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
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
Carnival 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 Martinmas
Dec 6 St Nicholas Day
Dec 21 Yule - Solstice
Dec 25 Christmas Day
Dec 26 St Stephen's Day
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
St Valentine's Day
Traditionally a day to celebrate love.
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
Herbs and flowers of the season include daffodil, jonquils,
woodruff, violet, gorse, olive, peony, iris, narcissus and all
other spring flowers.
- 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.
Week - Palm Sunday, Maundy
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
© Rosalie Gilbert
All text & photographs within this site are the property of
Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
Art & artifact images remain the property of the owner.
Images and text may not be copied and used without permission.