Daily Life in Medieval Europe >> Festivals in Medieval Europe

Festivals in Medieval Europe

a day or period of the year when people stop working to celebrate a special event, often a religious one

Festivals were a time of joy to all people in the Middle Ages. Kings, Nobles, Merchants, Peasants, all of them celebrated the certain festival that occurred. The importance of celebrations was found in a story about two kings, one who was cruel and made his people work all day, and another who let his people celebrate all of the time. However, both kingdoms had their own disadvantages, becoming stressed and thing from hard work and becoming lazy and fat from celebrations. People needed a balance from work and fun, for only having one would cause trouble. Hard work was important, but to have a rest and enjoy life was also important.

In Medieval Europe, there was at least one festival in each month. St. Valentine’s Day during February, Halloween during October, Easter around March and April, Christmas during December. Many holidays we have seen recently have existed in the Middle Ages. Of course, each had reasons why they were celebrated, but some holidays were valued more than others. Christmas and Easter were the most important, not only religiously, but also for measuring out the year. Up to Christmas was winter, where wheat was sown. When Easter came, it meant the arrival of spring crops to grow, such as oats and barley1. These events were able to let farmers understand what they should grow in a certain time period. However, holidays were not only done to have efficient farming, but mostly to have fun.

Christmas which was celebrated during December, was celebrated in twelve days (ending on the fifth of January) 2. Twelve was an important number during Christmas, as it was a ‘time of the number twelve’. People made toasts twelve times, walked under the Kissing Bush twelve, tables were set for twelve people, and holies were separated into twelve for decorations. People had to get ready twelve gifts which they exchanged to receive twelve gifts. Twelve different dishes had to be served throughout the twelve days of Christmas. They brought in wood which was used for the fire place, of course throughout the twelve days3.

The dining hall of a Medieval Castle would have been filled with green during Christmas. Ivy, bay, and other every green leaves and twigs were brought it. The holy was most valued as it was also used in the past during winter as a ‘lucky charm’ to bring better harvesting for the following year. Of course, each twig of the holy would have twelve leaves. However, out of all of the green decorated around the dining hall, the Kissing Bush stood out the most (there were no Christmas Trees in Medieval Europe) 4. The Kissing Bush was hanged near the entrance of the dining hall so it was inevitable to avoid it. People who walked under it had to kiss the person nearest to them. Thus, having twelve days of Christmas, everyone had to do this ritual at least twelve times. At the same time, the guests would exchange one of their twelve presents which was done to remind them of Jesus who was a gift from the Lord5.

The Kissing Bush and the exchange of presents was a sign of love in Christmas. That love was not only shown to humans, but also was shown to nature. The act of decorating the dining hall with green was to pray for more harvesting the next year6. Not only to plants, but love was shown to animals in certain countries. For a start, no one was allowed to eat until the animals have started. Some dishes, such as pudding, had to have had the first slice eaten by the farms most favorite. Food given to the animals also had to be more than usual so they could have withstood the harsh cold. This show of love and respect to animals was connected to religion, to be thankful for animals7.

Easter was celebrated on different days each year. In fact, Easter was barely celebrated on the same day. The holiday was celebrated over one hundred twenty days and Easter Sunday was right in the middle of those days8. Easter began with Lent nine weeks before Easter Sunday and ended eight weeks later with Whitsunday. Being in between two religious holidays, Easter itself was also very religious.

In Medieval Europe, the main events were Morris Dancing, Pace Egging, and Mystery Plays. Morris Dancing was a traditional dance which was done to ‘welcome spring in’. The twelve dancers would have tap-shoes like shoes which would have created a loud sound with one step. With the accompaniment of other loud instruments, the dancers would dance clockwise around the dining hall waking up the spirits of spring. Easter, which was a festival to remember the resurrection of Jesus, was a time of revival as well, from the cold winter into the warm and lively spring. The act of waking up the sprits was to pray for a better harvest and a great herd of animals9. Pace Eggs were hard boiled eggs which were painted with plants into different colors and designs. It was the main decoration for an Easter feast. However, not only as decorations, Pace Eggs were also used as a payment to those who put on acts such as St. George and the Dragon. Also, these eggs were also rolled to under person, as a gift or a sign of friendship. These Pace Eggs were renamed in the future to ‘Easter Eggs’, a term which some people might be more familiar with10. Mystery Plays were religious plays which were done for two main reasons, one, to entertain people, and Two, to teach people about Christianity and spread it among the people. The play done during Easter was The Flood of Noah. The flood which caused deadly damage to Earth was lead to the rebirth of life later. The story of Noah was a great example of Easter’s main theme, rebirth12.

St. Valentine’s Day, which was celebrated during February, was a festival of Love. Even birds during that period found partners to mate with. Thus, it wasn’t only a time of love for humans, but for animals as well12. During St. Valentine’s Day, decorations and feats had to be related to love. Love Lanterns were a decoration which had a loving face carved on vegetables or fruits which had a candle lit inside to give out a warm glow (very similar to a Jack-o-lantern). Different symbols also existed which represented love, such as the Love Not and the Letter A. The Love not was the 8 sign, represented ‘everlasting love’. The Letter A originated from the Latin word Amor (love) 13. Fortune telling based on love was very popular during St. Valentine’s Day. Many methods existed, such as picking petals from a flower predicting if the other person loved you or not.

Halloween during October was when the existence of spirits and ghosts were the strongest. This was because the day after Halloween was ‘All Saints Day’ when all the past existing Saints were praised14. During this time of the year, children would have put on masks and walked through the streets while they ate Soul Cakes with the spirits and ghosts. Halloween had a strong image of death, but it was not only because of the day after, but also because October was the beginning of winter (in any cases, represented death). On the other hand, people still enjoyed themselves during Halloween with feasts and games, but mostly with their fortune being told. In fact, Halloween had the most fortune telling done compared to the other medieval festivals. Popular methods used apples, such as Apple Bobbing, trying to fish out the apple with heir loved one’s name one15.

As well as other festivals which were celebrated during the middle ages, many of them were related to religion and nature. Both were important to all people for those helped create people a proper life. Festivals could have been seen, not only as a time to have enjoyment and relaxation, but also as a time which reminded everyone of the thankfulness they should show for religion and nature.


<<Education in Medieval Europe<<

< Index >

>> Food in Medieval Europe>>


(c) 2009 by Satoshi Ian Noguchi

Foot Notes

1. Life in a Medieval Castle, Joseph & Frances Gies
2. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
3. Life in a Medieval Castle, Joseph & Frances Gies
4. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
5. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
6. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
7. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
8. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
9. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
10. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
11. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
12. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
13. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
14. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman
15. Medieval Holidays and Festivals, Madeleine Cosman