Christmas in a castle

As you remember from the castle series, there were no true castles in Charlemagne’s time. As soon as you’re in a stone castle with a keep, maybe a round tower, and a gatehouse, the year is at least 1100 and probably more like 1225. So we’ll check out Christmas at the height of the Middle Ages, in one of Edward II’s grand castles.

Advent is still a fast time, but now St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6, has added a few traditions. At the feast, families give their children little gifts, in memory of Nicholas’ love of children. And in the cathedral school (the earliest boarding schools), the boys have elected the class clown, Conrad, to be the Boy Bishop. The real bishop looks on tolerantly and allows the boys to dress Conrad up in their best imitation of him; Conrad knows how to do a good send-up of the kindly old man’s mannerisms.

The boys show up at all the principal houses in town to do an episcopal (that is, “of a bishop”) “visitation.” Conrad plays up his part, giving a mock scolding sermon about their lifestyle, and recommends that they mend their ways by giving all of the boys in his retinue a silver penny and a cup of ale.

Christmas Mass has expanded. In the monasteries and cathedrals, they have the Angels’ Mass at midnight on the night before, the Shepherds’ Mass at dawn in the morning, and another Mass at mid-day, which is probably when the aristocracy attends.

Christmas is primarily a season of feast, parties, games, and dancing. Bishop Conrad continues to attend parties with his friends and they’re obviously getting a bit sloshed (boys drinking ale is nothing to stare at, everyone drinks ale). The special drink of the season is Wassail: hot ale, apples and spices.

There are some other special foods and the team of cooks (now trained professionals who did apprenticeships in the city) are busy well in advance and all through. They make meat pies: large pastry dishes filled with meat stew spiced with cinnamon, ginger and pepper. Some of them are specifically mince pie, in which the meat has been chopped very fine and spiced heavily. Pies can be served at room temperature, so they’re among the dishes baked a few days early and kept in a cold place. The pies served at the head table after Christmas Mass are topped with a pie-crust Baby Jesus in his manger, glossy in baked egg yolk.

There’s a new fashionable food now, and the cooks have to prepare well in advance to make it, since it entirely depends on imported fruit. We’re skipping ahead in time from the essay series that left Spanish Andalusia in 800; it’s now 1225 and Spain is exporting dried plums. The cook has stashed a large sack of them since a ship brought it last month. (A few of the dried plums went into the mince pies this year.) Every table, during this season, will have its own plum pudding. This is made with bread crumbs, plums, meat broth, wine and spices (of course–always spices!). It’s boiled till thick, the placed into a bladder or cheesecloth and hung to steam into a solid.

Christmas dinner serves roast boar, of course. With an apple in its mouth, yes. The cooks also send in a dozen roast geese, and one of them has been disguised in a swan’s skin with outspread wings. It will be carried all around the room to show off before it’s served at the governor’s table. The rest of the many-course menu has meat jellies dyed red and blue, venison stew in a yellow ginger sauce, and fancy breads. Additionally, of course, each diner has a thick, coarse bread slab for plate. Nobody will eat them; the servants will collect them and divide them between the castle’s kennel and the line of beggars shivering at the almsman’s door.

Plum pudding is the lead dessert, but they also carry around a tray of candied ginger to go with the hot spiced dessert wine. When the feast is over, the servants will quickly disappear all of the food remains so that tables can be pushed back to clear space for games and dancing.

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