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.