Long before Santa Claus, his reindeer, the celebration of gift giving and Christmas trees, people in medieval Europe celebrated the Christmas season with 12 days of feasting, raucous behavior ending with the Twelfth Night and the crowning of a “King of Misrule.”
Christmas in the Middle Ages was preceded by the month-long fast of Advent, during which Christians avoided rich foods and overindulgence. Beginning the morning of December 25, a period that ran from the 5th century A.D. to 1500 A.D.
Once Christmas Day came around, one was expected to eat, drink, be merry, dress up, play games, go dancing around the neighborhood for 12 days solid before you collapsed.
In the Middle Ages, the holiday began before dawn on Christmas morning with a special Christmas mass the ending of Advent and the start of the feasting season, which ran from December 25 through January 5th.The degree of Christmas decadence depended on social status, most people would at least have a pig slaughtered in November and salted and smoked in preparation for Christmas bacon and hams.
In the countryside, wealthy lords of the manor were expected to give their tenant farmers at least 12 days off from their labors serve them a festive meal. Exactly what was on the menu, is hard to know but what has been identified is in general the courses of a “special feast.” The meal began with a course of pasties, sausages and black pudding; then four courses of fish, fowl and roast meats; and a final course of custards, tarts, nuts and sweetmeats.
Drinking was as important as eating, ale and spiced cider were the drinks of commoners. The lords and royalty guzzled wine in quantity. One year, Henry III ordered 60 tons of wine for Reading Abbey.
Mumming was a popular Christmas pastime in medieval English villages. Mummers would dress up in animal masks or disguise themselves as women, and then go door-to-door singing festive folk songs and telling jokes.
The animal masks may have been related to another strange Christmas tradition practiced by the royalty, in which revelers would parade through the feasting hall wearing whole animal’s heads (cooked, so you eat your way out) and singing special songs like “Christmas is Coming” by Miss Piggy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeOAF44MYHk .
“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office and whose weird behavior overshadowed that of the laypeople … They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs.
The centerpiece of Twelfth Night was the bean cake, a rich fruit-filled cake in which a tiny, dried bean was hidden. “Whoever got the slice of cake with the bean in it was ‘king’ for the night and could give people silly forfeits [penalties] which they had to obey.
Twelfth Night was the climax of the nearly two weeks of feasting, drinking, dressing up and rule-breaking that characterized medieval Christmas.