Historical Post: Christmas in the Middle Ages

Merry Christmas, everyone!  I’m not religious at all (though I was raised Christian), so to me, Christmas is about spending time with family, making baked goods, picking out presents that I hope will light up the receiver’s eyes, eating great food, and watching my family have the time of their lives as they open gifts and see one another, sometimes for the first time in months or years.  Even if you don’t celebrate, I would still like to take a moment to include you in my Christmas joy, as a part of my extended family.

Of course, today’s post is going to focus on the Christmas in the Middle Ages, and when able, I will focus on Spain; as such there will be a religious element to my post.  Enjoy! 🙂

I’m working with the assumption that most people reading this post understand why I would write about Christmas on this blog.  Christmas is, after all, one of the major Christian holidays of the year, and medieval Spain was a fervently Christian nation thanks in large part to the shadow of the conquering Moors.  It makes sense that Castilla, a Catholic nation who recently been under the rule of those whom they perceived as heretics, would take pride in their own religious celebrations.

Now, the English word for Christmas is pretty straightforward, I think (though that could be due to my own Catholic upbringing): Christmas -> Christ-mas -> Christ-Mass.  Mass is the Catholic word for a religious gathering or service, so Christmas literally means “Christ’s Religious Service”.

In English.

However, in Spanish, Christmas is “Navidad”.  This comes from the same Latin root for the word “nacer” (though the spellings differentiate due to the language evolving; etymology and the evolution of language is a long and interesting topic, one I may discuss in future posts if I’m not the only person to find this exciting), meaning “to [give] birth”.  Of course, in Christianity, Christmas is lauded as the day of Christ’s birth, so this is hardly surprising.  The same root word also gives us “nativity”,  and considering how popular nativity scenes are at Christmas – those scenes of the birth of Christ, laying the manger, which seem to be on the lawn of every church this time of year – this is again, not surprising.

But I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t know, or at least wouldn’t be able to guess if it were a multiple choice question, right?

What if I were to tell you that Christmas wasn’t anywhere near as important as it is now?  Yes, even thought medieval Europe was generally Christian, Christmas wasn’t *the* important holiday.  To put it in an offensive way, the important thing about Jesus was not his birth, but his death – Easter was generally the big holiday of the year, and it’s no surprise that the date of Easter was often very near to the New Year, much like Christmas and New Year’s in the modern, Western world.  This isn’t to say that Christ’s birth was just tossed onto the calendar and forgotten, but when your whole religion is built around a martyr and his sacrifice, it makes sense to emphasize the circumstances of his martyrdom, no?

What if I were to tell you about the festivities?  Surely, it’s not hard to picture a medieval banquet (thanks, Game of Thrones!), but there was quite a bit more to it.  Christmas parties, and medieval parties in general weren’t just dinner and dancing, but included theatre and playing pretend.  Those of you who have read LA BASTARDA are probably familiar with the scene involving the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, where I mention players set up on a stage, one pretending to sleep in bed while the others watch over her; another scene, where Constanza meets her betrothed, talks about how the doors open and there’s no one there, leaving Constanza fearing that it’s all an elaborate joke and that her father’s fool would show, be named the Lord of Misrule, and “introduced” as her betrothed.  Neither of those were made up by me, and both were common medieval Christmas traditions.

Most theatre was frowned upon by the Church; thespians were considered liars and the devil’s spawn, very much damned; however, as with most beliefs, there was a loophole: religious plays.  Called mystery plays, they spoke of the “mysteries” of the Church and her doctrine, and were around so that the common people, many of whom were not educated enough to read the official Church language of Latin, could see the stories in the Bible brought to life.  Sometimes, these plays were turned into entire shows, hours long, called pageants.  Common mystery plays or pageant themes were Christmas and the surrounding holidays as well as saints and their stories, especially near their feast days

Now, what about Christmas traditions in Spain?  How about turrón, or “nougat”, a sweet with origins supposedly dating back to the Moorish rule of Spain.  Turrón is an almond, honey, and egg confection, thought to resemble snow or the first blossoming of plants in the springtime, and can come in two varieties – de Jijona, where the almonds and honey are crushed into a paste, while a turrón is considered de Alcante if the almonds are chopped into pieces and added into the honey.  Both turrón and marzipan were common Christmas sweets in the Middle Ages.

Alright, I’m being summoned for the festivities, so I’m going to have to cut this short.  I hope you all enjoyed this!  Because I’m in a crunch for time, I’m not going to do my usual sources – I’m just going to post links and book titles. 🙂


Of course, what would Christmas be without a gift?  In honor of the Twelve Days of Christmas (which I will focus on more in an upcoming blog), both ebooks in The Trastámara Series will be just $0.99 from now until January 6th.  If you want to know why I’ve chosen that date, come back to this blog on the morning of the 6th for a special blog post to explain its significance!


In the meantime, Merry Christmas once again, and I hope you spend your respective holidays with those whom you love and hold dear! ❤


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