The tomb of the Boy Bishop in Salisbury Cathedral
From Charles Knight's 'Old England: a Pictorial Museum', 1845
Money is a common Christmas gift today, and in medieval times Boxing Day on 26 December was when children and apprentices could smash open their money boxes and spend their savings on Christmas treats. If you're interested in knowing what they might have bought with their hard-earned pennies, have a look at our article on medieval festive sweets.
Part of the medieval festivities concerning children that might be less well-known is the tradition of the Boy Bishops. On St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) a boy would be chosen from the choirboys of a church and declared ‘bishop’ until 28 December. His duties varied from church to church (churches in many places across the country had Boy Bishops, including several in London).
He generally wore child-sized bishop’s vestments, sang, officiated at church services, took part in parades and collected money from spectators. The Boy Bishop at St Paul’s Cathedral even had to deliver a sermon on 28 December! The practice of selecting a Boy Bishop was finally outlawed by Elizabeth I.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
We joke that Christmas comes earlier each year, and some organisations are starting to hold their office Christmas parties in November. However, in medieval times the main celebrations didn’t begin until Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas, from 25 December until 6 January, were a time for fun and feasting.
As well as Christmas Day there were other feast days such as St Stephen’s Day on 26 December, the feast of St John the Evangelist on 27 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December and Epiphany on 6 January. There was a break in the festivities for a while until Candlemas on 2 February where people would take candles to churches to be blessed and feasts were held to celebrate the formal end of winter.