As we enter into the Christmas season here in the West, marked especially by Thanksgiving and, let’s face it, Black Friday here in the U.S., I wanted to take a look at the holidays and feasts in the Medieval world. As I mentioned when talking about the peasant diet, peasants generally only ate meat on feast days. But what were those days?
Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not really. I kind of guessed where the Medieval feasts came from. My research has only proven it. Try as the Medieval Church might to maintain its monopoly on all aspects of people’s lives in the Middle Ages, the official holidays tell a slightly different story. You’ll probably be able to guess it by the end.
Let’s start closest to where we are right now in the year.
Christmas – Christmas in the Middle Ages was slightly different from the holiday we celebrate here in the 21st century. It started at sundown on the night of the Winter Solstice, generally December 21st, with the lighting of the Yule log. This represented light coming into the world at the darkest time. That Light was celebrated on December 25th as the birth of Jesus. The holiday of Christmas would then continue for two weeks until the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. That’s where we get the Twelve Days of Christmas. Even in the Middle Ages this was a time of gift-giving. The lord of the manor would give gifts of food and clothing and treats to his vassals and the vassals would give token gifts back. Everyone got two weeks off from their regular duties and responsibilities. My guess is that this is where the tradition of Boxing Day originate, although one day as opposed to two weeks is sort of a raw deal. I would like an automatic two weeks off from work myself.
Candlemas – Candlemas is perhaps the oldest documented Christian holiday, although it is not one of the more important ones on the liturgical calendar. It takes place 40 days after Christmas, on February 2nd and was a feast to celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple. This is the end of the Epiphany season. It is also celebrated as the Purification of the Virgin Mary. If that sounds familiar it’s probably because it resembles another, older holiday. In the Celtic calendar this holiday was called Imbolc. It was the feast of St. Brigid and very much identified as a woman’s holiday. Among other things, in the Middle Ages this is a time when candles were blessed at the church and the time when cattle were removed from grazing in the fields so planting could begin. My favorite tidbit about Candlemas is that Christmas decorations were traditionally not taken down until the eve of Candlemas. So everyone out there who procrastinates taking down your Christmas decorations, you can say that you’re just waiting until Candlemas to do it.
Easter – Easter was perhaps the biggest holy day in the Middle Ages. And to tell you the truth, the celebration of Easter hasn’t changed all that much. It was preceded by Lent, and involved the liturgical celebrations of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It represented the Passion of Christ and His Resurrection. And in the Middle Ages it was also a time for giving gifts. Peasants on the manor would gift their lords with eggs, and in return the lords would give gifts of food and clothing and the like again, just like Christmas.
Pentecost – Pentecost was another celebrated but not super important holiday in the Middle Ages. It took place 7 weeks after Easter to mark the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples. It was also known as Whit Sunday and was important to the liturgical calendar.
May Day – Falling in and around the celebrations of Easter and Pentecost was May Day. This was more of a secular holiday, one that was important to the planting seasons. It was held on May 1st and marked the beginning of summer, of fertile fields and the end of lean days. People got a little wild around May Day. There were all sorts of traditional celebrations, like dancing around a maypole, Morris dancing, the selection of May Queen. It was definitely the Merry Month of May. Of course all of this celebration and merriment came from the older celebrations of Beltane, Walpurgis Night, and the Roman festival of Flora. The Medieval Church tried to pass it all off as the Feasts of St. Philip & St. James, but really this was a time that was all about fertility and life. I have a feeling that if you were a Medieval peasant this would be the big holiday to look forward to every year.
Midsummer – Here’s another one the Medieval Church tried to morph into something else. Midsummer, specifically June 24th, was made into the holy day of The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, seeing as John the Baptist was supposed to be six months older than Jesus and as everyone knows Jesus’ birthday is December 25th. Outside of the Church this was another largely rural holiday, celebrated with bonfires and feasting on or around the Solstice. It was also traditionally the time when Healers and Wise Women would pick calendula and other medicinal herbs in the light of the full moon. The healing powers of those herbs was thought to be more potent if they were picked at midnight at the summer solstice. This was an especially important holiday in Scandinavian countries, where bonfires would be lit on the beaches to chase away evil spirits
Lammas – The festival of Lammas, also known as St. Peter’s Day in the Church’s calendar was held on August 1st. This was the festival of the first harvest. The first wheat crops of the season were usually ready around this day. Every able-bodied peasant man and woman would turn out for the harvest, helping in the fields. Then the bread made from the first wheat harvested would be given to the lord of the manor and to the Church. The harvest and the crops would then be blessed by the local priest. This was also known as the Feast of the First Fruits, and in a largely agrarian and more than a little superstitious society it was one of the more important holidays of the year. It was also known in the Celtic calendar Lughnasadh.
Michaelmas – I don’t know about you, but being a big History nut I’d always heard about Michaelmas and wondered what it was because we don’t celebrate it anymore. Well, Michaelmas is on September 29th. It is a celebration of the autumnal equinox. In the Medieval Church it was known as the Feast of St. Michael, dragon-slayer extraordinaire. Most importantly to the rural peasant calendar, this was the day that a reeve was chosen from among the peasants on manors. The Reeve was the people’s representative on the mannor. He was in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the people but still under the steward administratively.
And finally, we’re back around to…
All Saint’s Day – All Saint’s Day, or All Soul’s Day, was actually celebrated as a liturgical holiday way early in the Spring back in the very, very early days of the Christian Church. But as the Christian Church spread throughout Europe it was moved to November 1st. Why? Well, see, there was this other holiday already in place at the same time, but it wasn’t necessarily approved by the Christians working hard to convert the Pagans. So All Saint’s Day was moved in an effort to supplant the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Roman festival of Lemuria. These celebrations were to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of the dark, dormant time of the year. Bonfires were lit to chase away evil spirits. People and livestock would walk between two bonfires for purification and protection.
So. Did you notice the obvious connection of these Medieval Feast and Holy Days? Strangely enough, Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas all take place on or around Solstices and Equinoxes. Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and All Saint’s Day were all celebrated at the quarter-points of the year, directly between the other major holidays. Folks, these were all blatantly Pagan holidays. Their origins were in a time when humanity lived by the cycles of the year and the land, not dates set by the story of Jesus. In fact, no one at the time that these “holy days” were developed had any clue when Jesus was born within the calendar of the year. Yes, the Christian holy days were shuffled around to coincide with already existent Pagan holy days so that evangelization and conversion of the masses wouldn’t interfere too much with what were already deeply ingrained agrarian religions.
Granted, I’m sure the people of the Middle Ages would have balked if you were to tell them that what they were celebrating were holy days of “the old ways”, seeing as the Medieval Church was so ingrained in their way of life. But then again, maybe not. The old Pagan religions and the new Christian faith were, in fact, blended together. Christianity did not wipe out and replace old ways. But don’t tell that to the Medieval people.
So here we are about to celebrate Thanksgiving in America. Ah yes. You can tell this is a typically American holiday because it has no basis whatsoever in ancient tradition, no tie to any long-standing religious holiday, and no correlation to the phases of the moon. How very modern of us!