York Becomes Home of Medieval Christmas Celebrations

York Becomes Home of Medieval Christmas Celebrations

York’s historic Barley Hall is hosting a special exhibition exploring the lost Christmas celebrations of ordinary citizens of the city in the Middle Ages.

Lady Joan Snawsell (Colleen Devanney), puts the finishing touches to Christmas at historic Barley Hall.

Christmas can be a stressful time, with so many presents to buy, a tree to decorate and so much to food to prepare that we will be eating leftovers well into January. Spare a thought for the people of medieval York who had to battle the daily struggles of the period and endure such festive celebrations as pig-killing day, the Feast of Fools and throwing the doors open to both relatives and complete strangers alike!

However, a medieval Christmas did seem to hold some of the magic of our modern celebrations and the traditional indulgence in excess can be traced back centuries.

“One Christmas tradition in York was the appearance of figures known as ‘Yule’ and ‘Yule’s Wife’ on St Thomas’s Day, 21st December,” commented Frances Bennett, Interpretation and Engagement Manager at York Archaeological Trust, the owners and operators of historic Barley Hall.

“They would ride through the city carrying a leg of lamb and a cake, and nuts would be thrown to the crowds that gathered to see them. On the same day the city sheriffs would make their ‘Yoole-Girthol’ proclamation in the marketplace on Pavement, that ‘all manner of thieves, dice-players, and all other unthrifty folk’ would be welcome in York for the twelve days of Christmas. “

Although Christmas in the Middle Ages sounds alien to the celebrations we have today there are many similarities, especially in the decorations and flavours used, all of which will be explored in each of the beautifully dressed rooms at the 15th century townhouse.

“Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and ginger were popular with wealthier households for flavouring food and drinks, but they were so expensive they would only come out on special occasions. People would also decorate their homes with holly, ivy, mistletoe and yew to bring some colour during a cold, dark winter. Christmas trees themselves would not make an appearance in the home until late in the 19th century.”

As well as the special exhibition, which will run until Twelfth Night, Barley Hall will also have a small Christmas tavern in its first floor gallery, stocking a choice of festive beverages to sample and will host some special Christmas events on weekends, including; At Home with the Snawsells on the 2nd and 3rd December, where the former Lord and Lady of Barley Hall will take up residence again and welcome guests back to medieval York, a day of live medieval Christmas music on the 9th and 10th December, with medieval musicians, Touvere, as well as a special carolling event on the 16th and 17th December where Barley Hall will be transported 400 years in the future from the Middle Ages to a Dickensian Christmas of the 19th century.

“Women in the Middle Ages were responsible for the home and so the bulk of Christmas preparation would fall to them, as it often does today. Even a high-status lady of the house, like Lady Joan of Barley Hall, would have been working hard to prepare various dishes, organise gifts and welcome the many guests into her home throughout the festive season. Our special exhibition explores this story of Lady Joan’s Christmas preparations for her family,” continued Frances.

The Lost Traditions of Medieval Christmas Rediscovered at Barley Hall runs from 16th Nov 2016 to 5th Jan 2017 and the exhibitions and all events are included in normal admission prices; £6 for adults, £3 child and £4.50 concessions.

For more information please visit

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