ton being equal to 1,272 bottles."

English Heritage noted, "In 1296, 2½ sesters of wine were consumed on Christmas day at Goodrich Castle: this amounts to between 84 and 120 modern wine bottles."

The outlet added, "For most festive revelers, however, including those outside the privileged occupiers of high tables in the kingdom’s castles, abbeys, great houses and manorial centers, the choice of beverage was limited to ale, and from about the 16th century, beer."

Christmas revelers would go wassailing – a tradition of drinking a spiced mead or hot mulled apple cider drink from a giant bowl and go door-to-door singing carols.

"At Christmastime, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions," Robert Doares – an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg – told Mental Floss. "The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth."

There is a Christmas carol "Here We Come a-Wassailing," which gives insight into the tradition.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Chorus:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
(Chorus)

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours' children,
Whom you have seen before.
(Chorus)

Good master and good mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.
(Chorus)

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.
(Chorus)

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
(Chorus)

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.
(Chorus)

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go
(Chorus)

And all your kin and kinsfolk,
That dwell both far and near;
We wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New year
(Chorus)

Here We Come A-wassailing, "Wassail Song" (English Christmas Carol) www.youtube.com

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