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Medieval Renaissance Christmas

As most everyone knows, the celebrations of the winter season are a thick and sticky combination of traditions from both pagan, Jewish, and Christian history. From the Norse with their celebration of Yule to the Continental Celts with their celebration of the Winter Solstice, to the Jewish Haunahkah and finally the Christian Christmas, it's nearly impossible to sort the threads of who did what first when. It has been said that it began with the Italian Mithric celebrations around December 25th, and this is why Constantine decreed this date as that suitable for the birth of Christ. But, again, like I said, it's a sticky subject and we may never really know the truth of its celebratory origins.

But here, we are concerned with what became of this mishmash of traditions, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Given the limited space, this is going to have to be, sadly, abbreviated; still we hope to do it justice. Bare with us, and enjoy.

Holidays in a Twelfth Night
Mystery plays and revelries.

From what I've been finding, in the Renaissance and Middle Ages, Christmas wasn't exactly Christmas as we know it today, but more properly, Twefth Night. What was Twelfth Night, other than a Shakespeare play? It was a festival lasting from December through to Epiphany, on January 6. So if you know the old song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" you can guess now, to what it referred. The festival was toned down, compared to the revelries that came after, in the 19th and 20-21st centuries. For most of its history, one must remember, the Church was battling amongst itself, as to whether it would accept (sometimes under duress) the Catholic, or the Protestant world view. In a climate such as this, the open celebration of Christmas could get one into very serious trouble. Still, even the rich and powerful couldn't resist and it is said that even the Florentine leaders, the Medici, were known to take part in the festivities, sometimes taking parts in the Mystery Plays, as the Magi themselves.


The traditions we know of gift-giving was centered usually on Epiphany, but differ very little from the practice we know and love today. During the Renaissance and Medieval revels of Twelfth Night, gifts were given, in rememberance of the Magi's gift to the baby Christ. Nowhere was the tradition of gift-giving more lavish than in the royal courts of the age. Those wishing to curry the favor of the Crowned Heads of Europe would take the Christmas holiday as their big moment. They would travel from all over Europe with expesive gifts in hand, and pass them into the king or queen or princes' waiting hands, in hopes of receiving whatever boon or title for which they so wished. Ah, but this generosity worked both ways, and in the reverse could be quite tricky. If one was lucky enough to be on the Royal Christmas list, one might have to be careful. The Royal Majesty could then ask of the recipient anything he or she wished, and who in their right mind would turn down such a generous monarch?

There were incidences, though. On the death of King Henry I, who at the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1126 offered his daughter as his successor, only to have her rejected by his courtiers, it touched off a war that lasted the next 19 years.

For more on Twelfth Night, see:

Twelfth Night in the 18th Century


Christmas Carols (love them or hate them as you will) came into being in the late 15th century and are said to have been originated by St. Francis of Assissi evolving from the rather drab Plainsong chants of the early church, and soon memorized among the general populace.

Manger scenes

More than likely, this traditional--oft controversial--decoration was first instituted, like the Carol, in the Early Renaissance. It's first appearance was said to have been in Italy in 1225, brought into being by none other than Francis of Assissi when he built his own little representation of the Holy Family, complete with living livestock. From then on, the decorations became a hugely popular success, among the Italians, each City and Duchy vying to outdo each other year after year. Naturally some are more famous than others. Take, for instance, the Christmas Scene set up in Naples in 1612. It is said to have been a hugely lavish affair, and would have been a wild success, were it not for a careless page or two who set the whole thing on fire, including the surrounding palace and its precious papers and belongs. Such is life. Nonetheless, the tradition has continued to this day, born from humble roots, taken to the princely and now, as ever, handed down to our yearly traditions.

For more on Medieval Christmas Traditions, see Gode Cookery's Christmas Traditions Pages

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Works consulted:
Twelfth Night in Elizabethan England

Duke Shadow, "Yuletide Revelries" Renaissance Magazine vol. 5 #4, issue 20, 2000

Lady Anjuli McDonald, "The Development of the Christmas Carol" Renaissance Magazine, vol 5 #4 issue 20, 2000

Medieval Tudor Christmas Courts

Christmas in Naples 1612

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