The Protestant Reformation, triggered by Martin Luther in 1517, rocked European Christianity to its core – and it wasn’t too long before the centuries-old tradition of celebrating Christmas would be caught in the crossfire.
In the first half of the 16th century, though, it seemed that Christmas might emerge from these years of upheaval relatively unscathed. Luther permitted his followers to continue celebrating the festival, while in England, King Henry VIII embraced Yuletide enthusiastically.
One popular aspect of modern festivities – Father Christmas – was already in place in the Tudor period. In fact he can be traced back at least as far as the Vikings, who often referred to their god Woden as ‘Yule-Father’, believing he came down to Earth at Yuletide, leaving gifts and spreading goodwill.
However, by the 16th century, Father Christmas – or Old Christmas and Old Man Winter, as he was also known – had become a favourite comic character in plays. While the modern Santa is a warm, avuncular figure bedecked in red, his 16th-century predecessor was far more forbidding. Clad in green, and wearing a grotesque mask and a wig, he would rampage about, shouting and brandishing a great club, exhorting his audience to behave themselves and maintain the old customs of Yuletide.
Another larger-than-life character in Tudor Christmas celebrations was the Lord of Misrule, whose job it was to preside over the 12 days of merrymaking in aristocratic households (everyone from the Lord Mayor of London to Henry VIII himself employed one). The Lord of Misrule – sometimes known as ‘Captain Christmas’ or ‘Prince Christmas’ – was tasked with ensuring that everyone toed the line and made merry during the festive period. These helpers certainly took their job seriously, often carrying a mock gibbet so that anyone who disobeyed them could be ‘executed’.
Proud peacocks and a pastry Jesus
Feasting was fundamental to the Tudor Christmas – especially if you were lucky enough to occupy the higher rungs of England’s social ladder. Kings and nobles kept open house, offering a smorgasbord of entertainment throughout the 12 days of Christmas, which ran from Christmas Day until 5 January.
That entertainment was, inevitably, most lavish at the royal court, where there were two or three courses at every feast, each with a wide selection of dishes. None were more extravagant than those served up for Christmas dinner. Following an appetiser of plum porridge, the feasting would really begin with a boar’s head, carried in ceremonially “with the blast of trumpets”. The second course comprised rich meats. Poultry was often served in its plumage, while “the peacock in his pride” and swan were particularly popular at court.
Turkey first arrived from the New World in 1526, and was an established Christmas dish by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. Stuffing, known as forcemeat, and made with egg, currants, pork and herbs, was served with poultry from at least 1538.
For dessert, diners would often tuck into ‘frumenty’ – a boiled wheat pottage flavoured with milk and currants – which would later evolve into our Christmas pudding. Mince pies (or Christmas pies, as they were known) were made with shredded meat, suet, sugar and spices – often with a pastry baby Jesus placed on top.
All of it was washed down by large quantities of Christmas ale and beer – sometimes finished off with a glass of mulled wine known as Hippocras, served just before bedtime.
Anyone expecting presents on Christmas morning in Tudor England, though, would have been disappointed. New Year’s Day, not 25 December, was the time for exchanging gifts – and it was a practice that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I embraced wholeheartedly. Both monarchs expected a present from each and every one of their courtiers and servants. Luckily, they weren’t above buying gifts themselves – usually items of gold, silver or silver-gilt plate, such as cups and bowls engraved with the royal cipher, each weighted according to rank. In one year, 1511, Henry VIII spent the equivalent of £400,000 on new year’s presents.
By 1 January, the royal court was eight days into the festive period, yet it seems the appetite for extravagance and over-indulgence was undimmed. The Tudor monarchs went in procession to chapel, wearing their crowns and their royal robes lined with ermine, then presided over a great feast, topped off by (another) night of revelry.
However, New Year’s Day was also a time for pondering your conduct over the past year and resolving to turn over a new leaf in the months ahead. The roots of the modern tradition of making new year’s resolutions may lie in this century. Either way, it was certainly established by New Year’s Eve 1661, when the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep according to the letter of the oath which I keep by me.” Within three weeks of making this sombre resolution, Pepys had broken it.
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Christmas took on a different tone during the reign of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI. Following in the footsteps of the reformer John Calvin, Edward sought to reclaim Christ’s nativity, purged of the ‘abomination’ of the Catholic mass and its obsession with graven images and iconography.
Edward’s Act of Uniformity (1552) removed any vestiges of the Catholic faith, while his officials whitewashed medieval wall-paintings, destroyed stained glass and defaced images of saints. Christmas cribs and nativity scenes, too, began to disappear.
Those attending a Christmas church service – which meant virtually everyone – would now be listening to a service conducted entirely in English (as opposed to the traditional Latin) from the Book of Common Prayer, written by Thomas Cranmer, the reforming archbishop of Canterbury, in 1549.
The reign of Mary I saw a return to Latin liturgy, Christmas cribs and nativity scenes but these practices would not long outlive her. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), England again turned Protestant, although a few Catholic traditions remained, particularly in church music.
With so many rituals of the old Roman mass stripped away, it is a wonder that Christmas was celebrated at all in Tudor England. The simple reason for its survival was its popularity at all levels of society.
Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke are co-authors of A Tudor Christmas (Jonathan Cape, October 2018).
Alison Weir has sold more than 2.7 million books, making her Britain’s bestselling female historian. Siobhan Clarke is a guide lecturer at Historic Royal Palaces, and is currently working on The Tudors: An Illustrated History for Carlton Books.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine