24 facts about Christmas in the Tudor period
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...
Here, historical authors Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke reveal 24 facts about how the Tudors celebrated the festive season...
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.
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.
Children were whipped on Holy Innocents' Day, to remind them of the suffering of the infants killed by King Herod
This was in remembrance of King Herod ordering the slaying of all infant boys under two years of age, in an attempt to destroy the infant Christ. Due to its sombre associations, Holy Innocents was a day of fasting for adults, and sometimes, when children woke up, they were whipped – perhaps not too hard – as they lay in bed, to remind them of the suffering of the murdered innocents. However, for the rest of the day, they were allowed greater licence and even permitted to play in church. It was, essentially, a children’s feast.
When the Thames froze over in 1564, people played football on the ice
Many courtiers “shot daily” at targets set up on the frozen water, and “both men and women went daily on the Thames in greater number than in any street of London” until the ice began to thaw on 3 January. In 1608, the river froze over again. According to a letter written by John Chamberlain in Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain: 1603–1624, “certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice, and made all the passengers partakers”, while one “honest woman had a great longing to have her husband get her with child upon the Thames”.
When the Thames froze in London before Christmas 1536, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, having attended a service in St Paul’s Cathedral, spurred their horses across the frozen river and galloped to the Surrey shore, making for Greenwich Palace, where they would keep a lavish Christmas court.
Traditionally, New Year’s Eve was the occasion for boisterous games, such as hoodman blind, and sports
Christmas celebrations for the rich included hunting and outdoor sports. At court and in great houses, there would be shuttlecock, skittles and paid entertainers such as acrobats, tumblers and fire-eaters, as well as jesters and much tomfoolery. The boisterous, and sometimes rough, hoodman blind (later known as blind man’s buff, ‘buff’ meaning buffet) was widely played, and so called because, in the Middle Ages, people turned their hoods back to front, or pulled them forward over their eyes, then chased the other players until they caught one. That person became the next hoodman. By Tudor times, blindfolds were used.
Gifts were exchanged at New Year, not on Christmas Day
In 1509 – his first year as king – Henry VIII spent the equivalent of £400,000 on presents. The giving of gifts had been a feature of the Roman Saturnalia, and the custom had survived into the Tudor age. Presents were the most important aspect of New Year’s Day and could be of great political significance. In 1532, after he had separated from Katherine of Aragon, whom he was determined to divorce, Henry VIII accepted gifts from his sweetheart, Anne Boleyn, but rejected those that Katherine sent him, commanding her not to send him any in future, for he was not her lawful husband, as she should have known.
It became a tradition for entertainments and plays to be staged on Twelfth Night
At court, masques and pageants were frequently staged on Twelfth Night. These were magnificent occasions, with gorgeously dressed lords and ladies mingling with players in fantastic costumes in halls lit by torches and candles. Thanks to the popularity of the seasonal masque, and the patronage of companies of actors by Elizabethan noblemen, Twelfth Night became a traditional time for going to the theatre. The first playhouse opened in 1576 at Shoreditch, its design being based on a galleried inn, and by the end of the century around 15,000 Londoners were attending the theatres every week, with takings soaring over the Christmas period. Drama was hugely popular at court, where the productions could be spectacular, and the Queen’s Men, or William Shakespeare and his associates in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were frequently summoned to perform.
A festive cake was eaten on Twelfth Night, not Christmas Day
For the sumptuous banquet that marked Twelfth Night, an enormous cake was traditionally baked, containing dried fruit, flour, honey and spices. Inside the cake were a bean (or coin) and a pea. Slices were offered to guests as they arrived, men and women taking them from the right and left respectively; the lucky man and woman who found the bean and the pea would be King and Queen of the Bean or Pea for the evening and would then lead the singing, dancing and disports. At court, the lucky recipients were often selected in advance. Sadly, no recipe for Twelfth Night cake survives from before 1803.
It was bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night
Some thought it bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after midnight on Twelfth Night, when the power of the Christ Child no longer held sway, for if the greenery was not put outside again, the tree spirits would ‘bring disaster’ to the household in the coming year. But in some places, right up until the 19th century, the decorations were not taken down until Candlemas, 2 February, when Jesus was presented in the Temple on the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Clergyman and poet Robert Herrick warned of what might happen if the decorations were not removed: “For look! How many leaves there be neglected there (Maids, trust to me), so many goblins you shall see.”
At court, the Yuletide season did not end until 2 February, when the feast of Candlemas was celebrated
For most people in Tudor England, the Feast of Epiphany on 6 January was the last great day of processions, feasts, festivity and fun. At court, the Yuletide season officially ended on 2 February with the solemn celebration of Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, when the king and queen went in procession to Mass. On this feast day, the churches were ablaze with candles and packed with worshippers. Christmas was coming to an end, and it was time to clean up the mess, get back to work, and settle down to normal life. On Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany, people went back to work.
The essence of the Tudor Christmas survived the Reformation and even the banning of Christmas by the Commonwealth
It is not true that Oliver Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas; it was the elected Parliament that took the initiative, in 1644–7, in passing a series of acts criminalising the celebration, along with other saints’ and holy days. However, although in theory Christmas had been abolished, clandestine religious services marking Christ’s Nativity continued to be held, and the secular pleasures of the season were covertly enjoyed, as far as people were able to do so. In 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne, anti-Christmas legislation was soon swept away, to widespread joy.
At Yuletide, social barriers came tumbling down and roles were reversed, leading to much festive licence
Throughout Britain, the Christmas period was a time for liberty, relaxation and subverting the rules. For a few days, status took second place to revelry with role reversal among the hierarchical ranks of society, and between the sexes. In 1564, for example, Mary, Queen of Scots, ‘abdicated’ so that two of her four maids, who were all called Mary, could share the role of Queen of the Bean. At the same time, festive licence served to underline the normal roles of those who participated: no one forgot who was really master and who was servant. In Scotland, the 12 days of Christmas were called the ‘Daft Days’.
Mistletoe was banned in churches because of its pagan connections
The custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship is an ancient one. The Romans, for example, observed that the druids of the British Isles used mistletoe in winter solstice ceremonies and for healing. Despite there being a medieval belief that Christ’s cross had been formed from the wood of the mythical mistletoe tree, churches and abbeys have always banned mistletoe (and it is still banned today!) because of its pagan connections – with one exception: at York Minster, a bunch of mistletoe was laid on the altar every Christmas.
Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke are the authors of A Tudor Christmas (2018)