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A Tudor Christmas. December 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A reader recently came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the query “Was the Tudors’ Christmas like ours now?” Now, I’m assuming they meant Tudors as in Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, not Tudors as in Tasha Tudor, American children’s book author and illustrator. (Tasha’s amazing and delightful Christmas celebration and rituals can be enjoyed through the wonderful book Forever Christmas and the video/DVD “Take Joy!”)

But getting back to the British royal line, the short answer to our reader’s query is “not so much.” Why? Well, think of what epitomizes Christmas to us: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, a roasted turkey and all the trimmings, eggnog, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” Christmas cards, The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. We all know that Christmas movies and TV specials wouldn’t have been a part of a Tudor Christmas. But none of the rest of this would have been, either.

So what would a Tudor Christmas have been like? Let’s take a look:

A season, not a day. For people in the Tudor era, Christmas lasted an entire month, from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’s Day) through Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6). The month wasn’t one long holiday, of course, but there was plenty of time for feasts, traditions, churchgoing, and celebrations.

The Yule Log. One key tradition was the Yule Log. Of Viking origin, the Yule Log was adopted by everyone, since it fit in nicely with the winter woodburning and huge fireplaces of the time. (All heating and cooking was done with wood, and fireplaces in the kitchen and great hall were large enough to sit in very comfortably. No wonder Santa came down the chimney in later traditions!) On Christmas Eve, a huge, previously selected log was cut, festooned with ribbons, and brought into the hall. It was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to usher in the Christ Child and a prosperous New Year, and any scraps that hadn’t completely burned were kept to kindle the following year’s Yule Log to bring good luck . 

The Holly and the Ivy. Christmas trees didn’t become popular until Victorian times, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced them from Germany. But the concept of using evergreen plants—be they pine or fir trees, holly branches, ivy, boxwood, yew, laurel, or mistletoe—to celebrate the winter solstice and the promise of rebirth and new life to come—was the same, and of Druidic origin. “The Holly and the Ivy” was a popular carol that commemorated this tradition, and the Tudors would have sung it. Folk in Tudor times would have decorated their homes with greens on Christmas Eve rather than, as we do, long before, because if you didn’t wait, it was considered bad luck.

Caroling. Yes, caroling—singing Christmas songs and dancing for joy—was as popular in Tudor times as it is today. (Though somehow we forgot the dancing part of the original caroling.) You might even know some popular Tudor carols, like “The Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In fact, “What Child Is This?” is based on a popular Tudor tune, “Greensleeves,” which legend attributes to Henry VIII himself, as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The wonderfully-named Wynken de Worde published the first collection of carols in 1521, so Henry and his court would have been familiar with it. Religious plays centered around Christmas were also popular aspects of a Tudor Christmas; they were often called “mystery plays” because they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation.

Wassail. Another legacy of the Viking occupation of Britain, the Wassail Bowl is still recalled by most of us as a Christmas legacy, even if, like us, you’ve never tasted Wassail punch. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, Wassail was composed of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. Its name derives from the Saxon Waes-Hael, “be whole,” “be healthy.” Click the link and you’ll discover how our custom of “toasting” came to be, and it’s a pretty amazing story. Sounds like our own version of Wassail is hot mulled cider, though our friend Ben and I prefer ours with Gosling dark rum, not ale.

Christmas Dinner. Two meat pies dominated Christmas dinner in Tudor times. The “folk” ate mince pie, including dried fruit, spices, and mutton, and shaped like a crib in honor of Baby Jesus. The Court ate Christmas pie–a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all packed into a pastry casing called a “coffin” and dressed with jointed hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Yow!

We Americans know that turkeys are native to our land, so how would they have figured in a Tudor Christmas? Well, the colonists sent turkeys to England in 1523, and King Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey in his Christmas celebrations. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, turkeys quickly gained popularity, and “large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot, a journey which they may have started as early as August.” Talk about some very fit turkeys!

Most Britons of the day feasted on swan, goose, woodcock, venison, wild boar, or peacock. (Elizabeth I insisted that goose be the choice for Christmas dinner, a tradition most of us in the U.S., who’ve never had goose, recall fondly from Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner.) Another popular dish was souse, consisting of pickled pigs’ feet and ears. Christmas pudding was a sausage of meat, oatmeal and spices. And a boar’s head on a platter was ceremoniously presented at the table in wealthy households and—gulp—served.

There was a version of our dreaded fruitcake even back in Tudor times, called Twelfth Night Cake. And the Tudors even ate a variation on our salads, including sprouts, but pressed into the shape of the Tudor coat of arms. 

Gingerbread and sugarplums. Gingerbread men were presented to guests by Queen Elizabeth I, cunningly designed to resemble the fortunate recipient. Less lofty individuals enjoyed gingerbread men and pigs (!) and eaten on Bonfire Night, November 5th. Sugarplums, by contrast, didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, so they weren’t a Christmas treat on Tudor tables. And by the way, they weren’t made from plums; the word “sugarplum” referred to a plum-shaped sugar candy. 

Presents. Our all-important custom of giving Christmas presents was also a big deal in Tudor times, but not for Christmas; it was a New Year’s custom. If you happened to be a noble or a courtier, not only were you expected to give gifts to your extended family, dependents, and friends; you had to give a gift to your monarch (aka Henry) as well. And if he rejected your gift, God help you. 

Christmas cards. In Tudor times, people didn’t send Christmas cards. But they did send original poems—typically, epigrams—for New Year’s. Since Henry VIII himself was an accomplished poet, his court had to meet a pretty high bar.

Mistletoe. Another sacred plant of the Druids, mistletoe was brought into the home for good luck, protection from witches, and fertility on the winter solstice, December 21. But sorry, all: The kissing ball (usually hung in the entrance hall) and kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th-century custom. Needless to say, Henry VIII didn’t need the excuse of mistletoe to kiss whomever he liked!

There you have it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other traditionas that characterized a Tudor Christmas, so if you can think of any, please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,