Weird History
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How to Celebrate Christmas Like a Medieval King

Updated October 13, 2018 7.5k views10 items

Christmas in the Middle Ages didn't just last a day, sometimes it lasted for weeks. From early December to January - even early February - people in the Middle Ages celebrated the holiday with feasts, music, and, of course, religious ceremonies. 

Medieval Christmas celebrations included a ton of fun games (like having a poor guy turn into a king for a few days), singing songs while imbibing mead and honey wine, eating everything from a boar to a peacock, and enjoying masques and plays galore. Some of the rich holiday traditions from medieval Christmas celebrations are still found in our society today. 

  • Crown Yourself a King

    Photo: Frank Kehren / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    December 25 wasn't only an occasion to celebrate the birth of Jesus - it was also Coronation Day for a number of medieval monarchs, helping support the idea of the Divine Right of Kings and legitimize monarchical rule. 

    Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on that day in 800 CE. Pope Leo III gave him the honor to gain secular protection, to lead Western Christendom, and to compete with the Byzantines. On Christmas Day 1000, Stephen I of Hungary (later known as St. Stephen) made himself the first Christian king of Hungary with a papally sanctioned crown.

    Sixty-plus years later, William, Duke of Normandy (aka "the Conqueror"), was named ruler of England on Christmas Day. Perhaps most aptly in 1100, the French nobleman Baldwin of Bolougne was crowned King of Jerusalem in Bethlehem, Jesus's reputed birthplace, on December 25.

  • Become the Lord of Misrule - And Boss Everyone, Including the King, Around

    Meet the Lord of Misrule, the master of mischief during medieval British Christmas celebrations. Also known as the Abbot of Unreason to the Scots, the Lord of Misrule - who could be from any class, from noble to peasant - presided over holiday revelries. Sort of like a "king for a day," this individual commanded all the high-ranking folks to get silly, chug ale and mead, and commanded the Christmas court festivities, becoming a "mock king" for a short while. Social order might have been inverted, but it was a whole lot of fun.

    How did someone choose the Lord of Misrule? It varied from kingdom to kingdom. Some would be appointed, while others chose random methods. At Christmas banquest, a bean would be baked into a cake, and the first person to find the bean in their slice would receive the honor of the feast. 

  • Pig Out on Peacock and Mince Pies

    After fasting for a month before the Christmas season as part of the Advent, you'd feast! Mince pies might not be popular in America, but they were (and still are) all the rage in Britain. Also called "Christmas pie," they contained "minced," or "shredded," leftover meat  of all kinds, from goose to lamb. The pies also had tons of spices, symbolic of the Magi, and a good amount of fruit.

    At the center of a royal or noble Christmas table would be a fancy creature, hunted and killed, then served in its own skin or feathery garb. For example, the meat of a swan or peacock would be roasted, then stuffed back into its glorious plumage and put in the center of the Christmas table. Talk about a gamey treat.

  • Slaughter a Boar Like a College Student

    Consuming a boar's head was customary during Christmas feasts, but where did the tradition come from? You can thank a university student from Queen's College, Oxford. Legend has it that a wild boar haunted the woods near Oxford, and one careless student, who was reading Aristotle, wound up wandering into the forest.

    Challenged by the beast, he took the logical approach and didn't panic, killing the boar by shoving the book into its throat. Allegedly, he shouted, "With the compliments of the Greeks!" as he did so. He then cut off its head to get his book back. Ever since, a boar has been served at Oxford Christmas celebrations, and there's even a Christmas carol devoted to this occasion.