Advent Leads to Christmas

Medieval Dancers

Advent marks the beginning of the church year and is still considered a time of preparation for Christmas and for the second coming of Christ.  Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Usually this is the last Sunday in November, but it can, as in this year, fall on the first Sunday in December.

In the fourteenth century, Advent was a time of fasting. This meant that no animal meat was eaten. For most people little changed, but the wealthy replaced meat with fish. The fish would be accompanied with rich sauces, just as their meat was, so there was little sense of deprivation for most of them.

For a mostly rural society, midwinter was a very quiet time.  The ground was resting. Having been ploughed and sown during autumn, it would be ploughed and sown again in spring. There was very little that could be done outside, given that there were so few hours of daylight each day. I’m in the south of England, where there’s a bit more daylight than in places further north during winter, but it is still dark at 7.30 in the morning at the moment and growing dark again at 3.30 in the afternoon. On wet days like today we have to have the lights on at midday if we want to see what we’re doing. It’s not a good time of year for doing things outside and it would have meant burning expensive candles to do anything too complicated indoors. Advent itself must have been pretty miserable for everyone in the fourteenth century.

Christmas, on the other hand, must have been fun. Today Christmas seems to begin in September, but in the fourteenth century it didn’t begin until Christmas Day itself.  It went on for twelve days until the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January.

Christmas was celebrated as a feast and most people shared a communal meal in the hall of the lord of the manor’s house. They might not have eaten exactly what the lord was eating, but it would have been better than what they would have eaten in their own house. For those who could afford it, the main Christmas meal was swan, goose, beef, ham or bacon.

There would, of course, be dancing and singing. I had a conversation with another blogger about Christmas carols this week and was dismayed to discover that many of the carols I had always considered to be medieval really date from Tudor times or later. There were carols, however, most of them in Latin.

Then as now, games were very popular in celebrating Christmas. People at all levels of society enjoyed disguising themselves as part of a game. This was known as mumming. Edward III was very fond of this and often ordered masks, cloaks and tunics for the court to play mumming games. For Christmas 1347, after his successful campaign in Normandy which led to the fall of Calais, he ordered fourteen masks with women’s faces, fourteen with the faces of bearded men, fourteen with the silver faces of angels, fourteen painted cloaks, fourteen dragons’ heads, fourteen pheasant heads, fourteen pairs of wings for these heads, fourteen tunics painted with the eyes of pheasants’ wings, fourteen swans’ heads, fourteen pairs of wings for the swans, fourteen painted linen tunics, and fourteen tunics painted with stars.

In great households roles could be reversed at Christmas, with those at the top of the social ladder doing menial chores and servants taking the part of the lord or one of the senior members of the household. It was a reminder to all that the Wheel of Fortune could turn at any moment and they could swap roles in reality.

Christmas was a popular time for jousts. I’m not sure why, since it must have been very cold for those watching.


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

18 responses to “Advent Leads to Christmas

  1. I’d want a Dragons head! Christmas sounds more fun back in Edwards day!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My favorite advent carol is “Oh Come Emmanuel”. After reading this article, I looked it up to find that while the tune comes from an 8th century Latin chant, the English words were written in either 1851 or 1861 by John Mason Neale.

    Seems the English words are something of a translation, albeit, a bit embellished.

    Still, hearing a men’s choir singing it in a church, with good acoustics, it’s all I need to turn my heart in the right direction, despite the best efforts of the mercantile world.

    Amazing how the Christmas hype, whipped up for months on end, comes to a crashing finale December 25! After that, people (Americans) shake off the vestiges of holiness and hit the year-end sales, stocking up for New Year’s revelry & seemingly endless sporting events.

    How I wish we hadn’t lost the Medieval traditions. I want to START being excited Christmas day, not prostrated by an overextended, overblown extravaganza that robs pockets and spirit! Thankfully, our family eliminated gift-giving years ago, so that dreadful bugaboo isn’t over our heads. But it’s amazing how the outside world still pulls and saps spirituality.

    May all find the real spark of Christmas in the midst of refractive and misdirected hoopla. ♥

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s my favourite Advent hymn as well.

      Christmas usually starts a few days before Christmas in our house, when I put the Christmas tree up. It doesn’t come down until Twelfth Night.

      I’m doing quite well at avoiding all the outside goings on at the moment, but I am going to a Christmas lunch with friends later in the week.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I grew up singing “Oh Come Emmanuel” every year in my school’s choir. A lovely tune! Though we did sing a lot of Latin, this one was in English. Thank you, John Mason Neale!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “Oh Come Emmanuel” is wonderful, tho I had no idea of the origins. Learn something new every day. Happy Christmas to all.🎄

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Since we celebrate Christmas (22/25) and Orthodox Christas (1/7), we sorta have the 12-day celebration instead of the 3-month job. My wife is the one doing the fasting – no meat, no dairy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What a colourful affair Christmas must have been with all those masks! If only we could have retained some of these lovely traditions.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I hadn’t realized that candles were expensive in the fourteenth century. I wonder if people told stories to fill the short hours of daylight at that time of the year? It doesn’t seem like there would be much else for them to do.

    Their Christmas celebrations sound fun, though! I’d love to have twelve days of Christmas and then cheerfully stop. It would be a much nicer way of observing this time of the year, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good, beeswax, candles were expensive. Poor people used tallow candles or rushes, which often smoked and smelled foul.

      I think 12 days is good as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right about the stories! Whether sung or simply recited by a storyteller, they excited the mind against the dreary, cold darkness and the distractions of fleas and other no-see-ums.

      As we know from “The Canterbury Tales”, stories filled the wearisome miles as our audio equipment does today. From The “Decameron”, we also learn that stories entertained people trying to evade (and not think about) plagues.

      It seems people of all cultures and ages value stories. From ancient times to today, we’re always craving another! Human minds can project deep into the dim past or far, uncertain future. It seems a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I wish I could just exist in the now, as does my kitty. Other times I’m thankful for the many ways available to expand our horizons via storytelling!

      What I do wish is that I had the patience to sit, evening after evening, in the dark, while a raconteur regales with excruciating minutiae, the tiniest details of a suit of armor, banner, hair style, or other such trivia that the medieval mind eagerly soaked in. Oh, to be that patient & imaginative!

      Sure makes me thankful for folks like April!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Fasting With Fish | A Writer's Perspective

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