Christmas Day from Medieval Times

27th December 1826
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A report in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle in 1826 takes a look back at some of the oldest Christmas traditions in memory at that time. To include plays performed by monks, masters keeping open house, and the origins of Christmas boxes.

Christmas Day: This Festival is not of divine institution nor is it easy to assign the first. Of observing it although it was certainly kept before the age of Constantine. much uncertainty prevails with respect to the actual day of Christ's birth. It most probably took place at the time of the feast of tabernacles answering to our September, judging from other events on record but the season which the church has fixed upon for it celebration does not involve the credibility of the fact. It was named Christmas Day from the Latin Christ Missa the mass of Christ and thence the Roman Catholic Church termed the liturgy their missile or mass book, and among that sect, since about the year 500, the observation of this day became general.

In the primitive Church, Christmas Day was always preceded by an Eve or Vigil. When that devotion of the Eve was completed, our forefathers used to light up candles of an uncommon size which were called Christmas candles; and to lay a log of wood upon the fire called the Yule Log. A kind of baby or little image intended to represent Jesus and called the Yule dough was formerly made at this season and presented by the baker's to their customers and in some parts of the northern counties, the people after service, cry "Ule, ule, ul!"  as a token of rejoicing. The lower orders running through the streets vociferating:

"Yule, Yule, Yule, Yule /  Three puddings in a pule /  Crack nuts and cry Yule!"

 

From the following circumstance may be dated the origin of Christmas boxes that the Romish priests had masses said for almost everything. When a ship went on a voyage the priests had a box in her, under the protection of some Saint, and the poor men were desired to contribute to this box so that masses might be said for them. This treasury was not opened till the ships return. The mass at this time was called Christ-mass that receptacle Christ-mas box or money collected against the time. That the priests might say masses to the saints, and entreat the forgiveness of the debaucheries of the people at this season, and from this, servants had the liberty to get box-money, that they too might be enabled to pay the priest for his masses, knowing well the proverb "No Penny, no Paternoster".

  • The carols formerly sung at this season of the year were festal chansons for enlivening the merriment of Christmas celebrity and not such religious songs as are current at this day with the common people under the same title on which were substituted by those enemies of innocent and useful mirth – the Puritans.
  • The boar's head soused was anciently the first dish on Christmas Day and was carried up to the principal table in the hall with great stage and solemnity, a carol being sung at the time. The old song with some variations is yet retained in Queen's College, Oxford and is sung annually on Christmas Day when a boar's head is served up as the chief dish.
  • The great barons and knights throughout the kingdom formerly kept open houses during Christmas when their villains or vassals were entertained with bread, beef and beer and a pudding waffle cake or Christmas kitchel and a groat in silver at passing; being obliged to wave the full flagon round their heads in honor of the master of the House.
  • Plays were performed by the monks, the plot being generally the life of some Pope or the founder of the abbey to which the monks belonged.
  • Private exhibitions at the manors of the barons were usually family histories; minstrels, jesters and mummers composed the next class of performers who were maintained in the castle of the Baron to entertain the family.

This article was re-published in the Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier on Thursday 27 December 1827.

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Christmas Eve in Dublin 1766

An Essay on Christmas Pye

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