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Medieval Holidays & Feast Days

While medieval people, especially the working classes, worked extremely hard and had a life harder than ours today, they enjoyed almost 60 holy days a year.

Many of these had specific traditions and customs, foods and games to celebrate them. Most of these were religious, although many were old pagan feasts which were blended into the Christian calender. In spite of this, many of the old customs associated with these days remained.

A selection of popular feast days and the food and activities associated with them are listed below. This list does not include every celebration, merely the biggest events of the medieval calendar.

Feb 2 Candlemas - Feast of the Purification of Mary
Feb 14
St Valentine's Day
Mar 21
Ostara -Lady Day
Last before Lent - Shrove Tuesday - Mardigras
Mar 22 - Apr 25
Easter - Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday
Apr 30 - May 1
Beltane - May Day - Roodmas
Jun 14-21
Midsummer's Eve - Midsumer - Summer Solstice - Feast of St. John the Baptist
July 15
St. Swithin's Day
Jul 31
Lughnasadh - Lammas
Sept 21
Mabon - Autumn Equinox - Second Harvest Festival - Wine Harvest - Feast of Avalon - Equinozio di Autunno (Strega) - Alben Elfed (Caledonii) - Cornucopia - Winter Finding
Sept 29
Michealmas - Festival of St. Michael the Archangel
Oct 31
All Hallow's Eve - Hallowe'en
Nov 1
All Saint's Day - All Soul's Day - Samhain
Nov 11
Dec 6
St Nicholas Day
Dec 21
Yule - Solstice
Dec 25
Christmas Day
Dec 26
St Stephen's Day


February 2
Candlemas - the Feast of the Purification of Mary

Candlemas is named after a tradition of holding candlelit processions on this day. The priest would also bless candles on this day to be taken away people, which were believed to be helpful in times of illness.

The candles would be decorated and kept throughout the year to be burned as protection against storms and sickness. This is approximately the halfway mark between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.

Medieval Englishmen and women saw Candlemas as the approach of spring. In some places, a tradition similar to groundhog day is performed, but in this case, a bear comes out of his cave. If he turns around and goes back to his cave, winter will continue.

February 14
St Valentine's Day

Traditionally a day to celebrate love.

March 21
Ostara - Spring - The Vernal Equinox - Lady Day

Ostara is sacred to Eostre the Saxon Lunar Goddess of fertility, from where the word estrogen is derived. Her two symbols were the egg and the rabbit.

The Christian religion adopted these emblems for Easter which is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.

The theme of the conception of the goddess was adapted as the Feast of the Annunciation, occurring on the alternative fixed calendar date of March 25 old Lady Day, the earlier date of the equinox. Lady Day may also refer to other goddesses such as Venus and Aphrodite, many of whom have festivals celebrated around this time.

Traditional foods of the season include leafy green vegetables, dairy foods, nuts such as pumpkin, sunflower and pine, flower dishes, sprouts.

Herbs and flowers of the season include daffodil, jonquils, woodruff, violet, gorse, olive, peony, iris, narcissus and all other spring flowers.

Carnival - Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday - Shrove Tuesday
Carnival is celebrated on the the last day of the year before Lent and it was celebrated with great enthusiasm.

The name derives from carnelevare, the Latin word meaning giving up meat.

It was also called Fat Tuesday because all meat and animal products- cheese, milk, bacon and fat, had to be eaten before sundown, since none could be consumed during the forty-day Lenten fast. This holiday was marked by wild revelling.

Masks were worn to protect everyone's identity. The processions and parades often featured male exhibitionism, transvestitism and simulated copulation. These features of Carnival survive today in such traditions as the Mardi Gras in Latin America.

Easter Week - Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday
Easter week begins with Palm Sunday, when the faithful would bring 'palm leaves' (usually yew, willow or box) or rushes into the church to recall Christ's procession into Jerusalem.

Great acts of charity were often done on Maundy Thursday, and a special Mass was held where all the candles were symbolically extinguished one by one during the liturgy to symbolize the coming darkness of the Crucifixion.

The week culminated in Easter, the greatest feast day of the medieval calendar which fell between March 22 and April 25. Easter was the most important holy day of the year and could fall anywhere from March 22 (the spring equinox) to April 25.

The English name for Easter comes from the Old Norse, Eostur, meaning the time when the sun began to grow warmer. Eostre was the goddess of fertility whose two symbols were the egg and the rabbit. The Christian religion adopted these emblems for Easter.

A festival at the time of the spring equinox was common to most of Europe to celebrate the new life returning to the earth. Though it was not uncommon for tenant farmers to still be required to put in their work on the lord's farm on most feast days, Easter was a notable exception.

The feast was taken very seriously, and all work stopped- even kings and judicial courts. This was to ensure that everyone would be in church - the one time of year when this was essential.

April 30 - May1
Beltane - Roodmas - May Day

Although Beltane is now usually celebrated from sundown April 30th to sundown on the first of May, it should be noted that in earlier times, before the calendar changes of 1752, all dates year-round would have come some days later.

Beltane means fire of Bel- Belinos, being one name for the Sun God, whose coronation feast was celebrated at this time. In old Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods A-Maying and then dance around the maypole the next morning.

Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings and the restrictions they imply, for this one night. An alternative date is around May 5 (Old Beltane), when the sun reaches 15 degrees.

Many people would rise at the first light of dawn to go outdoors and gather flowers and branches to decorate their homes.

Women traditionally would braid flowers into their hair. Men and women alike would decorate their bodies. Breads and cereals are popular, oatmeal cakes or cookies sweetened with a dab of honey.

May 1
May Day - the Festival of Sts. Philip and Jacob the Apostles

The celebrations reflect a theme of fertility appropriate to what was considered to be the first day of summer. As well as the maypoles, gathering of flowers and forays into the woods, even by town-dwellers, there were numerous traditions which varied with the district.

The gathering of hawthorn or 'may' blossoms seems to have been very widespread. Popular Mayday games include storytelling (Robin Hood, a popular theme), jestering, juggling, Morris-dancing, horseplay, mock-tourney with hobbyhorses, and quintain.

The custom of placing a cabbage on the doorstep of girls who had behaved imprudently through the year was a more novel method of social control. Regardless of the care they may have undertaken with their flirtations and indiscretions, they were surely to be found out on Mayday.

June 14 - 21
Midsummer's Eve - Midsummer - Summer Solstice -
Feast of St. John the Baptist

Midsummer was the culmination of this festive season. Popular activities were huge bonfires, staying up the whole night on Midsummer's Eve, parades and military displays and processions.

On this longest day of the year, light was abundant.

The Christian religion converted this day of Jack-in-the-Green to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, often portraying him in rustic clothing, sometimes with cloven feet and horns.

The alternative fixed calendar date of June 25 (Old Litha) The name Beltane is sometimes incorrectly assigned to this holiday.

Traditional foods served at this time include garden fresh fruits and vegetables. Decorative herbs and flowers associated with Midsummer include mugwort, wild thyme, vervain, lavender, ivy, yarrow, fern, chamomile, rose, honeysuckle, lily, oak, elder, daisy and carnation.

15th July
St. Swithin's Day

Legend says that on this day, the bones of St Swithin were moved and after the ceremony it began to rain and continued to do so for forty days.

July 31
Lughnasadh - Lammas

Lughnasadh means the funeral games of Lugh (pronounced Loo), referring to the Irish sun god. However, the funeral is not his own, but the funeral games he hosts in honor of his foster-mother Tailte. For that reason, the traditional Tailtean craft fairs and Tailtean marriages (which last for a year and a day) are celebrated at this time.

This day originally coincided with the first reaping of the harvest. It was known as the time when the plants of spring wither and drop their fruits or seeds for our use as well as to ensure future crops.

The Christian religion adopted this theme and called it 'Lammas', meaning 'loaf-mass,' a time when newly baked loaves of bread are placed on the altar.

An alternative date around August 5 (Old Lammas), is when the sun reaches 15 degrees.

Foods traditionally served at this time include apples, grapes, crab-apples, pears, grains, breads and berries. Herbs and flowers favoured for the celebration include all grains, heather, blackberries and sloe.

September 21
Mabon - Second Harvest Festival - Wine Harvest - Feast of Avalon - Equinozio di Autunno (Strega) - Alben Elfed (Caledonii) - Cornucopia - Winter Finding.

Mabon is the Autumn Equinox which divides the day and night equally.

The Druids call this celebration Mea'n Fo'mhair and honor the The Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering ciders, wines, herbs and fertilizer to trees.

The Teutonic name, Winter Finding, spans a period of time from the Sabbat to Oct. 15th, Winter's Night, which is the Norse New Year.

Symbols of Mabon include wine, gourds, pine cones, acorns, grains, corn, apples, pomegranates, ivy vines, dried seeds, tobacco, and horns of plenty. Herbs and foods associated with Mabon include acorns, benzoin, ferns, grains, honeysuckle, marigold, milkweed, myrrh, passionflower, rose, sage, Solomon's seal, thistle, vegetables, breads, nuts, apples, pomegranates, potatoes, carrots, and onions.

September 29
Michaelmas - Festival of St. Michael the Archangel

This feast marked the sowing of wheat, the brewing of ales for winter and the preparations for the winter season. The feast of St. Michael and All Angels or Michaelmas fell about the time of the autumnal equinox.

St. Michael came to be seen as the protector against the forces of the dark. Many monasteries and churches were dedicated to him, usually on high places near the sea.

His feast was celebrated with a traditional well-fattened goose which had fed well on the stubble of the fields after the harvest. In many places, there was also a tradition of special large loaves of bread.

October 31
All Hallows' Eve - Hallowe'en

Hallowe'en or All Hallows Eve is the evening before All Hallows' or All Saints' Day, and was considered to be a time when the ghosts of the dead walked amongst the living.

The Celtic peoples celebrated the festival of Samhain at the beginning of the dark half of the year, about November 1. The Church retained the celebration, but gave it a Christian significance by changing the focus to honour all the saints, both known and unknown. This became known as All Saints' or All Hallows' Day.

Bonfires were lit and fortune-telling were popular activities. Mask wearing was also part of the celebrations.

People were very superstitious, believing in the power of demons and ghosts. The Church was concerned that dressing up as these figures would give the demons and ghosts extra power. It was believed that by making them the figures of fun and ridicule, demons and ghosts began to lose their strength over the lives of the people.

November 1
All Soul's Day

All Souls Day was a day to pray for the souls all the dead following All Hallow's Eve. It was filled with prayer and thoughts turned to those departed recently and long ago.

Masses were said for the souls of those who had already passed hoping to shorten their stay in purgatory.

November 11
Martinmas - Feast of St. Martin of Tours

Martinmas was immediately followed by the beginning of Advent, 40 days of reflection and penance in preparation for the great feast of Christmas.

The festivities were similar to those of Carnival, just before Lent, though on a smaller scale. There was much feasting, drinking and playing of games, as well as story telling and sometimes, plays.

Cock fights, pig baiting and sport events such as racing, leaping or wrestling were other favourite activities.

Food was plentiful right after the harvest. Meat, from the autumn slaughter of those animals that it was not possible to house and feed over winter, could be salted or smoked to preserve it, but sausages and other foods made from offal would not last long. They had to be consumed fairly quickly before they spoiled.

Since Advent required some fasting, the feast of St. Martin provided a perfect time to put the abundant meat products to good use.

It also was the day that marked the end of old contracts. Hired help moved on to new positions and there were farewell and welcoming banquets for them and the new staff.

December 6
St. Nicholas' Day

This was a time for role reversal in the schools, where one of the boys would be elected as Bishop for the day, presiding over a court of unruly conduct.

The festive portion of the season began on Christmas Eve and lasted through to Twelfth Night, the evening before Epiphany January 6, the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the infant Christ.

This was still remembered as the first day of the Roman year.

Homes were decorated with evergreens, bay, holly, ivy, and mistletoe and foods served included pies, nuts, fruits (particularly oranges), the boar's head, and the wassail,(a spiced ale served in a brown bowl with great ceremony) marked the occasion.

The emphasis on light and warmth, embodied in the Yule Log, dates back to the pre-Christian period.

Advent, four weeks before Christmas
From the thirteenth century, the four-week period before Christmas was celebrated as Advent. Since it led up to the day of Christ's birth and the beginning of Christianity, it was considered the beginning of the Church year also.

The next four weeks were to be ones of preparation, penance and fasting similar to those of Lent. The Advent fast was required only three days a week.

Items to be excluded from the diet included meat, cheese and fat as well as wine, ale and honey-beer. The diet was supplemented by fish, often poached, from local rivers or streams.

The faithful were also expected to abstain from love making, weddings, games and unnecessary travel.

December 21
Yule - Solstice

Yule is when the dark half of the year gives way to the light half. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, much celebration was had as they awaited the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the earth.

Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were wassailed with toasts of spiced cider.

Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun, the boughs were symbolic of immortality, the wheat stalks represented the harvest, and the flour represented light, and life.

Holly, mistletoe, and ivy decorated the outside and inside of homes. A sprig of holly was kept near the door all year for good fortune.

The ceremonial yule log, usually made from ash, was the highlight of the festival. The log must have been harvested from the owner's land, or given as a gift. It must never have been bought. Once in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set on fire by a piece of last years log, (held onto for this purpose). The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days before being put out.

Symbols for soltice include the yule log, or small yule log with 3 candles, evergreen boughs, wreaths, holly, mistletoe hung in doorways, gold pillar candles, baskets of clove studded fruit, wassail and poinsettias.

Herbs include frankincense, holly, mistletoe, evergreen, bayberry, blessed thistle, laurel, oak, pine, sage and yellow cedar. Foods include nuts, turkey, eggnog, wassail, pork dishes, cookies, caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, ginger tea, spiced cider, and an ale made of sugar, nutmeg and roasted apple.

December 25

Christmas has been traditionally celebrated from about the 4th century, at the same time as the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year.

During the festivities of the twelve days of Christmas, the mighty were displaced and the humble became raised.

At the Feast of the Ass, a donkey becomes the focus of the celebrations at the nativity and later to carry the holy family to safety from King Herod who saw in the newborn Jesus a rival for his throne.

Another tradition during the twelve days was the Feast of Fools, where a youth would be elected to be bishop for the day.

Many of the traditions around Christmas have their roots in other culture's histories. Later, Christtianity took over a number of the traditions and gave them Christian meanings.

December 26
St. Stephen's Day

On this day, Lords and servants reversed roles, and those in service received their yearly gift of a set of clothes or livery.

After Twelfth Night, the people got back down to business, and the yearly calendar began again as farmers began to plan for spring by performing maintenance work around the home and farm.

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