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12 Days of Christmas in the Middle Ages

Celebrations after Advent: December 25 to January 6 |

25 December - First Day of Christmas | TMA Staff

The calendar folio of Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an illumination of the Duke’s New Year feast where New Year gifts are exchanged (ca. 1410). Painted by Pol de Limbourg and finished by Jean Colombe. Image and original data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y. Accessed provided through University of Toronto, 2023.

During the medieval era, festivities began in the early hours of Christmas morning, marked by a special Christmas mass that officially concluded Advent and inaugurated the season of feasting spanning from December 25 to dawn of January 5 with the last day of the 12 Days of Christmas marked by the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

The extent of Christmas varied based on one's social standing. In rural areas, affluent landowners were expected to grant their tenant farmers a minimum of 12 days off and host a celebratory feast. The feast featured pastries, sausages, and black pudding, followed by four courses of fish, fowl, and roast meats, and concluding with custards, tarts, nuts, and sweetmeats.

Drinking was equally as significant as eating. One year Henry III ordered 60 tons of wine for Reading Abbey, with each tun equivalent to 1,272 bottles.

Medieval Christmas celebrations incorporated dress-up games and role reversals, reflecting earlier pagan customs related to the Winter solstice as well. The Feast of Fools, occurring on January 1, allowed clergy members a brief period to engage in lighthearted antics.

The Twelfth Night (the Epiphany Eve), observed on January 5, marked a distinct holiday, representing the climax of 12 days of merry festivities and playful mischief. The focal point of Twelfth Night was the bean cake, a fruit-filled cake concealing a small dried bean. Whoever got the piece with the bean was declared king for the day. 

On the final day of Christmas, priests would make predictions for the upcoming year. For instance, warm weather on Christmas day was believed to foretell a prosperous year.

Works Consulted:

Bovey, Alixe. "British Library." The British Library - The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015.

Woolgar, C. M., et al. Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. Oxford UP on Demand, 2006.


Resources for Teachers:

How to cite this essay:

TMA Staff. "12 Days of Christmas in the Middle Ages." In Teaching the Middle Age, December 25, 2023.

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