Medieval Christmas games

After a feast, when the food scraps and dishes were cleared away, it was time for games and dancing.

Here’s where we have to admit that medieval games were a bit lame. It’s much nicer to explain that while we may think some time period was primitive, in fact it had this rich sophistication that we can’t appreciate. That’s true in many other things, but not in their games. In fact, the traditional games you recall from childhood birthday parties are basically holdovers from medieval Christmas.

By the 13th century, a Christmas-season party generally elected a master of ceremonies known as the Lord of Misrule. If the Boy Bishop was still strutting his stuff, he was very likely to be Lord of Misrule, but at many courts, it was just an adult elected for a few hours. The Lord of Misrule announced which games or dances would be next.

The invention of fireplaces had made the hall much more fun for games, now without fire pits to avoid. Even when tables were not taken down at this stage, the central area where the fire pits used to be remained open. Tables formed a U shape facing the dais, the raised platform where the head table stood. It was in this open area that showpiece foods (like a swan with outstretched wings) were paraded around, and where games now took place.

Blindman’s Buff was popular. It’s a perfect indoor game for adults at court, because there’s really no point to it except that someone who’s normally important gets blindfolded and stands there like an idiot, while everyone else gets to make distracting noises or dart past, entertaining all those who can still see. There were probably other variants of tagging games. I like to imagine a medieval court playing Freeze Tag. It’s also very likely that they had other variants of blindfolding games, such as guessing who someone was or pinning the tail on the donkey.

They played Tug of War, though I envision a fairly demure version without things like mud pits to drag the losing side through. Nobody really wanted to fall down; their feast clothing was expensive and the floor, though clean enough by their standards, was covered with straw and probably some bits of food that the dogs had missed.

A feast of this sort always had hired minstrels to stand by and entertain when needed. They may have juggled or done acts with trained bears; they sang or played instruments for dances.

Indoor dancing was usually in a ring. The dancers held hands and went through repetitive steps very similar to the Israeli “hora.” When dancing was not in a ring, it was in a line that snaked around the room, sometimes looping back on itself as in the traditional children’s song-game “London Bridge.” Two dancers held up their arms like a bridge and the rest of the line had to duck under, measure by measure. A song leader, probably one of the minstrels, sang out verses while the dancers joined in with a simple chorus. It was that style, with varying verses and a simple repetitive chorus, that made a song a “carol,” though the word “carol” itself refers to the ring dance.

Some of our oldest Christmas songs (still called carols) are examples of this style: “Fum, Fum, Fum” and “Fa La La La La” are about what the dancers were expected to contribute. We have no evidence that any of our existing carols really date back to the Middle Ages. The custom and style persisted in many small towns for several centuries, and later times wrote songs in the same style.



This entry was posted in Holidays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply