Advent Fast, Christmas Feast


Much like today, a fourteenth century Christmas was a time of indulgence, although for a different reason. Advent, like Lent, was a time of fasting. Christmas and Easter were the two great festivals of the year, celebrating respectively Christ’s birth and death. They were significant events and required spiritual preparation on the part of those celebrating. This was achieved, in part, by self-denial of food. The purpose of fasting was to encourage reflection and preparation. It was not supposed to be a punishment.

Fasting was a common occurrence. As well as the two seasons of fasting, everyone also fasted on Friday of every week and on the day before particular saints’ days or other feasts. Those who were particularly pious would also fast on Wednesdays and Saturdays, although this had not been required since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Medieval fasting was a serious business and there were many rules to be followed. Generally, a fast day meant that no meat could be eaten. During Lent the prohibition was expanded to include eggs, cream, butter and milk. This is not the hardship it sounds, since few had access to or could afford to eat meat every day. Having said that, those at the bottom of society with regard to wealth were as keen hunters as those at the top, although the animals they caught tended to be smaller.

Advent is the period of about 40 days before Christmas and it looks forward to the Second Coming of Christ. During this time no meat could be eaten. Preparation for the Christmas feast could begin as early as November. For those who could afford it, a pig’s head was the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. It was usually pickled or made into brawn. If it was pickled, the process would start before Advent began. If it was to be made into brawn, the head would be boiled, and the meat and juices pressed a few days before Christmas. This latter tradition survived well into the second half of the twentieth century. I can remember my parents boiling up a pig’s head to make brawn for Christmas. Whether pickled or boiled, the meat would be eaten cold.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

8 responses to “Advent Fast, Christmas Feast

  1. Thank you, April–your research and writing are edifying, as always! But I don’t think I’d like a hog’s head for my feast. 😛 Did your parents really prepare one every year? And did you eat it? The very thought makes me shudder. But then I’m a puny lilywaist. 😉

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    • They did make one every year. I must have tried it and decided I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like the smell while it was cooking. It’s boiled so that everything falls off the bone, then it’s pressed. The gelatine in the bones forms a jelly around the bits of meat so you can cut slices off it.

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  2. This was such an interesting post.

    I wonder what someone from the fourteenth century would think of how we celebrate Christmas today?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Odd to think that the Advent fast somehow came into the present day in the form of Advent calendars with a chocolate hidden behind each window. (I’m right about that, aren’t I? I’ve only seen them in stores–it’s not a tradition I keep or am even particularly conscious of.)

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  4. I too remember brawn from my childhood, but it wasn’t Christmas fare. Traditionally, Christmas meant roast lamb with mint sauce and roast veg, followed by a trifle. Unsurprisingly, people have moved away from oven roasts to salads and cold meats such as ham. Or whatever can be cooked on the barbecue. With modern barbecues that could mean a stuffed turkey!

    An Advent fast wouldn’t be difficult here – the weather’s warming up and it’s no hardship to eat less.

    Lent is a different matter. It struck me a while back that it wouldn’t be difficult for people in the Northern Hemisphere to fast then. Because, really, how much food was around? Whereas here, in late summer/early autumn…

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    • I’d be surprised if there were any special occasion in New Zealand that wasn’t celebrated with lamb. There was a big push here a few years ago to convince people to eat lamb at Easter, but I don’t know that it got very far.
      It has also occurred to me to wonder about how easy a fast over Lent would be. There wasn’t a lot of food around at that time of year, although it has always struck me as odd that eggs are banned just as the chickens are starting to lay again. It’s easy enough to write about the things that couldn’t be consumed during Lent without thinking too much about the practical implications. Did people really just eat a lot of salted fish? Something to ponder before Lent, I think.
      Advent was a much less onerous undertaking – no meat. If you were looking forward to a Christmas break (short days and frozen ground would mean little could be done outside) with feasting and, probably, more interesting beverages, it might not be that difficult. In theory even the poor got to feast. In was the custom at many manors for the lord of the manor to feed them all on Christmas Day.

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