Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Christmastide: It's not over yet!

by Emily Murdoch

By this time, many of us may have found that our New Year’s resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, and there will be few of us who still have our Christmas decorations up – and yet in the medieval world, Christmas’ peak had not even happened and New Year was over two months away. 

Adoration of the Magi
by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 
Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or Twelvetide, celebrated on January 6th as the day on which the Magi visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem and presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, was considered during the Middle Ages as the true end and climax of Christmas, and to many the most important part. All efforts were made to peak at Epiphany, and the biggest and most impressive displays of wealth and grandeur were reserved for this day by those who had the gold and silver to spend. Why do you think the traditional Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas, published in 1780, increases the gifts with every day that passes and is most extraordinary at day twelve?

And speaking of gifts, Epiphany was the day on which gifts were distributed, alms to the poor were given, and all debts repaid. This was a time to celebrate the goodness of the season past and the hopes and expectations of the season to come. There are records in Turkey from the year 400 AD of children going door to door offering small gifts (usually fruit), covered with silver paper, and then receiving from the households gifts in return often double the value – an early ancestor, perhaps of trick or treating. Then, as today, many in the Church disapproved of this ‘greedy’ practice.

Epiphany was also the last day of feasting before a return to fasting, and many of the rich and noble would ensure that this was the most striking of the Christmas celebrations. If a lord received permission from his King, his table would be allowed to serve swan, whereas at the other end of the social scale, goose was more typical – although the bird itself would still cost a whole day’s wages. The scraps from the local lord’s table would often find their way to the tables of the poor, but it would not be pleasant eating from a modern perspective: tongue, brain, and sometimes ears, all of which would be known as umbles (from the Norman French, nomble, meaning ‘innards’) – where we get our ‘humble pie’ from.

Some of the treats on the table at Epiphany we would recognise instantly: candied fruit and sugared almonds were popular yet expensive puddings that the wealthy enjoyed. The poor would make do with salted fish, or garlic and salt if they were particularly lucky, as these flavourings were costly and often only consumed during these festivities. Gingerbread was a delicacy, and so was apple pudding, known as pommesmoile, as apples had to be stored for months. And if you really wanted to amaze people at Epiphany, there was only one thing that you needed to have: peacock. Although arguably much less delicious than other fowl alternatives, the cooked flesh of the peacock would be placed back inside the skin, and sewn up, so that it looked alive with full plumage as it sat on the table!

Banquet du paon

In some places a Lord of Misrule was elected on All Hallow’s Eve, November 1st, who would rule until Candlemas which falls on February 2nd, an individual who would encourage festivities, nonsense, large amounts of eating, and practical jokes. During this time it was expected for lords and masters to serve their own servants. Turning the world on its head was considered a beneficial way to let off steam, to allow people to test out their own desires, and then to return to the natural order of life for the rest of the year – an inspiration, perhaps for the popular modern film series called The Purge.

Twelfth Night by Hablot Knight Browne

All of this occurred on or near Epiphany which was always January 6th – but New Year, on the other hand, was not to be celebrated on January 1st in England until the 17th century. The Anglo-Saxons considered the New Year to begin on December 25th, Christmas Day, but after the Norman Conquest this was changed to March 25th, the Annunciation. This makes logical sense: the Christian festival marks the day that Mary is told by an angel that she is bear the Christ child, and this natural beginning, understood and appreciated by generations whose lives were ruled by the natural seasons, feels like an obvious choice for the New Year.

This English practice continued past the time of Shakespeare, who would have celebrated the New Year with his friends and family in March, but it was not a globally accepted method of dating the year. Frances and Joseph Giles write a fascinating passage in their book Life in a Medieval City, which includes the following:
"A traveller setting out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian year; finding himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and after a short stay going on to Pisa, where he would enter the year 1246. Continuing westward, he would return to 1245 when he entered Provence, and upon arriving in France before Easter (April 16) he would be once more in 1244."
It was not until almost the 1600s that the calendar was moved back to the way that the Romans organised it, with January 1st becoming the beginning of the year once more. It was Pope Gregory XIII who officially changed it in 1582, but it took decades for the change to filter through Europe – then as now, old habits die hard. So how did medieval people celebrate New Year, whenever it happened to occur for them?

One tradition that was loved by the people and hated by the Church was the Feast of Fools, celebrated in France and more recently appearing in the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Similar to the English custom of the Lord of Misrule, everything was turned upside down, with the poor able to mock the rich, men dressed as women, gambling was permitted (even encouraged!), and undoubtedly, lives were changed in the chaos that ensued. Unsurprisingly, the Church had quelled the Feast of Fools entirely by the 1700s.

A little further afield, New Year’s Eve was better known as Sylvester in Poland, after Saint Sylvester who slayed a dragon on December 31st in 1000. The Irish would remember those who had died that year by lighting candles and setting an empty place at the table. In England, gifts were given just as there are today at Christmas, with the expectation that giving now meant receiving yourself throughout the year. This was taken very seriously by medieval people; without a benefits system or social safety net, there was only the good feeling between neighbours and family to prevent a family from falling to ruin if they met with bad luck, and so social ties had to be continuously developed.

Christmas and New Year have been celebrated by people of all nationalities since records have begun, and yet in many ways the celebrations of the medieval era would be completely unrecognisable to us today.


Life in a Medieval City. Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Harper Collins, 2010.
“On the Festival of the Calends”, Asterius, AD 400.
Umble Pie – from The Foods of England project, \

History of Christmases Past: History Events. Suzi Love, Suzi Love, 2013.

Media Attributions

Adoration of the Magi: By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - JAFwsBSXui7rdg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons 

Banquet du paon: By Anonymous 15th century painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twelfth Night: By Hablot Knight Browne: scanned by Steven J Plunkett - 19th century printing of the above work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series and a Regency novella series published, and is currently working on several new projects.

Buy her books from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


  1. Very interesting.
    Lisa @

  2. Lol, good point, it isn't over yet indeed. The epiphany is still yet to come:)

  3. Love the part about travelers from Venice! Fascinating! (and how confusing!)

  4. The world upside down stuff started with the Roman Saturnalia, when the master had to serve the slave who could give orders(but not too over-the-top, since it was business as usual the next day). And, of course, exchange of gifts. The poet Martial wrote some appropriate gift suggestions for different types of people!


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