Christmas in 12th Century Wales
By David Pryce
Wales; a land of stunning scenery, imposing fortresses, lyrical prose and uplifting song; at this time of year you’re also likely to see Christmas lights and in more recent years a proliferation of inflatable snowmen, angels and reindeer. You’ll also be bombarded with advertisements for items you didn’t realize you needed, whist the jingle of ‘traditional’ Christmas music is never far from your ears… Slade anyone? For better or for worse, this is Christmas in the twenty first century, but what would Christmas have been like in the time of my novel? How would late twelfth century Welshmen and women have celebrated this most magical time of the year? With more religious fervor than is commonplace in modern society I would wager.
From its origins as a Pagan celebration of the winter solstice, Christmas had, by the time of Prince Madoc become the most prominent religious celebration of the year. One of only two days in the Christian calendar (the other being Easter) when three masses were performed on a single day; towards the end of the twelfth century, the importance of Christmas mass was being highlighted by the addition of visual images, such as displaying a crib in the church to represent the place where Jesus was born. The liturgy would likely also have included dramatic scenes, such as angels singing.
All this did not mean some sort of Cromwellian style ban on fun and frolics however; on the contrary, by 1170 Christmas was established as a time of excess, with great feasts, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing, poetry recital and singing.
Many of our Christmas traditions can trace their roots back to this period; for example, if you enjoy carol singers serenading you at the door then you can thank irate priests who ejected singers from their masses for taking the word ‘carol’ at little too literally. Singing and dance in a circle during a serious religious service was just not the ‘done thing’ as far as the church was concerned.
I’m sure we all love a mince pie or three at this time of the year; well in Madoc’s time the pies were baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib. The cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men, and eating one on each of the twelve days of Christmas was considered good luck, which seems like as good an excuse as any; although back in the twelfth century, mince pies as the name implies literally contained minced meat along with the spices and fruit.
With the discovery of America still in Madoc’s future, his Christmas table in North Wales would likely have been festooned with a goose or two – the turkey of course being a North American native. Perhaps some trout from the fresh mountains streams? Venison was also a popular alternative and in the Christmas spirit, a generous Prince of Gwynedd may have shared his bounty with those less fortunate than himself, though not the best cuts of meat. The unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal (or ‘umbles’) were mixed with other ingredients to make a Christmas pie. The poor would literally find themselves eating ‘umble’ pie.
Most definitely a simpler time then, but one of joy and thankfulness…perhaps we could all learn a little from that?
David Pryce was born and bred in North Wales; after graduating with a Mining Engineering degree he spent the next seven years living and working in Southern Africa.
He currently resides in Colorado, but returns to North Wales on a regular basis to visit family and rediscover his intrinsic ‘Welshness’. This also affords him the opportunity to eat some decent fish and chips and sink a pint or three of real beer!
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