Written by Jessica Bean
Christmas these days seems to start as early as November, with Christmas decorations adorning the aisles of my local Tesco almost as soon as Halloween is over.
It's often considered a holiday steeped in tradition, of carol singing, gift giving, father Christmas visiting. But how much of our present day Christmas Festivities resonate with Tudor tradition? What did Christmas actually look like for our Tudor Ancestors?
The Tudors at Christmas. Source: All About History
As with anything during the Tudor Period, Christmas ebbed and flowed with the monarch and religion of the day, with vast changes being made and then undone time and time again across the Tudor dynasty. However, the Christmas celebrations that prevailed in Tudor England can feel both familiar and totally alien to their present-day counterpart.
1. Christmas was 12 days long
Yep. You read that correctly. Christmas (also known as Yuletide) was a 12 day celebration from Christmas Eve - and was known to last even longer amongst the gentry. These days were filled with Tudor style partying and feasting, with religious significance permeating throughout the celebrations. It was also a time for reflection: on the Fourth day of Christmas, for example, the Tudors had 'Innocents Day', where solemn carols were sung to remember the loss of children.
Source: The Tudors (Series)
2. Let's kick off the Christmas Celebrations with...some religious fasting
The 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, known as Advent, was a time for penance and fasting by the population of Henry VIII's England. Much preparation went into readying food for the Christmas festivities that ran from 25th December to the 6th January, but Tudor people were to fast for the 40 days leading up to them. On Christmas eve, they avoided meat, cheese, eggs or dairy, so were likely to be particularly ravenous when the feasting began the next day.
Christmas eve marked the old tradition of the yule log, where families would chop down and drag a tree to their house to decorate with ribbon and set alight. It was important the log was kept burning throughout the 12 days for luck and prosperity in the coming spring.
’Bringing home the Yule Log'. From A Tudor Christmas. Image © Bill Sanderson
3. What's a Christmas Tree?
Christmas Trees, although popular on the continent in Germany, didn't really become a thing in England until the 19th Century. Instead, families decorated their houses by bringing greenery into the house - often holy, ivy and rosemary. Fresh, green vegetation and flowers would also be used to cover the spinning wheel, a woman's main occupation at this time, to prevent them from working. Christmas was a time for rest and celebration.
In fact, all work aside from the care of animals was to cease during the Christmas period; everyone, from labourers to the monarch, was to enjoy the joyous season. It would not be until Plough Monday, the Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, that work would resume.
A Tudor spinning wheel decorated with flowers. Source: Salisbury Museum, Image © Sophia Sample
One of the most enduring customs in England was called the 'Kissing Bough' – a hoop made of woven wood. A small figure of the Holy Family or Jesus would be placed in the middle and it would be hung at the entrance. Visitors would be embraced by the household underneath it. Eventually, mistletoe was regularly used to create the Bough, and at times meant that each berry, when plucked by a gentleman, signified a kiss on a ladies cheek. This evolved into the popular tradition ‘Kissing under the Mistletoe’.
"Pick a berry off the mistletoe
For every kiss that's given.
When the berries have all gone
There's an end to kissing."
Traditional English Poem
4. Feasting for days
Food was the staple of a great Christmas celebration in the Tudor period and the King in particular was expected to open his doors to demonstrate his hospitality - during Henry's reign more than 1000 people dined at court during the Christmas period.
The mince pie was the delectable starter in a Tudor's Christmas meal, but this wasn't quite the sweet treat we have come to know and love. The original, savoury minced or 'shred' pie gets its name from the act of 'mincing' or 'shredding' the 13 ingredients that were placed in it - the 13 ingredients representing Jesus and his Apostles. Some typical ingredients included minced meat, suet (or sheep kidney fat), fruits like raisins & sultanas, nutmeg and spices. Furthermore, the pie casing, known as a coffin, was not originally meant for eating - it was simply the vessel to hold the food during cooking and reheating and would be discarded or given away as 'dole' once the contents were consumed.
A Traditional Mince Pie. Source: Public Domain
Interestingly, the act of giving away leftovers to the poor in an act of charity is where the phrase 'on the dole' originates!
5. A stuffed head for dinner, anyone?
Beef was the usual, core meat of Christmas, although venison was often enjoyed as well. Turkey was not a traditional Christmas meat until later in the 16th century after its arrival from the New World. In fact, it was a sign of opulence and grandeur for a decorated wild boar's head to be the centrepiece of the main feasting event amongst nobility. (It was later forbidden amongst lower classes due to the endangerment of the species.)
To introduce the head to the feast, a song, written in 1521 and imaginatively called 'Boar's Head Carol', would be sung to the sound of trumpets and a colourful procession.
Lucy Worsley's recreation of the boar head feast for 'A Merry Tudor Christmas"
6. Sugar, sugar and more sugar!
On the twelfth day of Christmas, a large banquet of sweet treats would be consumed. Sugar was incredibly valuable as a commodity in the Tudor period, and Royal cooks would make elaborate treats from it covered in gold and silver to create real show stoppers (move aside Bake Off!). The banquet was followed by great entertainment with plays, music and dancing into the early hours.
Image © Manuscript cookbook survey group
7. The Prince of Christmas
A Tudor Christmas was a time when 'rank took second place to revelry'. The revelries of the 12 days of Christmas in aristocratic households, and especially in the King's own, were overseen by an appointed exuberant known as the 'Lord of Misrule', essentially a fool king.
The Lord of Misrule's responsibility was to ensure that everyone took part in the revelries and he oversaw all types of unruly entertainment and chaos. He was also known as the 'Prince of Christmas', and it has been suggested that he is the origin story of the name Father Christmas, although this is hotly debated.
Everyone, including the King, had to obey the Lord of Misrule, who once cheekily requested £5 from his King just for a laugh, and got it!
Victorian illustration of the traditional Lord of Misrule. Source: Pictorial Press Ltd
8. Mum's the word
On Christmas day, all games were banned by Henry VIII aside from archery. However, the peculiar act of 'Mumming' was incredibly popular. This house-visiting tradition involved groups of friends or family dressed in disguise visiting neighbouring homes during Christmas. They often would not speak while wearing their masks, responding simply with 'mmm' when asked questions. This is where the phrase 'mum's the word' is alleged to have originated.
Illustration from Old England, A Pictorial Museum, edited by Charles Knight c. 1845
'Mummers' would be invited in for games, the hosts having to guess their identities before offering food and drink. The practice has since disappeared, particularly as individuals used it for more maligned purposes such as stealing, but it is believed the tradition simply migrated over to Halloween.
9. Ale for breakfast, lunch and dinner
One Christmas habit we would recognise today is the drinking! Ale was particularly popular, and in the lower ranks of society during the early years of Henry's reign, Ale would be brewed at home by women in their 'ale houses'. These 'Ale Wives' or 'brewsters' produced different strengths - strong, average and small strength - the lowest being considered suitable for breakfast and children. It was flavoured with 'gruit', a mixture of whatever herbs a brewer may find, and was preferable to drinking dangerous water or precious milk.
On the Twelfth Day, Tudors visited neighbours and family, singing carols and sharing a communal 'Wassail bowl', a large wooden bowl containing hot ale, wine or cider mixed with sugar/honey, spices and apple. (Mulled cider, anyone?) You can find out more about Wassailing here.
Wassailing tradition. Source: Getty Images
The custom of wassailing tied with carolling, a tradition that has prevailed in modern times. Christmas carols were mostly religious, although some dealt with themes like hunting or feasting, such as the 'Boar's Head Carol' discussed earlier. Some Christmas carols that were popular during the Tudor period, such as 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas', and 'The First Noel', have endured to this day, albeit in slightly altered versions.
In the 17th century, Puritans banned carolling as part of their crackdown on idolatry and an attempt to rid the church of Catholic practices deemed lavish and unnecessary. Carolling didn’t become customary again until the Victorian era.
10. No pressies on Christmas day
Anyone expecting presents on Christmas morning in Tudor England would have been thoroughly disappointed. Instead, although the Tudors celebrated New Year in March, they often performed the act of gift giving on the 1st January in a nod to the ancient Roman calendar. It was a practice that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I enjoyed greatly, and one that had great political significance.
The monarch would give gifts to their courtiers, usually cups, bowls and goblets engraved with the royal cipher and weighted depending on the rank of the courtier. Henry kept a record of all the gifts he dished out and in one year spent the equivalent of £400,000. The gift lists are fascinating historical documents and can tell us a great deal about who was, or was not, in favour at the time.
The extract from one such list (below) shows the blatant fall from favour of Mary Tudor, who was awarded no gifts by Henry VIII in 1534 due to her objection to his marriage annulment.
Extract from one of Henry VIII's gift list records, c1534. Source: British History Online
Of course, in return the Monarch expected to be given gifts generously by his courtiers and servants, and the King or Queen's acceptance or rejection of said gifts had great significance.
Catherine of Aragon's gift of a golden cup to Henry was rejected prior to their marriage annulment, while in the same year Henry accepted elaborately decorated boar spears, gifted by Anne Boleyn, his soon to be new Queen. Additionally, Robert Dudley, a firm favourite of Elizabeth I and a lifelong love of hers, once gifted Elizabeth some silk stockings and the Queen vowed never to wear woollen stockings again.
While there are some glaring differences, it's clear there are also some uncanny parallels between our modern celebration of Christmas and our Tudor Ancestors.
It is comforting to know that they too enjoyed a version of mulled wine, ate far more food than was necessary, indulged in sweet treats and perhaps, most importantly, enjoyed spending time with family and loved ones whilst partying the night away.
Sources & suggested reading:
Weir, A., & Clarke, S., and Sanderson. B, A Tudor Christmas, 2018
Darsie, H. The Tradition of Kissing Under the Misetletoe, The Tudor Society, https://www.tudorsociety.com/tradition-kissing-mistletoe
Lucy Worseley - A Merry Tudor Christmas, BBC Two, [December 2020]
Weir,A., & Clarke, S., 'Tales from a Tudor Christmas', historyextra.com/period/tudor/how-did-tudors-celebrate-christmas [December 2018]
Tudor Times, Ale and Beer, tudortime.co.uk/daily-life/ale-and-beer [Oct 2014]
Weir, A., Christmas at the Court of Henry VIII, hforhistory.co.uk/christmas-at-the-court-of-henry-viii
Castletow, E., Historic UK, Wassailing, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Wassailing/ [Jan 2010]
Pruitt, S., 8 Ways the Tudors Shaped Modern Christmas, https://www.history.com/.amp/news/christmas-traditions-tudor-england [Dec 2018]
The History of the Mince Pie, Mince Pie Club, http://www.mincepieclub.co.uk/mince-pie-history/the-history-of [Jan 2001]
Written by Jessica Bean.
Jessica is a Cardiff University alumna, graduating with a First in History. She enjoys researching anything that peaks her interest but has a particular soft spot for medieval and Tudor history. Jess enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, paddleboarding and travelling; to date she has visited 56 countries.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.