Great to be here, Anna.
A medieval Christmas is just about irresistible to me, and I find myself writing quite a number of festive seasons in my books. What better time to get married? I also write a lot of linked series, so holiday gatherings make sense in terms of story. What better time to have the family gather, and for all of us to catch up with heroes and heroines from previous books?
A medieval Christmas feels almost nostalgic, as many of our familiar holiday traditions have their roots in the Middle Ages. It begins with the date chosen for Christ’s nativity, which is not given a date in the New Testament at all. Many pagan cultures, however, celebrated a holiday in late December, to mark the winter solstice and the time when the days began to get longer again. In Rome, December 25 was Saturnalia, a celebration of the deity Saturn scheduled at the winter solstice and the most popular holiday, marked by feasting and merriment. In the 3rd and 4th centuries in imperial Rome, the Birthday of the Sun was celebrated on December 25. It makes sense in a way that after the Emperor Constantine officially converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, the birthday of the Son (and the beginning of the new religion) would be placed upon December 25. This took advantage of an established holiday, and the tradition of feasting and celebrating a new beginning continued.
By the Middle Ages, the Christmas season had been extended to the Twelve Days that are now familiar to us. It made sense to cluster feast days together at a time of year when peasants in the northern hemisphere could take time away from their work in the fields, and this began in the fourth and fifth centuries. Epiphany (January 6) is the celebration of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist and was added to mark the end of the Christmas season. The feast of the first Christian martyr (Stephen) was celebrated on December 26, the feast day for John the Evangelist was on December 27 and the feast day to commemorate the slaughter of the Holy Innocents was on December 28. The word “Yule”, used in Scandinavia for celebrations of the winter solstice, began to be used to refer to the Twelve Days of Christmas after the Danish invasions into England in the ninth century.
So, we had the date, the feasting, the tradition of twelve days of festivities and the word “Yule” by the ninth century. We would find some familiar food in a medieval court on Christmas Day, including roast fowl—not turkeys, but geese, ducks, pheasants and even peacocks—and roast game, like venison and boar. Christmas Eve would be celebrated as a fast day, which means that fish would be served, a tradition which continues in many families. Dried fruits would be used with spices at this time of year—both were expensive, and seen as festive fare. The dense cake of dried fruit that we call Christmas cake has its origin in this era, as does mulled wine, which is wine warmed with spices. I suspect that plum pudding—a steamed cake of dried fruit and spices—also has its origins in the medieval era.
The wassail cup was known by the early Middle Ages, and was initially a cup passed from one person to the next. Wassail comes from the Old English for ‘be of good health’—the person with the cup would say “Wassail!”, drink from the cup, then kiss the next person, who would reply “Drinkhail!” By the fourteenth century, the wassail cup was replaced by a wassail bowl and we see its descendant as a punch bowl at holiday gatherings.
‘Bringing in the greens’ was part of many pagan solstice celebrations, and medieval courts would also be decorated with greenery at this season. Although we don’t know for certain what these decorations looked like, when I hang the cedar garlands on our porch each year and put the wreath on the front door, I think there must be an echo of the past in these ornaments. Beeswax candles would, of course, be part of any celebration in the darkness of winter in a medieval hall. The Yule log was also an established part of the festivities by the Middle Ages and bringing it into the hall might have been part of bringing in the greens. The Yule log was a log large enough to burn for the entire twelve days. Remember that these halls had enormous fireplaces. After Epiphany, a piece of the Yule log would be stored carefully away. It would be used to light the Yule log the subsequent year, and having that piece was supposed to be a safeguard against fire.
In addition to religious services, singing and dancing were both popular elements of the holiday celebration. By the fourteenth century, the word carol, which simply means song, comes to be used specifically for songs composed for singing at Christmas. Short plays and skits called mummings were performed, as well, particularly in England—this seems likely to me to be the root of the holiday pantomime. There were also spontaneous performances featuring ‘topsy-turviness’ like role reversals, in which everyone participated. A boy from the choir would be appointed bishop for the day, or the lord might change places for a day with a young peasant from the village. Men might dress as women and women as men, and cross-dressing certainly survives as an element of the Christmas pantomime.
Finally, charity was an enormous part of the Christmas celebration for the medieval nobility, as they were expected to give lavishly to the poor, as well as to host feasts for the peasants in their holdings. You brought your spoon, your napkin and your appetite to dinner at your lord’s hall on these feast days. I love the inventories of supplies for these big feasts, as they show not only an attention to detail characteristic of medieval people but give an idea of just how much food had to be prepared. Those kitchens must have been busy places!
This December, I have a new medieval romance being published, and not surprisingly, it ends with a Christmas wedding. The Warrior’s Prize is the fourth book in my True Love Brides series. The links between books actually go back farther than that, because the True Love Brides series continues the stories of the siblings at my fictional Scottish estate of Kinfairlie, which began with The Jewels of Kinfairlie trilogy. The Jewels of Kinfairlie trilogy tells of the descendants of the family introduced in The Rogue, book #1 of my Rogues of Ravensmuir trilogy. In essence, The Warrior’s Prize is the 10th connected book, and not the first to recount events at Christmas.
The Rogue introduces both the estate of Ravensmuir and its sister holding of Kinfairlie. That story begins at Christmas, although it doesn’t appear that the holiday will be very festive for Ysabella. She has been estranged from her husband, Merlyn, the Laird of Ravensmuir, for five years when he seeks her out. Merlyn believes that someone is trying to kill him and asks Ysabella to help him identify the villain. They’ve been separated for five years because Ysabella learned to distrust her alluring rogue of a husband, so she declines to help. On Christmas morning, she learns that he is dead and that she has inherited his holding of Ravensmuir, an isolated and lonely keep perched on the coast. On the one hand, she and her family will have more material comfort for the holidays than they would have had; on the other, she realizes just how much she had hoped that she and Merlyn would reconcile one day. With him dead, that seems to be out of the question—unless, of course, Merlyn is not dead and simply ensuring that Ysabella helps him in his quest, whether that might have been her choice or not. It’s not really a spoiler for me to tell you that all is well at Ravensmuir by Epiphany!
Kinfairlie, the sister estate of Ravensmuir, was ruined in The Rogue, but was subsequently rebuilt by Merlyn and Ysabella’s son, Roland. Roland married Catherine and they had eight children. We meet those children very briefly at the end of The Warrior, then they have their own series, The Jewels of Kinfairlie. That series begins when Alexander, the oldest of the eight siblings, becomes Laird of Kinfairlie and realizes that he must see his sisters wed. The Beauty Bride, first in the trilogy, recounts the story of Madeline’s arranged marriage to Rhys. Alexander subsequently arranges Vivienne’s marriage to Erik in The Rose Red Bride, then in The Snow White Bride, the sisters avenge themselves upon their oldest brother by making him a match with Eleanor.
The Snow White Bride is set at Christmas, as well, as Eleanor seeks a safe haven on Christmas Eve in Kinfairlie’s chapel. She finds instead a family beyond that she has ever known—the story culminates with a mummer’s play being used as a feint. To say any more would be a spoiler, but it’s a fun scene. I liked at the time that the final book in that trilogy ended at Kinfairlie at Christmas with the family gathered for the holidays. At this point, Ravensmuir had been destroyed, but Kinfairlie was thriving.
Of course, there were still five siblings who needed their stories told and a keep that had to be rebuilt. The True Love Brides recounts four of those stories: it begins with The Renegade’s Heart, then continues with The Highlander’s Curse. In The Frost Maiden’s Kiss, Malcolm, heir to Ravensmuir and grandson of Merlyn and Ysabella, returns and rebuilds the keep. My December release is The Warrior’s Prize, the final book in the True Love Brides series, which ends at Kinfairlie at Christmas, with a wedding, and much of the family gathered to celebrate the season.
There’s one more brother, Ross, who has gone to Inverfyre, the Highland holding we first visited in The Scoundrel and again in The Warrior. The Hawk of Inverfyre (hero of The Warrior) is Ross’s uncle and has welcomed his nephew to train alongside his own sons. We haven’t visited Inverfyre in a while, or caught up with Ross since his departure. You won’t be surprised to learn that there will be another series launched in 2015, one that includes Ross’s story, and those of his cousins at Inverfyre. I have a funny feeling it’s going to begin in the Highlands, at Christmas.
In the meantime, I hope you have a merry Christmas! Tell me what family traditions you keep that feel medieval to you, and you could win a signed trade paperback copy of The Warrior’s Prize (which will be mailed to the winner in January.)
Deborah Cooke sold her first book, a medieval romance called The Romance of the Rose, in 1992. It was published under the pseudonym Claire Delacroix. Since then, she has published over fifty romance novels in a wide variety of subgenres, including medieval romance, time travel romance, contemporary romance, paranormal romance and paranormal young adult fiction, writing as Claire Delacroix, Claire Cross and Deborah Cooke. The Beauty by Claire Delacroix, part of her popular Bride Quest II trilogy of medieval romances, was her first book to land on the New York Times’ List of Bestselling Books. She is also a USA Today Bestselling and #1 Kindle Bestselling author, and was appointed RWA PRO Mentor of the Year in 2012. Deborah lives in Canada with her husband.
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