Christmas in the Middle Ages

Today, help me welcome guest blogger Merry Farmer! Merry is a novelist who lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. She has been writing since she was ten years old and realized one day that she didn’t have to wait for the teacher to assign a creative writing project to write something. It was the best day of her life. She then went on to earn not one but two degrees in history so that she would always having something to write about. Today she is a giant history nerd and a hopeless romantic waiting for her own love story to start. Her first book, The Loyal Heart, is a swashbuckling Medieval Historical Romance involving a love triangle that will keep you guessing.  Both The Loyal Heart and its sequels, The Faithful Heart and The Courageous Heart, are available wherever eBooks are sold.

Merry Farmer

Christmas in the Middle Ages


The celebration of Christmas as we know it today is pretty much a Victorian invention.  So many of our traditions, from Christmas trees to Santa Claus, are relatively recent in the grander scheme of things.  But Christmas itself has been around for nearly two thousand years.  December 25th was set as the date of Christ’s birth around the fourth century.  So how did people celebrate the holiday season for so many years in the Middle Ages?


You might be surprised to know that even though many of our modern traditions are Victorian, several of them have their origins in the Middle Ages.  Christmas was primarily a religious festival in those days, but this was an era when much of the Christian religion was still influenced by Europe’s pagan past.


Part of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice involved much feasting, singing of songs, and carousing in the streets.  This seasonal merry-making was so closely identified with paganism that in 742 St. Boniface complained about it and said it should be stopped.  Thankfully he didn’t get his way!  Singing in the streets, caroling, and great feasts continued through the Middle Ages and into the present.


Through the later Middle Ages the tradition of Christmas plays developed.  These mystery plays were originally a part of the liturgical service on Christmas.  What began with the reading of the Christmas story evolved over time to include the singing of the angels and “set pieces”, such as a cradle at the front of the church to represent the manger Jesus was laid in.  That then evolved into entire elaborate dramas, such as The Second Shepherd’s Play of the early 15th century.  This play from Wakefield in England was an extravagant imagining of the Christmas story that people looked forward to each year like we look forward to A Charlie Brown Christmas now.


But Christmas in the Middle Ages was, of course, a social celebration as well as a religious one.  During the Christmas season the lord of the manor would give gifts of clothing and food to his vassals, who would give him token gifts in return.  Better still, the celebration of Christmas began at sundown on the winter solstice and lasted through Christmas Day and on for another two weeks until the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.  And yes, everyone from lord to peasant had those two weeks off of work.  Granted, in a largely agrarian society there wasn’t a whole lot of work that could be done in the dead of winter, but I still wish they would bring this automatic Christmas break back for everyone in the modern world.


And yes, there were Christmas trees in the Middle Ages, although certainly not the kind we have today (another Victorian creation).  Trees were an important symbol in both the Christian and pagan faiths of Europe.  Evergreen trees were considered a symbol of renewal and rebirth since they remained green even in the winter.  Their boughs were hung in houses as decoration and as a reminder that life had come again.  Trees were also hung with ornaments – from the war trophies of the Vikings to paper flowers in Germany to apples representing Adam and Eve throughout the territories of the Medieval Church – although they were all kept outside.  Sort of like we decorate our houses today.


So as you celebrate this Christmas season, remember that the celebrations of men and women who lived a thousand years ago were not as different as we might be tempted to think they were.  It was still a time of family, faith, and fun.  Happy Holidays!


Merry is also giving away an e-copy of her book, The Loyal Heart. She has versions that will work with Kindle, Nook, etc.

To win, just leave a comment on this post. I’ll choose a random winner Dec. 28.

Merry Christmas!

25 thoughts on “Christmas in the Middle Ages

  1. Merry – Thank you for your interesting timely post.
    Merry Christmas to you!

  2. I would love this book so much!! Thank you for the giveaway!

  3. I love books! This would be a great prize to win! Bring in the New Year with a new read! Thanks for the giveaway! :)

  4. Sounds like this would be good. Thanks for the giveaway.

  5. I’d love to win this! I have a Kindle and love to read sweet stories at night after the kids go to bed. This sounds like a great book! momlovesdeals at gmail dot com

  6. I love books and this sounds like one I would truly enjoy–thanks for the opportunity!

  7. Very interesting! I’m a sucker for historical romance (and history in general). Kindle for me please!

  8. i just got an ereader for christmas i would love to fill it with books

  9. I love books! Especially e-books! Especially ones that don’t expire and disappear right in the middle of reading them!

  10. My son just got a tablet for Christmas, and I’ve found I LOVE reading e-books on it!! I’d love this for my collection!

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