My novels Lions of the Grail and The Waste land take place in medieval Ireland and, as Christmas time approaches, sometimes I'm asked what Christmas would have been like for Richard Savage and the other characters from the books in their time.
Most people are aware that Christmas would have been different in medieval times. However a lot of our modern traditions reach right back to at least seven hundred years ago, perhaps even further. However, as is often said, “the past is a different country”, and they can appear in slightly different guises. I’ve written before about the rather frightening Nordic Christmas traditions but this post will concentrate on what was going on seven centuries ago in British Isles at this time of year. We are lucky enough to have a picture of what Christmas was like, at least for the elite of society, the lords and ladies in their castles, as a unique piece of writing that includes these details has survived.
The poem now known as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is an interesting piece of writing in itself. It’s written in an ancient English metre and rhyme scheme that even in the 1300s was considered old fashioned. It contains curious elements of folk tales, Christianity, what looks like magic and what may be a portrayal of an old pagan spirit of the forest. It’s one of my favourite pieces of medieval writing and it takes place during Christmastime.
To be specific, it spans a year and covers two Christmases. One at the court of King Arthur and one at the castle of a mysterious nobleman, Bertilak de Hautdessert, somewhere in the north of England. While full of legendary and mythical elements and set in the Arthurian world, like most medieval writers the now-unknown poet portrayed all these events very much as they appeared in his own time. The castles, the armour and the fashions both of hair and dress are very much of the later Fourteenth Century, as opposed to the dark ages when Arthur (if he really did exist) would have ruled.
From the poem, it seems that people in the 1300s gave each other presents at this time of the year too. The interesting thing is that they seem to have exchanged them on New Year’s Day, rather than Christmas Day. These gifts, delivered by hand, were called handsels and it seems to have been a tradition that may go all the way back to anglo-saxon times and survived in Scotland and the north of England until relatively recently.
Feasting (and drinking)
Like in modern times, it seems that Christmas was also a time for over-indulgence. As you would expect of medieval barons, there is lots of feasting in the poem. The feasting at Arthur’s Court in Camelot lasts “ful fiften dayes,” (15 days). This reflects the old tradition of feasting and merry making (“alle þe mete and þe mirþe”) right through the twelve days of Christmas, culminating in Twelfth Night (5th January) which was still a night of festivities in Shakespeare’s day.
Being from hundreds of years before the arrival of turkey or potatoes on these shores from the New World, what is eaten in Gawain and the Green Knight is different to what we have now. There is venison and the ancestor of our Christmas ham, wild boar, hunted during the day by the lords and feasted on in the evening. These were accompanied by potages and stews, all heavily seasoned. Generally, they were eating very well:
“Dayntés dryuen þerwyth of ful dere metes,
Foysoun of þe fresche, and on so fele disches
Þat pine to fynde þe place þe peple biforne
For to sette þe sylueren þat sere sewes halden
[Roughly translated: Dainties of delicious meats, an abundance of freshest foods in so many dishes that there was no room to set them on the table].
Christmas Eve is supposed to be a fast, so no meat. However as fish were not regarded as meat, Gawain finds himself offered an abundance of fish at Bertilak’s castle on Christmas Eve, some baked in bread, some grilled, some boiled some stewed and spiced. Fish is still the traditional Christmas Eve dish for some today, for example Mary Berry enjoys fish pie on the 24th of December.
All this is accompanied by gallons of “Good ber and bryȝt wyn boþe” [both good beer and bright wine].
Carols and games
Carols are mentioned in the poem as well, though in medieval times these were dancing as well as singing. While the evenings are passed dancing and feasting, the days are full of hunting and games. There seem to have been a lot of games, and often these were quite active, perhaps even risky. There are tournaments that the knights take part in, and more gentle indoor games as well. These games seem to have an element of risk or chance to them, with wagers and betting involved. In the poem Lord Bertilak puts his rich, ermine lined hood on top of a spear and holds it aloft, offering it as a prize for everyone to compete for in a competition to find who can “make the most merry.”
Generally, our medieval ancestors (the rich ones at least) seem to have put our modern over-indulgence into the shade but there are a lot of things about their Christmas that are familiar. One thing that we might think is missing is Santa Claus. Where is the “jolly old elf” in his red and white suit?
As most folk will know, Santa probably got his modern garb from an advert for Coca Cola sometime in the 1930s. Before that, “Father Christmas” as he was also known, tended to be depicted as clad in green, with holly around his head. Perhaps the most famous example is this one from the 1843 edition of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens:
There is much debate over the nature of the Green Knight in the medieval poem. He is a weird creature, often described as perhaps a pagan divinity or that representation of fertility, the Green Man. However when you consider the description of the fearsome creature who invades Camelot at Christmas it’s obvious who he is. He is clad entirely in green and gold. Even his skin is green. He is not so much a “jolly old elf”, as a “half etayn” (half-Yettin, the name that survived in northern English for the Norse jötunn, their supernatural giants). In one hand he has a huge axe but in the other is a bow of holly. He comes at Christmastime to test the Knights of the Round Table on their chivalric behaviour, good or bad: It’s Father Christmas.