Seven things you might not have known about Christmas



Hi, I’m Aleksandr Voinov, once a reviewer at this brilliant blog and now pretty much only author and publisher (and co-owner of Riptide Publishing ). Speak Its Name and I go way back, so I’m really pleased to have been invited to open up the advent calendar this year.

And while the real world is extremely busy – so busy that I don’t yet have an Christmas feeling – I always find it useful to look back in history and consider how we got where we are now. (I’m a historian by training, “looking back” is my default setting.) In any case, I did a little bit of digging and reading about Christmas in my favourite historical period, so to set things off, I’m just sharing some bits that I found interesting. At the end of the post, I’ll do a giveaway.

Seven things you might not have known about Medieval Christmas

1.          In medieval England, since ca 600 AD, there were actually three Masses celebrated on “Christ’s Mass” (where the word comes from). People celebrated the Angel’s Mass at midnight, to celebrate the light of salvation appearing at the darkest hour of the darkest date right in the middle of winter. The second, Shepherd’s Mass was at dawn, and the third, the Mass of the Divine Word, during the day. Personally, I shudder to think of trudging to an (unheated) church in the bitter cold at night or at dawn. Our ancestors were well hardcore like that.

2.        Just like today, food is important, and people celebrated according to their means (no maxed-out credit cards back in the Middle Ages!). Common to the banquet in Medieval England was the Yule boar – the real deal for those who could afford it (that is, hunt it and kill it, which in itself is quite an operation), or, if you weren’t hunting nobility, a pie shaped like a boar would have to do.

Was he wild? – Wild? He was furious!

3.          Gift giving during the festive period is actually a Roman custom. Romans used to give each other New Year gifts, and that custom survived into Christian times and was moved a little forward later on, but gift-giving at Christmas isn’t a medieval custom, but much later. In medieval times, celebration would likely be games (backgammon, cards, chess), acting, carol-dances (also pagan!) and lots and lots of eating.

4.          If you’re a corporate slave (sorry, the term is full-time employed) like me, you might feel a bit short-changed by your employer giving you only two days off for Christmas. In medieval times, Christmas continued until 6 January, Epiphany on the 12th day after Christmas – which celebrates the visit of the Wise Men. The Monday after Epiphany is when hard work began anew—it’s Plough Monday, when ploughing starts again.

5.          And to the free-time starved Americans, cover your eyes now. Our ancestors not necessarily stopped celebrating Christmas after 12 days. Some carried on for a total of forty days until 2 February – another pagan custom that I love the idea of. It’s a very attractive notion to lead up to Christmas with the forty-day fast during Advent and then celebrate for forty says right after. Perfect balance, I’m sure you agree.

6.          If you stop celebrating on 2 February, that’s Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple. In medieval times, people headed to church on Candlemas with a penny and a candle, both of which were given to the priest. People also received candles—which would be used to comfort them during dangerous or critical times like thunderstorms or even on their sick/deathbeds.

7.          In the early Middle Ages, Christmas was actually the beginning of the papal year (makes perfect sense to me—and apparently Germany kept to that longest). That day being highly symbolic anyway, some kings were crowned on Christmas, like Charlemagne in 800 and William of Normandy (“William the Conqueror”) in 1066. Having everybody important together in one place for Christmas anyway certainly helped organizing a coronation, I’d think.

That brings me to the end—hope there was at least one thing you didn’t know. And feel free to take some inspiration from it (where do I get a boar?), though I’d wager showing up at work on 2 February might be hard to explain.


Advent Calendar Giveaway!

To celebrate Christmas in style, I’m giving away three copies (e-books OR paper, your choice) of my latest historical release, Skybound (review here)

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

Which is true of the Jerusalem Artichoke?

(a) It is an artichoke, but is not from Jerusalem
(b) It is not an artichoke, but is from Jerusalem
(c) It is neither an artichoke, nor is it from Jerusalem

45 Responses

  1. Some lovely pictures to go with the spendid words there. I can see I’m going to have to work hard if my post is going to come close to being as good.

  2. Wonderful start to the Advent Calendar. It’s great to know these things for future reference when writing historical Xmas stories. Thank you for a charming and interesting post.

    • Hi Jessie – Thanks! I get ideas from the weirdest little facts, so I love this kind of research. There’s definitely a story in trying to get to Church in the middle of the night in the teeth of winter. I’d love to read it…

  3. Very nice, now I’ve something to do in December, every day reading Erastes’ Advent Calender!

  4. That’s lovely. Now, in re the boar, aren’t there some running loose in various forests? I have one in Sussex in mind, but the name escapes me. Hi thee hence with your bow and arrow!

    • Hi Charlie! No boars in Kent, so I can’t help you there. Also, bow and arrow? At the very least, I want some hounds and some sturdy guys with sturdier spears. (alternatively, let’s see if Waitrose has game …)

  5. Great post! I love the little tidbits about the orgins of holiday’s that many people don’t know or have forgotten. I find the customs of Christmas the most interesting! I can’t wait to share this… thanks Aleks!
    P.S. December 1st is now World AIDS Day… spread the world as you spread this history and remember all of those we have loved and lost.

    • Hi Brenda – Same here. I’m not actually a Christian, but I do like many of the customs (hey, a great amount of them are pagan, so I don’t have to feel bad about it). 🙂

      And – yep, it’s a day when my HIV positive uncle and his partner are very much at the forefront of my mind. So important to keep in mind.

  6. Call me stingy, but I like the idea of just celebrating with your nearest and dearest, rather than spending money you can’t afford on endless amounts of tat they don’t want.
    Or maybe I just need to work on my gift-buying skills! 😉

    • Hi JL – Not stingy at all. I already resent the work Christmas outing – I don’t want to pretend I WANT to spend time with these people when I’m not paid to do so. (But them, I might be especially grouchy… But seriously?)

  7. Great post. And the boar tradition continued up to nearly present day in the serving of a roasted pig’s head – hence this, my favourite Yule song

    • Hi Cam – I assume the head is cheaper than the whole thing. 🙂 (A bit like Oxtail soup… – leftover cuts.) Now I wonder when the goose became the traditional Xmas food (at least in Germany when I was a kid. These days I’m hearing it’s more duck or turkey.)

  8. I find Christmas exhausting enough without it running on into February!! I do like to start early – now is perfect!!

  9. Great opening to the Advent Calendar Aleks. I didn’t know most of those tidbits so thanks for the education!

  10. The family isn’t big enough for a whole pig but we’ll certainly have a good chunk of one.

    Lovely post, Aleks. I like the idea of the three Masses. I used to enjoy going to midnight mass, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had known it was the mass for angels.

    • Hi Elin – I’ll have turkey (though I do love a good capon from Smithfield Market, it’s just so much nicer). But now I’m quite tempted to look at the pork section and tell the dude that it’s “traditional”. 🙂 I’ve been to one traditional late-night Catholic mass in my life, and that was pretty impressive–though only a faint echo of what it would have meant for a) a proper believer, b) in the Middle Ages and c) under the circumstances. 🙂

      • 🙂 this was as close to medieval as you can get. Silence, gargoyles, snow, masses of greenery, no light pollution, smell of damp wool, no central heating!

        We have turkey too, or goose if we can get one, but I always cook a big gammon joint and glaze it with honey and orange juice and sing the Boar’s Leg carol just to be different.

      • Wild boar is delicious and easy to come by in London, proceed directly to Borough Market! I might have wild boar myself, thinking about it…

  11. RE: wild boars…do feral hogs count? Cuz we are overrun with them in Texas 🙂

    Great post…if my history teachers in school had been half as knowledgeable & entertaining as you are I might have actually learned something!

    Off to hunt for that boar…

    • Hi Carey – I’m pretty sure they count, so “Waidman’s Heil!” (traditional: hunter’s luck!) I think I’d have been quite happy as a history teacher – if not for the whole school system built around it. But my history professor was/is one of the most entertaining people on the planet.
      Full of stories and quirky things, so he was/is kind of my idol. 🙂

  12. I didn’t know most of these–I’m just glad to NOT be living in medieval times.

    • Hi Lee – I’d say the Middle Ages were still quite pleasant compared to the early seventeenth century (at least in Germany/Continental Europe). 🙂 Okay, AND the Black Death, but that’s late medieval… It’s quite sobering to consider that I would most likely have died from appendicitis at ~22. The last 15 years therefore are pretty much a gift from the Modern Age (that has surgery).

  13. A seemingly recurring theme in your post Aleks is time. The time to celebrate, worship and enjoy. My greatest hope this holiday season is for everyone to find time to do something meaningful, for themselves or others…or both. Your writing has given me so much enjoyment this past year that I hope you, Aleks, find a way to enjoy some down time this holiday season. Workaholics need a break too 🙂

    • Hi Lisa – that’s interesting. It’s probably my filter – trained historian and all that. But one of the strongest passages in the Bible is Ecclesiastes 3:

      For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
      2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
      a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
      3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
      a time to break down, and a time to build up;
      4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
      a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
      5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
      a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
      6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
      a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
      7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
      a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
      8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
      a time for war, and a time for peace.

      Weirdly, that stayed with me.

      So certainly there’s a time to write, and one to publish, and edit, too. 🙂 (But yes, I’m writing, and I’m very happy that I can entertain my readers. 🙂 )

  14. Aleks, a very good start to this year’s Advent Calendar here! We in far away Australia, where the seasons are upside down, seem to enthusiastically appreciate the traditional symbols of snow and wintry celebration despite the temperature in Sydney yesterday being a sweltering 38degC. (That’s about 100 in the old F scale.) And World AIDS Day received a strong local nod too.

    • Hi George – Thanks for stopping by. I know that Singapore is Christmas-crazy. Fake snow, people in Christmas costumes … and that is not really a place I’d associate with Christmas. Funny how we still cling to those customs and the way they are depicted. I mean, Christmas palm trees would surely make more sense. 🙂 All the best to Down Under. 🙂

  15. Yep, some of this I didn’t know! 🙂 Regarding the first thing, tho, my grandma is one of the hardcore ones going to the freezing church (that is 2km from her home, no less) to the midnight mass and morning mass, sometimes staying the night. Only in the last couple of years we’ve managed to speak her out of it. 😀 And the heating’s getting better!

    • Hi Aija – Yeah, sometimes the old people are the really tough ones. Makes the generations thereafter look quite soft. 🙂 Staying the night? I could imagine that’s actually quite nice – if it’s heated and they serve hot drinks.

  16. Entertaining and informative as always! Thank you, Aleks! (and I am weeping over the idea of a 40-day celebration….)

  17. Fascinating post; that was a lot of information I didn’t know 🙂 Roast boar might make a nice change from turkey – although using up the leftovers would be a challenge!

    • Hi Sarah – Just don’t have any leftovers? [NOMNOM] I’m pondering for next year maybe to get all writers without kids together in one place and have a medieval hog roast. Need to investigate.

  18. Forty days of exchanging candles instead of shower gel sounds great to me. Might have to contemplate some less-wild boar for Xmas as well. Recently I found out (or was reminded) of the origin of using Xmas for Christmas which had always seemd a bit odd – how or why can you shorten ‘Christ’ into ‘X’? I thought it might have something to do with ‘X’ being a cross and it is in a way. For those of you who haven’t been watching late night satellite TV – Xmas comes from the early Christians use of the secret symbol chi-rho (greek letters) and the greek letter ‘chi’ looks like ‘X’ – image here

    • Hi Mara – Oh, I knew about the X+P – hence I was quite flabbergasted when a Christian was affronted at the use of “Xmas” or even “Xtian” – that symbol goes way way back, like a good 1,900 years.

      But yes, sign me up for the candles, too.

  19. Lovely reminders of a ‘proper’ Christmas! Thank you Aleks; although I wasn’t aware of the Roman gift-giving 🙂 (always thought they were too imperious for that!) I still think the pagans got it right – for holdays etc – wish we could too 🙂


  20. That was really interesting. Thank you

  21. Thanks for an interesting post Aleks. I always like to see what interests other people and there is usually something new to learn. Though I am actually off to a hog roast on Thursday night!

  22. What an excellent post! I’d heard of a lot of it during my days studying medieval history (and making Christmas feasts in the SCA), but there were a few details I’d never heard yet!

  23. i’m going to delete this, because you don’t send in your answers until Christmas Eve when the 24th question has been placed!

  24. so, re-comment so you get entered into the draw!

  25. My brain is broken by the idea of boar-shaped pie…

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