At Badger Creek, we spend the warmer months at Renaissance Faires. We celebrate the culture and spirit of the times. During the winter, I turned my thoughts to how Christmas was celebrated then, and what a traditional renaissance Christmas was like. Enjoy a brief history of a Renaissance Christmas.
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A Brief History
Christmas was first celebrated in Rome in 336 AD. Before that, there were already winter celebrations occurring in various cultures celebrating light, or the return of the sun. In Scandanavia they celebrated Yule by gathering large logs and feasting until they burned out, which could take up to 12 days. In much of Europe, the winter months were the perfect time to celebrate because the cattle were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to feed them all year, and the wine they fermented was finally ready to drink.
The celebration as we know it was actually reintroduced in the 1800s after being canceled in the 17th central during a period of religious reform. But In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. Many of the traditions that are commonly celebrated were written into being in these stories.
A Renaissance Christmas
In between the winter solstice celebrations and the introduction of the traditional Christmas in the 19th century, there is a Renassaince Christmas. This was a celebration that lasted from December 25th- January 6th. It is sometimes referred to as the Twelfth Night celebration. Gifts were traditionally given on the final day of the celebration.
If you think American Christmas dinners are extravagant, you wouldn’t like to be in charge of a Renassaince Christmas meal. In a cookbook of the times, chef Robert May recorded “A Bill of fare for Christmas Day and how to set the meat in order.” His suggested meal includes 39 dishes split over two courses. The dishes suggested included a large variety of protein from pork, beef, goose, lark, pheasant, venison, oysters, swan, and woodcock, and many pastries too. These types of feasts however were reserved for royalty, and the traditional meals looked much different in most homes.
Many of the traditions that we celebrate today did start in 16th century England. During this period many of our Christmas carols were created. And the tradition of caroling came with it. Decorating with evergreen boughs (deck the halls with boughs of holly!) was popularized at this time. And along with that came the introduction of the Christmas tree. The tree was decorated with ribbons and was a beautiful sight for all during the celebration. The tradition of mistletoe and kissing under it began to be common during this time period. And that is thanks to Norse mythology.
The Yule Log was a vital part of a Renassaince Christmas. It wasn’t the small log we think of today. It was a large log that was expected to burn for twelve days. During this time all work was expected to stop and not resume until the first Monday, or Plough Monday after the Twelfth Night celebration. The majority of the population were laborers, so this break was welcome and widely celebrated. People would take the time to visit with neighbors, share meals and enjoy each other company.
During the holidays, we hope you take the same much-needed break to spend time with your friends, neighbors, and families. You might not have minced pies. But you may sing a carol or two beside a Christmas tree or in front of a yule log fire. Until we see you again at the Faires in the New Year, we wish you a Merry Renessaince Christmas.