15 December 2015

I’m often asked what medieval Christmases were like, which is a hard question to answer. Just as Christmas celebrations in 1815 were very different than our present-day festivities, the holidays in 953 vs. 1153 vs. 1353 were just different from each other. Early Christmas celebrations were marked by piety, prayer, and religious services. By the 10th century, Dec. 25th had become known as Christes Maesse. Feasting and gift giving were established customs, but our medieval counterparts still attended three masses on Christmas day.

And though the birth of a child was at the center of celebrations, children were not focus of holiday festivities as they are now.

In fact, aside from the rare “boy bishop,” children were seldom the center of anything medieval, leading many some historians to speculate that “childhood” didn’t exist in the Middle Ages and medieval parents didn’t bond with their children until they were fairly certain the child would reach adulthood.

The conclusion is not without merit. Estimates for child mortality rates in the Middle Ages are between 30 percent and 50 percent (compared to 4.38 percent in 2015 in the UK).  Additionally, some historians postulate the high rate of infant mortality was indicative of a lack of interest in a child’s welfare, the parents’ inability to provide proper care, or out-and-out infanticide.

One example often cited to support this theory about lack of interest is the statement made by William Marshal’s father made when he broke his treaty with King Stephen. William Marshal was a hostage in the king's court to guarantee the elder Marshal’s good behavior. “Do with him what you will,” the father allegedly said when reminded that his actions endangered his son. That Stephan didn’t hang the boy was considered a failing by his nobles.

But this example tells us more about the Marshal than it does about medieval childrearing. If parents didn’t care for their children, using a child as hostage to make parents behave is pointless. In fact, when Henry I (King Stephen’s predecessor) allowed his two granddaughters to be mutilated in a hostage situation, his daughter Juliane drew a crossbow and attempted to assassinate her father in revenge. (Does that sound like a mother who doesn’t care about her daughters?)

But I digress (a common habit). Getting back to Christmas celebrations... Children and adults received presents on 12th Night—the Feast of the Three Kings—in honor of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus. By the end of the Middle Ages, Protestants removed the saints' days from the calendar and our gift-giving tradition moved to Christmas.

Not to ignore 2000 years of tradition, I will give away a copy of ANAM CARA to one commentator on this post between now and Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. You can find out more about her books at: http://prairierosepublications.com

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