Giving at Christmas Time in the Middle Ages
By Dr. Harriet Mahood
Sessional Lecturer in History
University of Reading
The traditions of giving to the less fortunate is alive and well today and many of us will receive leaflets about Christmas charity campaigns through our doors this festive, and witness charity fundraising events whilst out and about. One tradition which has a long heritage is that of the gift of food. Food banks are a topic of current debate and collection baskets for ‘extra items’ you have purchased are now a regular feature in supermarkets.
While supermarket food bank drives are a modern phenomenon, this urge to give to the needy is not. Looking into the past, beyond Dicken’s famous carol and the Scrooge’s gifts to the needy Cratchit family, Christmas gifts were a well-established part of the medieval year.
Monasteries for example frequently set aside money to be given away as alms or to buy food to feed the poor as part of their Christmas celebrations. Such generosity was part of their charitably duty as Christians and a response to the increased need that winter brings. What is perhaps surprising is that Christmas was not actually the greatest charitable expenditure for these monasteries. Another feast day, St Martin’s in November, was often the occasion of large expenditure. At St Swithun’s priory in 1492 for example, three times as much money was spent on alms and food for the poor on St Martin’s day (Martinmas) than it was for Christmas.
St Martin himself is famous for sharing his cloak with a beggar who is later revealed to have been Christ in disguised. Thus, his feast day was a great occasion for feasting and donations and it seems as though monasteries paid the greater attention to St Martin’s day as an occasion for charity than they did to Christmas. However Christmas was still celebrated and the chronicle of Abingdon abbey records that on the ‘Nativity of the Lord’, clothing and shoes should be distributed to orphans, widows and the needy.
Leftovers from the monks’ meals were also collected daily throughout the year for distribution to the poor, a tradition also undertaken at the royal court.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538), which saw an end of monastic charity in England, the Tudor court continued to collect leftovers for the benefit of the local poor. Remaining food would be collected in a large basket, called a ‘voider’, and distributed to the poor. As with the earlier tradition of food-giving this occurred throughout the year but was surely continued at Christmas time, like many other Christmas traditions practiced in the sixteenth century.
Moreover, like their medieval forebears, the Tudor royal court followed a practice of fasting in Advent (leading up to Christmas) and then celebrating in the Twelve Days of Christmas that followed. While foods were limited beforehand to non-animal products (with the exception of fish), the celebrations after the 25th were lavish and included an array of meats. Boar’s head and pork, in particular, were popular and could be served both fresh and preserved.
Over the years, the importance of Christmas and our focus as a society on the event has increased massively but then as now, it is clear that we thought not only of the less-fortunate at Christmas time, but throughout the whole winter season.
Originally published by Reading History, 12.05.2016, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.