By Kathryn Walton
Christmas in the Middle Ages looked quite different than it does today, but gifts still played a role. Read on to find out what gift-giving looked like during the holidays in the Middle Ages.
Today, presents are a central component of holiday celebrations. As soon as November 1st rolls around, we are inundated with advertisements that tell us what gifts our loved ones would like most. Stores start displaying shelves of toys, chocolates, books, soaps, and other pretty things for us to buy. The image of a Christmas tree surrounded by presents becomes a fixture of many store displays and advertising campaigns. Gift-giving is one of the most central components of contemporary holiday celebrations.
While the consumer-culture associated with contemporary holiday celebrations is a modern phenomenon, gift-giving has been a part of holiday celebrations since even before the Middle Ages. It is one of the most longstanding traditions associated with the holiday season.
Gift-Giving in Ancient Holiday Celebrations
The practice of gift-giving has been prominent in winter holiday celebrations since pre-Christian times. Gifts were a part of Saturnalia, for example. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrating the Roman God Saturn which took place over a few days in late December. During the celebrations children would be given wax dolls – a delightful precursor to our contemporary tendency to buy children toys at Christmas. As nice as this sounds, Alexander Murray suggests in his History Today feature on “Medieval Christmas” that this tradition may have more somber origins. It may have been a leftover from the practice of sacrificing children as part of the fertility rites once linked to the festival. But it’s a clear ancient precursor to our tendency to give toys to children today.
Gifts also played a role in Kalends, another Roman festival thought to have influenced Christmas traditions. Kalends took place on the first day of January and was a feast dedicated to celebrating the new administrative appointments for the year. During Kalends strena, or gifts of good luck for the year, would be given. These gifts would consist of things like figs, honey, pastry, or coins. These gifts too may have origins in a fertility rite and, as Murray suggests, are thought to be a replacement for giving a may bough to a new ruler.
These traditions were mostly gone by the time the Middle Ages rolled around, but like many other components of the pagan festivities (feasting, fires, and evergreens – check out my feature on pagan survivals for more), the practice of gift-giving hung on.
Like today, gift-giving was linked to a specific day, but unlike today, that day was not Christmas day.
The Day to Give Gifts
Christmas and holiday festivities in the Middle Ages took place over a number of days and involved a number of different events and religious ceremonies. While gift exchanges happened throughout the season and certainly took place on Christmas Day, the day most closely associated with gift-giving at the time was actually New Year’s Day.
New Year’s in the Middle Ages was connected with the feast of the Circumcision, which happened eight days after Christmas. This event was often lavishly celebrated in the Middle Ages as a time of renewal and rebirth. As much medieval literature indicates, the passing of the seasons and the changing of the year was of vital significance both thematically and in the day-to-day lives of everyone. As seasons changed so too did behaviour, activities, available food, and opportunities. We more often see references in medieval literature to feasts held and gifts offered to celebrate New Year’s, rather than Christmas itself.
For many medieval people, New Year’s represented a new beginning, and many held lavish celebrations to ensure that this new beginning started off well. Gifts were a central component of this celebration. Individuals would give gifts to friends, acquaintances, employers, and family as a token of regard and to wish them luck for the coming year.
Here are some of the things one might get during these New Year’s celebrations and during the medieval holiday celebrations more generally.
Food as Gifts
Food was a central component of medieval holiday celebrations (which typically featured numerous feasts) and also a popular gift to exchange. There are many surviving records of gifts of food. If a peasant, for example, were invited to partake in their lord’s holiday celebrations they would often bring along one of their best fowl to give to their lord.
This took place on a larger scale as well. The monks of Christ Church Canterbury, for example, once gave the archbishop of Canterbury 785 hens at Christmas. These hens were not horded by the archbishop (what would he do with so much chicken anyway?) but distributed in the community. As C.M. Woolgar reports in his article on “Gifts of Food in Late Medieval England” more than half of these chickens were given away: “200 to the hospitals of Harbledown and the Northgate in Canterbury, and 204 to monastic and archiepiscopal servants.”
Woolgar goes on to show that many other kinds of food were given out over the holidays in medieval England. He recounts one list from the Cathedral Priory in 1477 that records all the various New Year’s gifts that were made to the prior. These included “mainly capons, with some peafowl, rabbits and non-foodstuffs.”
Money as Gifts
Another popular gift during the holidays was money. Employers and lords would often reward those who worked for them with gifts of money. If you search through the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, for example, you will find all kinds of accounts of different sums of money, clothing, and art given by the king or given to one individual by another. One servant, for example, reports that his employer had sent a note, 2,000 pounds in gold, and an image of the Epiphany to an acquaintance on New Year’s Day.
The holidays, and New Year’s especially, provided an opportunity to reward those who had been loyal to you and also for some to curry favour with those who were above you. Many of the gifts exchanged in courtly circles at this time reflect this interest. And so, money was a popular gift to exchange around the holidays.
Books and Stories as Gifts
Books might also be given around the holidays by authors who were seeking favour and patronage from an important individual. The bibliophile and antiquarian John Leland did just that for Henry VIII. Around the time of the Reformation, Leland was employed by Henry VIII to take account of all the monastic libraries in England, both to catalogue their holdings and to find any books of relevance to Henry’s efforts to split the church of England.
One holiday season he gave a “New Year’s Gift” to Henry VIII in the form of a book that accounted for all his many and various travels and what he had learned about the land from them. The text was probably presented to Henry VIII as a present at New Year’s by Leland in hopes of gaining further support for this work.
The famous romance Sir Gawain in the Green Knight was also written for a similar reason. If you’re not familiar with that text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance that was written by an unknown poet somewhere in the northwest of England in the late 14th century. It tells of a beheading challenge presented to King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain by a giant green knight and Gawain’s subsequent efforts to meet the challenge.
While the whole giant-green-man-beheading-thing tends to be the most memorable aspect of this text, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are actually of central importance. The text begins at Christmas with an image of Arthur’s court feasting and celebrating, and the entire structure of the plot centers on the culmination of the beheading challenge on the following New Year’s.
This focus on Christmas and New Year’s has led to the conclusion that this text was probably written as either a holiday gift or to be a part of a holiday celebration.
So, the poet, who was employed in a noble household, may have written this text to present to his lord as a fun new read over the holidays. Or, he may have been asked to write it so that it could be performed during one of the days of feasting and celebrating that the household would have held. Either way, it reflects both the nature of medieval holiday celebrations and the kinds of gifts that might have been given.
What I have listed here are just a few examples of the kinds of gifts that played a part in medieval holiday celebrations. As you can see, there are both similarities and differences with gift-giving practices today: we don’t tend to give gifts at New Year’s, but food, money, and books all remain popular gift items. I think too that the spirit remains the same. When we get together over the holidays, we bring gifts to celebrate, to show appreciation for others, and perhaps to curry favour.
And, if you’re feeling tired of the consumer-driven culture that structures gift-giving today, why not take a cue from gift-giving practices of the past? Why not pass on a few of your choicest groceries as a present? Or, why not write someone a nice story as a gift? I would be THRILLED if someone wrote a story like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for me. Whatever you choose to do (or not to do), I think it’s nice to be reminded that gift-giving then came with the hopes of offering luck and best wishes for the year.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: The Three Magi with their gifts. British Library MS Yates Thompson 13 fol. 93r