Christmas conjures up images of a host of culinary delights and treats to modern man; as one of the most festive occasions in the contemporary calendar, the season is marked by indulgences in food and diet that normally would be restricted or frowned upon during other parts of the year. This is further punctuated by a celebratory attitude that at this time permits (and even encourages) a relaxation of one's usual mode of eating and simply allows nearly everything that is desirable and tasty! It is a time of eating, of feasting, of sharing repasts with friends and neighbors, and of gaining the ubiquitous Christmas pounds!
Such festivity was true in medieval times as well, though there are striking differences in what was eaten and served at Christmas time then as compared to now. Simply put, there were not as many Christmas-specific foods as there are now; mankind feasted heartily, but on foods and recipes that also were available and popular during the rest of the year - these were produced in finer quality and eaten in greater amounts at this time, but there was not a specific and detailed menu on what should or should not be eaten at Christmas. Much of the festivity that revolved around food seemed to be not in what was being offered, but in how it was offered, the quantities that were available, and in the act of sharing a meal and eating together. Several dishes of healthy, tasty food and ale to last a day, along with fuel for cooking and warmth, and candles to light the long evening, was an honored and acceptable gift from the lord to his villeins. In some recorded cases, the gift of food for the day was as simple as a loaf of bread, ale to drink, and some firewood. Many lords would invite their workers and serfs to the manor for Christmas dinner; in most cases, though, the food, serving utensils, and even the fuel for cooking were usually provided by the villeins themselves. It seems the real spirit of the moment was seen in the communal exchange of food and the enjoyment of feasting with friends in front of the burning Yule Log of the lord's hearth.
There are some food rules to remember when composing an authentic medieval feast; as the days leading up to Christmas were the fast, or fish-days of Advent, fish was eaten in great quantities up to and including Christmas Eve. (This, therefore, usually meant that fish was not considered an appropriate food for the post-Advent Christmas period; one would be considered a poor or offensive host to offer fish for a Christmas meal!) The practice of serving fish up until Christmas Day survives enthusiastically today as the modern Italian-American tradition of a large and extravagant Christmas Eve seafood dinner.
And there were a few
foods did became associated with Christmas
at this time: the Boar's Head, which still today holds great
of Yule, and Plum Pudding & Mincemeat Pie, two treats also
linked with the holiday. However, these foods were also quite common
the rest of the year; the Boar's Head was found at many great dinners,
being considered an honored dish at all times. Plum Pudding would have
been eaten whenever economy and season dictated. And Mincemeat Pie
with real meat) was simply yet another medieval-style
meat pie with a
dried fruit base. Still, the medieval population found
appealing at Christmas, and the Boar's Head was considered so standard
that if a real one could not be acquired, a faux presentation made of
or other foods was more than acceptable.
By medieval times, the game of the Bean King or Mock King was old enough to be considered "ancient." This was a cake or a loaf of bread which had hidden in it a small object, such as a bean. Whoever found the bean in their portion was proclaimed the Bean King, and presided as a humorous ruler over the Christmas festivities. In some cultures the Bean cake was shaped like a crown and was associated with the Three Wise Kings.
---------- A Christmas Eve dinner and A Christmas Day dinner ----------
The Advent fast, prohibiting meat, chicken, milk, cheese, butter, etc. (i.e., virtually all animal products), and lasting a time period that included the four Sundays preceding Yule, was THE primary motivation for the festal consumption of food during a medieval Christmas. This simple fact should always be kept in mind when planning a medieval feast in an authentic manner. Christmas itself ran from Christmas Day up through Epiphany, or Twelfth Day (January 6). The rules and standards of food at Christmas time lasted for this entire 12 day period.
A Christmas Eve dinner should be composed of medieval dishes that are for fish-days, fast-days, Ember days, and for Lent. (Ember Days were four significant fast-days held during Lent, just after Pentecost, September, and in December during Advent.) These sorts of recipes are usually clearly denoted in medieval cooking manuscripts, and can be found throughout the recipe sections of Gode Cookery. Exotic and varied viands of fish & seafood should dominate: grilled, fried, roasted, baked fish, etc. with a variety of sauces; oysters, mussels, crabs, lobster, clams, and assorted shellfish (such as periwinkles) are very acceptable and can be prepared in a multitude of ways. Almond milk should be the ingredient used for sauces, as it was the main substitute for milk during a fast. Fried foods are prepared in olive & nut oils (see: Oils) rather than animal fats.
Medieval cooks came up with a variety of ways to circumvent the restrictions of a fast-day: mock cheese was made out of fish and almond milk, fish was made to taste like meat, etc. And some people relied on extremes in common food beliefs to see them through their fast: beaver tail (a high source of fat & protein) was acceptable as the beaver lived in water, like a fish; ordinary geese were often identified as being the mythical Barnacle Goose by both sellers and consumers alike. The Barnacle Goose, being a product of the ocean, was not a true land-goose and therefore was not restricted. Therefore, if the cook or host of a Christmas Eve dinner wishes to serve goose, it may be done so, but only in the honest faith that it is a true Barnacle Goose that is being served! (Imagine a platter of Barnacle Goose surrounded by oysters, mussels, clams, etc. Yum!)
Bread, cheese, ale, & wine should be included with the foods of both a Christmas Eve or a Christmas Day dinner.
A medieval Christmas Day dinner could be composed of rich and extravagant dishes, heavy with meat and sweets, and laden with delicacies and treats; or, an equally authentic way to eat would be to have simple but hearty dishes like stewed chicken or beef, or pork, ham or bacon served with mustard, along with cheese, bread and ale. The choice is yours, as was our medieval predecessors. Certainly, the Boar's Head should be included in any large dinner or party, whether real or made of cake, as well as Plum Pudding, Mincemeat Pie, and such treats as gingerbread, spiced wines, etc. Venison was a popular meat at Christmas, and possibly represented about 1/4 of all meat eaten at that time, according to household records. Goose, duck, hen, and an enormous range of fowl & poultry served in or with a variety of sauces; dishes of beef, pork, & rabbit prepared in numerous ways; rich soups and thick pottages and stews; a plethora of sweets and desserts - the list of acceptable foods that are authentic, delectable, and highly appropriate for a Christmas Feast would be a long one! Any documented, authentic recipe found in A Boke of Gode Cookery which is not intended as a fast-day item would be more than suitable.
And don't forget about the Bean Cake! More about it HERE.
Decorating the home with greenery during the holiday has been a custom since the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and has been documented as having occurred in London as early as the 12th century. The Medieval dinner table or dining hall can be suitably garnished with holly, evergreen, etc., just like today.
Singing carols at a Christmas dinner was such an expected activity that paid carolers and minstrels were often included in the budgets of large feasts. Other entertainments, such as masques and mummery, were also very common.
To compose your Christmas feast menu in a medieval manner, please visit Messe It Forth.
Now, lets see what some of the experts on medieval cookery have to say about medieval Christmas Feasts.
---------- What the Experts Have to Say ----------
Fast and Feast by Bridget Ann Henisch is filled with detailed and fascinating information on all aspects of food in Medieval society. Here is what the author has to say on Christmas:
The two longest and most important fasts were Advent and Lent, which ushered in the greatest feasts of the years, Christmas & Easter. The season of Advent covers a span of about four weeks and always contains four Sundays. It begins on the first of these, Advent Sunday, and this day marks the start of the ecclesiastical year. It is a period of preparation for Christmas, a time when man tries to turn over a new leaf and start again. One fifteenth-century sermon writer points the parallel between the Church and the individual: just as the Church makes a fresh beginning on Advent Sunday, 'so owe ye to begynne and renewe youre lfyy.'
The form of a fast varied very much from occasion to occasion. Indeed, the term fast scarcely applies to an ordinary Friday, for an ordinary layman. The amount eaten could be just as ample as usual, and the only change expected was a change in the main ingredient of the menu, from meat to fish.
In the fourteenth -century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero arrives at a castle on Christmas Eve, the last day of the Advent fast. Officially, therefore, the dinner must be meatless; nevertheless, the cooks have contrived a dazzling prelude to the Christmas festivities, working their inspired variations on the theme of fish: fish baked, fish grilled, fish simmered, fish attended by a hundred subtle sauces. The host's apologies for 'this penaunce' are mere polite pretense, the modesty becoming a winner. Fast has been triumphantly metamorphosed into feast.
Christmas was the very epitome of exuberant self-indulgence. Its various names were synonyms of the good life. Henryson's two mice, reveling in the larder, toast their luck with the shout: 'Haill, Yule! Haill!' (Yule used here with the meaning 'time of merrymaking.'
Christmas Day and the week that followed were given over to enjoyment; as one fifteenth-century sermon writer simply summed up the matter: '... in Christmasse wyke ...then there is no tyme to faste.' In Ben Jonson's Masque of Christmas (1616), one character says to Christmas: 'Here's one o' Friday Street would come in,' and Christmas replies: 'By no means, nor out of neither of the Fish Streets admit not a man; they are not Christmas creatures; fish and fasting days, foh!'
In a contract drawn up for masons and carpenters in Calais, in 1474, feast days were graded according to their importance; the time at which work finished depended on the dignity of the day. Thus a minor feast, like New Year's Day, was not recognized as a holiday and work ended at the usual time, that is, five in the afternoon. On a more important feast, like St. Thomas of Canterbury's, work stopped at three in the afternoon, while on the greatest of all, like Christmas itself, tools were downed at eleven in the morning. Although this particular group of men was expected to work a few hours even on Christmas Day, it was the general custom to take a holiday lasting several days in the Christmas week. At York in 1327, all work stopped from 24 December until the twenty-eighth, and at Westminster in 1331, the vacation lasted from 23 December to the thirtieth.
In his journal, William More, the last Prior of Worcester, wrote down the expenses for his abbey's annual Christmas feast, given to a mixed company of clergy and city officials. Year after year he noted payments to minstrels, entertainers, and carolers: '1518: Item to syngers of carralls 14d./8d./8d... 1520: Item rewards for caralls on Christmas day dynar 14d./ at supper 8d... 1527: Item for syngyng of carralls on cristmas day and to mynstrells 2s. 6d. 16d.' During Henry VII's Twelfth Night feast in 1487, 'at the Table in the Medell of the Hall sat the Deane and those of the Kings Chapell, which incontynently [straightaway] after the Kings furst Course sange a Carall.'
Wild boar was often the star attraction of a Christmas feast, and the head was brought in to the sounds of its own special songs, ranging from the merely cheerful to brisk reminders of the season's doctrinal significance:
The boris hed in hondes I brynge,
With garlandes gay and byrdes synynge;
I pray you all, helpe me to synge,
Qui estis in convivio.
The borys hede that we bryng here
Betokeneth a Prince withowte pere
Ys born this day to bye us dere;
This borys hede we bryng with song
In worchyp of hym that thus sprang
Of a virgine to redresse all wrong;
Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast. Food in Medieval Society. University Park & London: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1976.
And now this information from The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages by Terence Scully:
Feastdays in the late autumn and at the end of the year tended traditionally to see the serving of the meats of domestic animals and fowl that were difficult or costly to maintain over the winter months. Pork and goose became associated with Christmas meals. Wild pigs could be captured right across Europe and the Christmastide boar's head marked both the end of the hunting season and the time of courageous renewal in the Christian year.
St. Nicolas, the patron saint of children, was always perceived as a figure of generosity: for example, so that all girls might have an appropriate dowry to bring to a marriage, he used to distribute purses of gold coins to the homes of the poor. On (and about) December 6 households would serve up all the fresh fruits of the season, both local and exotic, along with the candies, nuts, sweetmeats, spiced cakes and other delicacies that St. Nicolas was supposed to have brought. Marzipan and various gingerbreads hence became widely connected with the Christmas season.
The prevalence of fruits at this time and the predilection they enjoyed lead to the incorporation of the sweeter varieties, especially figs, dates and raisins, into a mixture with sugar, spices and bland meats. This 'mincemeat' was merely an appetizing variety of dish whose basis was the ubiquitous groundmeat paste, but it, too, came to mark the Christmas season. Plum pudding was likewise a dish that became firmly established in the food habits of this time of year. Some cakes had a rich variety of fresh chopped fruits worked into their batter.
A major fast of the year, that preceding Christmas Day, was usually marked by a preparation of the more valued sea-foods: whitefish, sturgeon, eel and oysters. Even today finely sliced salmon and oysters remain favorite foods of this season. The feastday of St. John the Evangelist (December 27) was associated with wine because a legend held that by blessing a glass of wine that saint rendered the poison in it harmless.
Since the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) commemorated the visit of the Wise Men or Magi (kings) to the Christ child, it became universally customary to prepare a cake in the shape of a royal crown for this celebration. Originally in antique times a mere wreath to symbolize power and victory, the crown had come as well to symbolize purity and consecration. As a food, the many versions of the 'King's Cake' testify to the broad popularity of this cake at this time in the ecclesiastical calendar. Certain traditions, involving the hiding of small articles in this cake, grew with its use: if a person eating it found a pea or bean in his piece, he was declared the 'king' or ruler over the Epiphany festivities; finding a ring presaged marriage in the coming year for the finder; finding a coin, wealth.
Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995.
Comments by Francis & Joseph Gies from Life in a Medieval Castle:
Tenants on a manor belonging to St. Paul's cathedral, London, were bound to watch at the manor house from Christmas to Twelfth Day, their pay 'a good fire in the hall, one white loaf, one cooked dish , and a gallon of ale [per day].'
Tenants on the manors owed special rents but also enjoyed special privileges. Usually they owed the lord bread, hens, and ale, which they brewed themselves, while in return he gave them Christmas dinner, consisting mainly of the food they had provided; the lord thus organized Christmas dinner at little cost to himself, the tenants often even providing their own fuel, dishes, and napkins. A group of three prosperous villeins on a manor belonging to Wells Cathedral in the early fourteenth century received 'two white loaves, as much beer as they will drink in a day, a mess of beef and of bacon with mustard, one of browis (stew) of hen, and a cheese, fuel to cook their food... and to burn from dinner time till even and afterwards, and two candles.' Another villein who held less land was to have Christmas dinner, 'but he must bring with him... his own cloth, cup and trencher, and take away all that is left on his cloth, and he shall have for himself and his neighbours one wastel [loaf] cut in three for the ancient Christmas game to be played with the said wastel.' The 'ancient Christmas game' may have been a version of 'king of the bean,' in which a bean was hidden in a cake or loaf, and the person who found it became king of the feast. Many of the manors of Glastonbury Abbey gave Christmas feasts in the manor hall to which the tenant brought firewood and his own dish, mug, and napkin 'if he wanted to eat off a cloth.' Bread, broth, and beer were served, and two kinds of meat, and the villeins were entitled to sit drinking after dinner in the manor hall.
The preceding excepts were from:
Gies, Francis & Joseph. Life in a Medieval Castle. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979.
Now, compare the Gies' information with that from Food & Feast in Medieval England by P. W. Hammond:
Sometimes a Christmas meal was provided for a villein, for example to one of the lord's shepherds. In one case it was recorded that a man also received a loaf for his dog on Christmas Day. At Christmas in 1314 in North Curry, Somerset, three privileged tenants of the manor received two white loaves, a mess of beef and bacon with mustard, thick chicken soup, a cheese and as much ale as they could drink in the day. This last was doubtless taken as a challenge.
At Christmas it was frequently the custom for each tenant to give to the lord a hen (partly as payment for being allowed to keep poultry), or sometimes grain which was brewed into ale. At Christmas also the lord was expected to give his tenants a meal, for example bread, cheese, pottage and two dishes of meat. The tenant might be directed to bring his own plate, mug and napkin if he wished there to be a cloth on the table, and a faggot of brushwood to cook his food, unless he wished to have it raw. Sometimes the custom said explicitly that the lord had to give a Christmas meal because the tenant had given him the food. In at least one instance the value of the food to be provided by the lord was to be the same value as that given by the tenant. The role of the lord in this case appears to have merely to organize the village Christmas dinner.
According to the household records of the thirteenth century Bishop of Winchester, almonds and raisins were bought at Christmas, perhaps for a Christmas pudding. Apart from this there is no sign that they celebrated Christmas by eating anything very different from their normal diet.
In 1289 Richard de Swinfield, the Bishop of Hereford, spent Christmas at his manor of Prestbury, near Glouscester. The day before Christmas was kept as a fast, but a considerable amount of fish, herrings, conger eels and codlings were eaten, together with a salmon costing 5s. 8d (28p, quite a high price). A dozen cups, 300 dishes, 150 large plates and 200 small plates were obtained for the occasion. There were a number of guests - at least fifteen judging by the number of extra horses in the stable for the next two days. On the following day (Christmas Day) even more food was consumed. Over three days they ate no less than 1 boar, 2 complete carcasses and 3 quarters of beef, 2 calves, 4 doves, 4 pigs, about 60 fowl (hens or possibly capons), 8 partridges and 2 geese, as well as bread and cheese. The amount of ale served was not recorded, but ten sextaries (about 10 pints) of red wine and one of white were consumed. This is a modest amount for about 70 people.
The preceding excepts were from:
Hammond, P. W. Food & Feast in Medieval England. Dover: Alan Sutton Publishing Inc., 1993.
---------- Christmas Feast Recipes ----------
All of the recipes in A Boke of Gode Cookery can be easily perused at one site: All Gode Cookery Recipes. Keep in mind that for an authentic feast or dinner, you should only be using those recipes which are documented as coming from authentic sources; A Boke of Gode Cookery, Recipes from A Newe Boke of Olde Cokery, Medieval Recipe Translations, and many of the recipes from The Historical Cookery Page are documented, but very few from Modern Recipes for Beginners are. Be sure to check the site-source of each recipe, and if that recipe has the credentials necessary for an authentic dinner!
Any recipe that is not defined as a fast-day, Lenten, etc., dish is suitable for a Christmas dinner. Keep in mind that all sorts of dishes involving of beef, pork, venison, rabbit, etc., were very common, as well as any featuring hens, goose, poultry, duck - in other words, all varieties of meat and fowl were standard Christmas fare. Fish should only be served during Advent or Christmas Eve. Any sweet or dessert rich with spices is also recommended, as well as any of the recipes for mulled beverages & spiced wines. Ale, bread, & cheese should be a part of any Christmas meal, as well as caroling and entertainment. And don't forget: for information on how to compose your Christmas feast menu in a medieval manner, please consult Messe It Forth.
Here are a few Gode Cookery suggested recipes for Christmas:
Of course, there are many more appropriate vegetable recipes then these two; they are given special notice here because of the emphasis as dishes for a meat-day, or feast-day. Nearly any authentic vegetable recipe will do for a Christmas feast; please visit All Gode Cookery Recipes - Fruits & Vegetables.
The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Food & Feast in Medieval England, & Fast and Feast
are available from The Gode Cookery Bookshop
More interesting information on medieval Christmas is found in Tales of the Middle Ages:
RETURN TO: How to Cook Medieval
A Boke of Gode CookeryHow
to Cook Medieval Christmas Feasts
© James L. Matterer
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