It may come as no surprise that medieval Europeans had grand Christmas celebrations, but medieval Christmas feasts were more than just another meal - they were opportunities to cook some of the most elaborate medieval foods. Whether it be a boar's head, gingerbread, or peacock, Christmas was a festive and expensive season worth spending large amounts of money to use the most lavish and exotic ingredients. Many dishes were filled with Middle Eastern spices, including ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, and though they were expensive luxuries in the medieval era, these spices still carry the same festive connotation.
Christmas festivities have changed greatly through the ages, as many customs derived from pagan origins, but despite those changes, there are many traditions and foods that have continued to stay the same from the medieval era into modernity.
Boar's head was one of the most common foods associated with Yuletide festivities. The folk tradition was passed down from ancient Germanic origins, and continued into Christian celebration through Anglo-Saxon culture. The delicacy was so closely associated with Christmas festivities that a well-known song was put into written history around 1500 AD, called the "Boar's Head Carol." The first stanza reads:
I bring back the boar's head
Singing praises to the lord
The boar's head in hands I bring
With garlands gay & birds singing!
I pray you all, help me to sing, who are at this banquet!
A Christmas feast wasn't complete without a boar's head, but of course, not everyone could afford a wild boar. As an alternative, medieval people sometimes baked a cake in the shape of a boar's head to make the table festive.
For those with the wealth to serve the real thing, a 16th-century German cookbook recommended boiling a wild boar's head and then basting it with wine and serving it with a black sauce made from fat, wheat flour, wine, and cherry syrup. To add more flavor to the sauce, cooks could add sugar, ginger, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, and to add more texture, they could mix in chopped grapes, raisins, and almonds.
Christmas was one of the most important feasting days on the medieval calendar. Those with the means often showed off elaborate dishes like roast peacock - usually served redressed in its feathers.
Medieval cooks would skin and roast a whole peacock and dress it with feathers to recreate the look of a live bird. The lady with the highest title had the honor of carrying out the peacock to the table.
One 15th-century Italian cookbook offered a recipe for peacock sauce to serve with the roasted bird: Mix ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. Add them to wine and sprinkle in a little sugar. Add some of the peacock's drippings to the sauce and serve it.
Roasted peacock, however, did have its problems. Depending on the age and diet of the peacock, the flavor and texture could be off-puting. As a substitute for poor-quality peacock, cooks often took the skin of the bird but replaced the bird's meat with goose, sewing a better-quality meat within a more exotic fowl.
Santa Lucia Buns
In the medieval era, Christmas celebrations often stretched on for days. As a result, Christmas traditions blended with surrounding saint days, such as Saint Lucia's Day on December 13, when people often celebrated with Saint Lucia buns.
A modern recipe for Saint Lucia buns calls for saffron in the dough. After forming the dough and kneading it, press raisins into the dough to represent the martyr Saint Lucia's gouged eyes.
King Richard of England served his Christmas guests mincemeat pies, which were then known as "Christmas pies." The association between mincemeat pies and Christmas dates back to the Crusades, when crusaders returned with exotic Eastern spices like ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, supposedly used to represent the gifts of the Magi.
Cooks used the spices to season meats left over from the winter slaughter, and then added fruits and other spices before baking the mixture in a pastry shaped like a manger. The pie was topped with a pastry baby Jesus to represent his birth. Mincemeat lovers tried to eat a mincemeat pie for each of the 12 days of Christmas, but they were not allowed to cut the pies with a knife, as it was thought to be unlucky since they would be cutting through the crib of baby Jesus.
The tradition of mince pie for Christmas continues to this day, but the pies have since stopped resembling the biblical manger.