On the Calendar

It’s time to do the holidays, medieval and early-modern style!

Calendar customs are rituals or activities historically practiced on a given day, typically associated with a saint but sometimes a key point in the agricultural year or some other event. Here’s a selection from December:

2014-12-1 Boy Bishop6 December: Saint Nicholas’ Day. The election of the “boy bishop.” Choristers (boys* in the choir) would elect one of their number to be the boy bishop, a kid who would run all official religious ceremonies till Holy Innocents Day (28 December). The Boy Bishop appointed his friends to serve as high officials in the church (the dean, the canons). For all intents and purposes, he and his friends were in charge. Adults would take on all the kids’ roles (acolytes, altar boys), and would sometimes heckle the kids who were trying to conduct services properly. It was basically three weeks of fun, treats, holidays, and general misrule, and it often got pretty rowdy.

16 December: The Bringing in of the Boar’s Head. This tradition is mostly confined to great houses and universities, where the head of a boar is brought in to a dining table beautifully decorated with herbs and fruit while the Boar’s Head Carol is sung. Its origin story goes like this: an Oxford university student was walking through the forest when he was attacked by a boar. He fought it off by cramming his copy of Aristotle in the boar’s mouth, choking it to death.

C'mon, Rufus Sewell...

C’mon, Rufus Sewell…

20 December: Saint Thomas’ Eve. If you stuck an onion full of pins and put it under your pillow, you’d dream of your future husband.

21 December: Saint Thomas’ Day. Poor people in a village, usually women and children, would go a-Thomasing. This was a bit like trick-or-treating from house to house, but they’d be offered a fixed amount of a specific thing (a candle, a cupful of flour). The idea was that they would collect provisions to help them live through winter. This tradition was also called gooding.

28 December: Holy Innocents Day. This holiday commemorates the Biblical story of King Herod having all male babies in his lands slaughtered as he tried to kill off the infant Christ. On this day, adults would fast and do nothing (especially not housework), but kids could do pretty much whatever they wanted. They had treats and went to parties and could play in church, but they were also beaten to remind them of Herod’s cruelty. Being a kid in medieval and early-modern times could be confusing.

* Yes, just boys. Sorry. They hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

From A.R. Wright’s British Calendar Customs (Folklore Society: London, 1940).


About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

7 thoughts on “On the Calendar

  1. Wow. It’s interesting how many “topsy-turvy” holidays there were. All these days of “kids rule” and doing nothing seem to say something about how repressive and difficult life must have been, don’t you think?

  2. Abby Murphy says:

    What a strange variety of holidays (especially the confusing aspects of Holy Innocents Day). I’ve gone to a celebration called “The Boar’s Head” at the end of December, but it’s definitely a warped version of the medieval holiday you describe above. There’s a lot of singing, caroling, and dressing in Renaissance Faire-like clothing. It was cool to read about the real origin story!

  3. If I stick my husband full of pins, will I dream of onions? Just curious.

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