Did you know that many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period? Carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies were all part of the festive fun – and even Father Christmas and roast turkey have their origins in the 16th century.
But what else is there to know about Tudor Christmases? Here, in the run up to 25 December, historical authors Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – whose book A Tudor Christmas (2018) is out now – will reveal one fact a day about how the Tudors celebrated the festive season.
Check back each day for a brand new fact!
In the Tudor period…
There was no partying before Christmas: people fasted until Christmas Eve
For the Tudors, the 40 days before Christmas – sometimes known as ‘Advent’ – was a season of atonement, in which good Christians prepared themselves spiritually for the coming of Christ. The devout were supposed to do penance and fast – avoiding meat, cheese and eggs. The feasting would begin on Christmas Day, for which great preparations had been ongoing throughout the fast, and would have been doubly appreciated after the restricted fare of Advent.
You can read more about Tudor Christmases in the latest issue of BBC History Magazine, out now.
Most houses were decorated with a ‘kissing bough’ (a ball of evergreens and mistletoe) hung from the ceiling
While the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was to flourish in Germany, it did not become popular in England until the 19th century. Prior to that, the chief decoration in people’s houses was the kissing bough, a ball of greenery made of evergreens such as holly and bay. The bough was sometimes stuck with apples – and always with a sprig of mistletoe. It was typically constructed on a wooden frame and suspended from the ceiling.
The first, isolated record of an English-decorated ‘Christmas’ tree dates from the 15th century, when a fir tree lit with candles was set up in a London street
The fir tree has long been a Christian symbol, with its evergreen branches representing eternal life. Legend has it that the German reformer Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree, as we know it, on a winter’s night in 1536. Luther was walking through a pine forest near his home in Wittenberg, Germany, when he suddenly looked up and saw thousands of stars glinting jewel-like among the branches of the trees – so the story goes. This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candlelit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens whence their Saviour came. The first, isolated record of a decorated tree in England also dates from the 15th century, when a fir tree lit with candles was set up in a London street. If there were others, they are not recorded.
People really did celebrate Christmas for 12 days, sometimes longer
The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi [three wise men] had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus. During this period of 12 days, no free man could be compelled to work. The common man enjoyed this right to the best of his ability during the Tudor period, while kings and nobles indulged themselves in abundance on a lordly scale.
Ghost stories were once enjoyed at Christmas
In Tudor times, there was an established tradition of telling ghost stories by the fireside at Christmas, particularly on Christmas Eve. It was a thrilling way to while away the hours on dark winter evenings. For centuries, the belief had lingered that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest at the time of the winter solstice – the longest night of the year – and that spirits could walk the earth.
There was a Tudor version of Father Christmas
The tradition of Christmas being personified by one person, such as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, was well established by the Tudor period. The Saxons welcomed winter in the guise of ‘King Winter’ or ‘Father Time’, while in Norse tradition the god Woden – who was known as ‘Yule-Father’ – left gifts of bread and much goodwill during Yule.
In great households of the Tudor period, the 12 days of feasting, banqueting, pageantry and merrymaking were presided over by a person called the Lord of Misrule. There was also sometimes a specific character called ‘Captain Christmas’ or ‘Prince Christmas’, whose role was to ensure that everyone made merry at Yuletide. A favourite character in Tudor folk plays was called ‘Father Christmas’. Clad in green, and wearing a grotesque mask and a wig, he would rampage about, shouting and brandishing a great club.
Plum pudding was eaten as an appetiser before Christmas dinner
Plum porridge was much enjoyed as an appetiser to line the stomach before the rich dinner to come. It was a thick broth of mutton or beef, boiled in a skin with plums, spices, dried fruits, breadcrumbs and wine. In the later 16th century, flour was added to make a pudding or cake. Centuries later, the Victorians would remove the meat and turn plum porridge into the rich Christmas pudding we know today, serving it as a dessert.
The most popular food eaten at Christmas was brawn, or boar’s head
For Christmas dinner, all social classes enjoyed the seasonal favourite, brawn (a dish made from the head of a pig or cow). In wealthy households, the first course was traditionally a boar’s head that had been boned and stuffed with forcemeat (a mixture of ground, lean meat); smeared with mustard; dressed in herbs and fruits (with a roasted apple in its mouth); and garnished with gilded rosemary, bay leaves, spices, fruits, or a sprig of yew whitened with egg or flour to make it look as though it had been dusted with snow. The dish would be ceremonially carried in – resplendent on its platter – by the steward or the head of the household. The custom continued at court until the reign of Queen Victoria.
Turkey had become a popular Christmas dish by the end of the Tudor period
There is a record of the first turkeys arriving in England from the New World in 1526, and it was soon prized for its flavour. Turkey had been added to the repertoire of popular Christmas dishes by the end of the Tudor period, sometimes served instead of peacock or swan, although it would be centuries before it fully ousted them, or the traditional meats.
Mince pies were huge, and contained meat as well as fruit and spices
Known as ‘Christmas pies’, mince pies were made with shredded leftover meats – preferably mutton, in commemoration of the shepherds that visited the baby Jesus – to which suet, sugar, dried fruits and spices were added. There were supposed to be 13 ingredients in total, in honour of Christ and his apostles. These pies were huge, quite unlike the small ones we eat today, and they were cut with spoons, since it was believed to be unlucky to cut them with knives. The spices and gilding harked back to the gifts of the Magi [three wise men] – and proclaimed the status of the host. Some pies were even gilded.
More than 1,000 people dined at Henry VIII’s court at Christmas
It was incumbent upon kings and nobles to keep an open house, host great feasts and dispense hospitality throughout the 12 days of Christmas, putting into practice the obligations that people of wealth and status owed to their servants. A world away from the enduring ‘chicken-throwing’ image of Henry VIII popularised by Charles Laughton in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, the table manners of the king and his courtiers were usually refined – apart from the time, according to evidence published in The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, when Henry got bored and began pelting his guests with sugar plums.
Even the king had to obey the commands of the ‘Lord of Misrule’
The feasting, pageantry and convivial merrymaking were presided over not by the king or the master of the household, but by the ‘Lord of Misrule’, or ‘Master of Merry Disports’, who acted as master of ceremonies and took charge of the Christmas revelry. In the first year of Henry VIII’s reign, his Lord of Misrule impudently asked his sovereign for £5 towards his expenses. “If it shall like Your Grace to give me too much,” he added mischievously, “I will give you none again, and if Your Grace give me too little, I will ask more!” Henry was greatly amused.
‘Boy bishops’ were given power, which they often wielded mischievously, in place of adult bishops
Following medieval custom, ‘boy bishops’ replaced adult prelates (high-ranking members of the clergy), and were allowed the same privileges as Lords of Misrule. Appointed on St Nicholas Day, 6 December, and allowed to hold office until Holy Innocents’ Day on 28/29 December, they were chosen from cathedral choirs and invested with costly miniature vestments, mitres and croziers. Deferred to as if they were real bishops; they enjoyed actual episcopal power, and took all the services the adult bishop would have taken, apart from Mass. When they preached sermons, they were given gifts in reward. They could appoint cathedral canons from their chorister friends, and if they died in office, they would be buried with the full honours of a real bishop. But there were many complaints that boy bishops carried out their duties mischievously and without due respect, and practised what amounted to extortion when collecting alms. Nevertheless, they were protected by a law that forbade anyone to disrupt their services or throw things at them.
Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke are the authors of A Tudor Christmas (2018).
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