Archaeology South-East


Have yourself a Medieval Little Christmas

22 December 2022

We’re back in Lorna’s medieval corner learning about forgotten medieval Christmas traditions. Which will you reintroduce to your Christmas?

Lorna wears a christmas hat. Behind her is a background with a mince pie and Christmas book. There is text at the top and bottom of the photo reading 'Lorna's Medieval Corner: Christmas traditions'


What Christmas traditions do you have? Do you decorate a fir tree and put it up in your house? Cook turkey for Christmas lunch? Visit family and friends? 

Our modern Christmas have complex historical origins. Bede mentions a pre-Christian festival celebrated during the cold winter months (Parker 2022), but very little survives to indicate the actual practices these festivities had. Many of our customs can be found in early Medieval celebrations, where Christmas was cemented as part of the Christian year, but many more were lost during the years of religious turmoil and cultural change caused by industrialisation in the 15th to 17th centuries (Capps 2012). The Victorians reinvented a lot of traditions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

So, what were some of the medieval celebrations of Christmas? How do they differ from the Victorian ones we have today? If you are feeling like a change this Christmas here are some medieval alternatives, for a very medieval Christmas!

The Christmas Decorations

Christmas trees are a German tradition made popular by the royal families of Europe, only gaining popularity in Britain in the latter half of the 19th century. However, bringing evergreen foliage into homes, pubs and churches is a very old custom.

Holly and Ivy

Very popular as decorations, holly and ivy are evergreen and give colour in the dead of winter. Medieval custom was for holly to be fastened in the interior, and ivy in the porch (Hutton 1996). Holly and Ivy are present in many Christmas carols from the 14th and 15th century, included the still sung today “The Holly and the Ivy.”

One poem from the 15th century tells of a light-hearted rivalry between holly and ivy (Greene 1977) which are metaphors for men and women!

“Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be, I wys,
Let holly have the master as the manner is,
Holly stood in the hall, fair to behold,
Ivy stood without the door, she is full sore a-cold”.

(Hutton 1996; Murphy 2013)

The Christmas Feast

Tired of Turkey? The turkey was made popular in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol but had actually been consumed in Britain since Tudor times with Henry VIII having turkey at his Christmas table. However, before this Christmas feasting involved slightly different centre pieces at the Christmas table.

Depending on your class Christmas feasts could be quite elaborate. Richard II held a Christmas feast were 10,000 guests consumed 200 oxen and 200 tubs of wine (Hutton 1996). Henry V held a feast that served “brawn, dates with mottled cream, carp, prawns, perch, sturgeon, whelks, crayfish, eels with hawthorn leaves and marzipan” (Golby and Purdue 1986.). 

In slightly lower classes of society boar’s head was popular, as was beef, and venison. Goose was also eaten as well as haddock and lamb.

Other foods eaten included mince pies, custard tarts and rose tart.

The Christmas Entertainment

Before the Christmas special on tv, Christmas entertainment was more based on gatherings. Dancing, dressing up and merriment in parties were the order of the day. 

Christmas games

Medieval Christmas games often played on the concept of “misrule”, which challenged the static societal structure of the Middle Ages (Hutton 1996). Games included “kissing under the bushes”, the appointment of boy bishops, and mumming, a type of trick or treating with the focus on the “trick” part.

The idea of misrule is embodied and preserved in the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which subverts the concept of misrule to the extreme. The poem begins at Christmas in the court of King Arthur, when a ghostly green knight presents himself and tells the gathered court:

“Forthy I crave in this court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Yol and New Yer, and here ar yep mony.”

Line 283-284. (Anderson 1996)

“Forthly I crave in this court a Christmas Game
For it is Yule and New Year and here are you many.”

The “Cystemas gomen” or Christmas Game the green knight suggests is that he will give one knight the opportunity to cut off his head with his axe, as long as he can return the favour next Christmas. What follows develops into half ghost story, half adventure which plays on the medieval audiences understanding of misrule. A deadly Christmas game maybe?

Christmas Songs and Carols

The modern, secular, chart-topping Christmas songs that you might be familiar with tend to reflect a universal experience regardless of religious background that Christmas is a time for togetherness, charity and merriment. Traditional Victorian Christmas carols also have many of these themes, but the majority focus on telling parts of the story of the Nativity. O Little Town of Bethlehem, Once in Royal David’s City and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, focus on this element.

Medieval carols and songs for the most part are the beginning of these aspects. The earliest carols, mostly written in Latin, remind the singer and listen to “rejoice!”. Many also promote the themes of togetherness, and charity and above all they offer the listener the theme of “comfort”. 

A good example of a medieval carol is one of the oldest; Of the Father’s Love Begotten (sung here by the Sixteen). This is a text written in the 4th century and plays on many of the themes familiar to modern Christmas songs, such as rejoicing, anticipation and togetherness. 

For more on medieval Christmas carols, view my other post here.


And then the 3rd of January comes around and it’s back to work/school and that’s Christmas done for another year… but not in the medieval period!

Today Christmas is very much the season leading up to Christmas Day itself and then to New Year, but in the past Christmastide could last until Candlemas in February. You have probably heard of the twelve days of Christmas, these start on Christmas Day and end on twelfth night or Epiphany on the 6th January. Biblically this is a celebration of the coming of the three wise kings and the gifts they bring to the infant Jesus. In the Medieval period twelfth night was a huge celebration of more feasting, games and singing.

While we are still likely to think of a Victorian traditional Christmas with a Christmas tree and turkey the origins of many traditions can be seen in the medieval rituals. Christmas has seen a lot of cultural change throughout the centuries but remains a season of togetherness, charity and good will. Merry Christmas everybody!


Capp, B., 2012. England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and Its Enemies in the Interregnum 1649-1660.
Golby, J., and Purdue, A., 1986. The Making of the Modern Christmas. 
Greene, R., 1977. The Early English Carols, 2nd ed., carols 136–139.1. 
Hutton, R., 1996. The Stations of the Sun. A history of the Ritual Year in Britain. 
Murphy, R., 2013. Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. 
Parker, E., 2022. Winters in the World. A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year.