Christmas in Medieval England

In this extract from Going to Church in Medieval England, author Nicholas Orme discusses the customs, feasts and ceremonies that occurred in church during Advent and Christmas in medieval England.

“Carols on Christmas Eve” by dolbinator1000 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Advent Sunday

Advent Sunday can fall between 27 November and 3 December. It introduced a note of austerity into the daily and weekly services. The next three weeks or so were devoted to the reading of the Book of Isaiah at matins with its prophecies of Christ’s birth, to which the Church added the expectation of his second coming to sit in judgment on the virtues and sins of the world. Two hymns of praise disappeared from the liturgy: Te Deum at matins and Gloria in excelsis at mass. Fasting was recommended, especially if this was the local custom. It was not compulsory but was observed in some households to the extent of eating fish rather than meat, although less so in others. No marriages were normally allowed because marriage was assumed to be followed by sexual activity, thought to be inappropriate to this and indeed to the other penitential seasons.

The Ceremony of the Boy Bishop

One custom challenged the sobriety of Advent. This was the ceremony of the boy bishop on St Nicholas Day (6 December), repeated after Christmas on Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December). The boy was often chosen by fellow choristers in a large church or by fellow pupils in a local school, and other boys acted as his clergy and servants. The liturgical texts of Sarum and York do not mention their presence at the services of St Nicholas Day, but boy bishops certainly took part in these at some places, such as Eton College, St Nicholas Bristol, and St Mary at Hill in London for example. Sarum and York are more informative about Holy Innocents’ Day, or Childermas as it was known. Here they tell us that the bishop and his entourage were involved in the liturgy for a period of twenty-four hours. In a process of ‘role reversal’, they occupied the adults’ seats in the chancel or choir while the adults were placed elsewhere. The boy bishop led first vespers on the eve, and on the day itself he presided over the whole liturgy and gave blessings to those in church. He could not undertake priestly functions, of course, and a monk who was serving the church of Fenny Stratford in Buckinghamshire got into trouble in 1497 for allowing its boy bishop to bless the font on St Nicholas Day and sing the Paternoster at the mass.


Advent lasted until the afternoon of Christmas Eve: a vigil and therefore a fasting day. The hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, arriving at a castle in the middle of that day, was treated to a lavish meal of different kinds of fish, appropriate to the fast but humorously described by his hosts as a ‘penance’. Christmas was one of the three great feasts of the year, along with Easter and Pentecost. It was distinguished liturgically by the fact that three masses could be celebrated: at midnight, dawn, and mid morning. These were certainly done in large churches with several clergy and possibly more widely, since the usual rule that a priest could celebrate only one mass a day was relaxed to allow him all three. The three days after Christmas Day – those of St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents with its boy bishop – were major festivals too, as were the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, and the Epiphany on 6 January.

Folk Customs

Christmas time attracted folk customs as is the case today. Some decoration of churches was done. Churchwardens’ accounts in towns mention the putting up of holly and ivy, apparently in association with extra candles: perhaps with the midnight and dawn services in mind. In wealthy households the whole period from Christmas Day to Epiphany constituted a holiday with what became known as ‘Christmas rule’: appropriate food, games, and gift-giving on New Year’s Day rather than Christmas Day as now. This was a time for performing carols and dramas, carols being songs in English (or English and Latin mixed) to which one danced. These often had religious themes but were not used in church. The twelve days were also allowed to some serfs: those peasant farmers who were not technically free and had to spend certain days working for their lords. Such serfs, however, may have wished to work on their own holdings during part of the Christmas holidays, and the holidays were probably shorter too for wage-earning labourers and servants.


From 13 January or later the Church numbered the Sundays as ‘first’, ‘second’, and so on, ‘after the octave of the Epiphany’, so that the next few weeks may be called the season of Epiphany, although its character as a time of celebration continued that of Christmas. Indeed Christmas could be considered as lasting until Candlemas on 2 February, and Epiphany could do so until 20 February if Easter fell on its latest possible date of 25 April. Candlemas honoured the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after the birth of Christ and served additionally as a festival of light. From at least the end of the tenth century it was a major feast requiring attendance in church and the bringing of candles not only by adults but children. A boy at Ewelme school in 1465 had a halfpenny candle bought for him on the occasion. It may also have been a day for a guild or company devoted to Mary to come as a group. At Beverley, members of the guild of St Mary dressed up as Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and angels, and walked with their brothers and sisters through the streets to the parish church holding torches. When mass was over, the candles intended for use in the church during the following year were blessed, aspersed with holy water, and censed with incense so that they, like the other furnishings in the church, were holy objects. In some places there was a practice – perhaps associated with Candlemas – known as ‘measuring the church’. This involved stretching lengths of candle-wick and wax through or around the building. These were then used to make the church’s candles so that they symbolised the church itself – a practice similar to that of ‘measuring’ sick people with wax and then offering the wax to a shrine or image.

“Church candles” by Braids123 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The bringing of a candle was a duty of each parishioner. ‘It is a common use of all Holy Church’, wrote John Mirk, ‘to come to church this day and bear a candle in procession, as though they went bodily to church with Our Lady, and after offered with her in worship and high reverence of her’. Some people repeated the duty on the following day, that of St Blaise, perhaps in tandem with a custom of having their throats blessed on his festival. Ranulph Higden also talked in 1340 of bringing wax images to Candlemas in the forms of animals, which were burnt after blessing in the belief that protection was extended to the beasts concerned. The candles seem to have been the perquisite of the rector or vicar, no doubt for use in his house, in an elegant inversion: the enlightenment of the incumbent by the congregation. In 1287 the bishop of Exeter condemned those who took the candles and used the wax for the lights that burnt before the crucifix on the chancel screen or elsewhere. The provision of such lights in the church, those that had already been blessed, was the responsibility of the parishioners not of the clergyman. But it was not unknown for someone who brought a candle to refuse to hand it over. Records of this survive from Haringey in Middlesex in 1497 and Dovercourt in Essex in 1541, and a refusal even features in a miracle story from a sermon for Candlemas Day.

About the Book

Going to Church in Medieval England
Nicholas Orme

“Christmas is the time of year when people are most likely to attend divine service, and Going to Church in Medieval England . . . tells us how they did it 800 years ago…Orme also describes how the churches that punctuate our landscape came about, and who ran them.”—Simon Heffer, The Daily Telegraph ‘2021’s Best Histories’

Parish churches were at the heart of English religious and social life in the Middle Ages and the sixteenth century. In this comprehensive study, Nicholas Orme shows how they came into existence, who staffed them, and how their buildings were used. He explains who went to church, who did not attend, how people behaved there, and how they—not merely the clergy—affected how worship was staged.

Find out more about the book here

Read another extract from the book tracing the emergence of an organised Church in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England here

Coming in January 2024

The History of England’s Cathedrals
Nicholas Orme

The first history of all the English cathedrals, from Birmingham and Bury St Edmunds to Worcester and York Minster

England’s sixty-two Anglican and Catholic cathedrals are some of our most iconic buildings, attracting millions of worshippers and visitors every year. Yet although much has been written about their architecture, there is no complete history of their life and activities. This is the first such book to provide one, stretching from Roman times to the present day.

The History of England’s Cathedrals explains where and why they were founded, who staffed them, and how their structures evolved. It describes their worship and how this changed over the centuries, their schools and libraries, and their links with the outside world.

The history of these astonishing buildings is the history of England. Reading this book will bring you face to face with the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Reformation, Civil War, Victorian England, World War Two, and finally modern democracy.

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