The Tudors were big fans of Christmas, particularly Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. They gave us many traditions and goodies which we still enjoy today. Mince pies (with actual mince meat), plum pudding (the precursor to Christmas pudding), and it’s around this time that people started eating Turkey for Christmas dinner. It was still a luxury dish, however, and would remain so for centuries – not surprising if you consider the arduous journey from farm to plate. From the late sixteenth-century, these turkeys would be herded from Norfolk to London on a journey which sometimes started as early as August. We say herding cats is hard, but imagine trekking for THREE MONTHS with a load of birds, just to get to London for the sake of some rich snob’s Christmas dinner. It wasn’t easy for the poor turkeys either. Aside from the fact that there was, you know, execution and roasting at the end of their journey, it was also tough on their little feet, so many of the turkeys got little leather booties to make it a tad easier for them. The unlucky ones had their feet dipped in tar.
So while we can thank the Tudors for a number of our Christmas traditions, there are many more which have been lost in the mists of time and generally, our Christmasses have somewhat toned down since the extravagant celebrations of the 1500s! During the reign of Elizabeth I, Christmas celebrations could last an extraordinary three months, from All Hallows on 1st November (known as Allhallowtide) until Candlemas (2nd February).
We think Christmas can get rambunctious nowadays, let’s look at how the Tudors did it!
1) Feasting with a capital ‘F’
Obviously, the extent of your feasting was dependent on your household income, but certainly, at court you were in for a treat. There would have been a feast on Christmas Day itself, but it would have been a slightly more modest affair. The largest, the most lavish, the “don’t-worry-about-me-I’m-just-going-to-roll-myself-to-bed” banquet was on Twelfth Night on 6th January. In 1532, for example, Queen Elizabeth I held a Christmas banquet on Twelfth Night with an extraordinary 200 dishes. It was such a large feast that temporary kitchens had had to be erected in the grounds of Greenwich Palace. They were used by the Master Cooks to make jellies and gingerbread.
Elizabeth I also had a considerable sweet tooth; she had her very own specialist gingerbread maker, who created gingerbread figures which looked like the Queen and her guests and they would receive these gingerbreads as special presents. This wasn’t just about creating a tasty party favour for her courtiers and visiting dignitaries; they were meant to impress because they were full of expensive luxury ingredients like sugar and ginger.
Not only could guests look forward to sugary treats, but also to entire sugar banquets! This wasn’t a particularly Christmassy event – they could happen at all times of year – but there were certainly popular at Christmas! Now, if you’re not clued up on the details of a sugar banquet (why would you be??), this was a special course which took place after the main banquet with tables almost overflowing, table legs almost buckling with sugary treats. Candied fruits, jellies, biscuits, tarts, macaroons, gilded marchpanes (which was made of almond and sugar paste, a bit like marzipan), and delicacies perfumed with rosewater. It was art as much as food. Sugar-plate (a mix of egg, sugar and gelatine) would be used to create sweets which were artfully crafted to look like savoury foods: bacon, walnuts, and eggs. A sugar paste mixed with gum and resin could be put in moulds to produce elaborate sculptures. You can get a sense of just how time-consuming these creations would have been on the Cooking The Books blog about historic cooking at Hampton Court Palace. Castles, dragons, holly and even sugar goblets could be expected at these diabetes-inducing feasts. In 1526, Henry VIII hired seven cooks to create a sugar banquet at Greenwich. Guests were delighted with a sugar manor, complete with swans, a dungeon, as well as a tower and, randomly, a chessboard. Although these sugar chessboards crop up at quite a few of the banquets so they seem to have been staple features of these events. These incredible sugar sculptures were also often gilded with gold so they would have gleamed in the flickering candlelight.
Not everything at Tudor Christmas dinners was sweet (although they were also known to sprinkle sugar directly onto their meat…), they did have “normal” food as well. “Normal” in the loosest sense of the word. I should warn you, fearless reader, that the Tudors were keen carnivores (mostly the rich ones). If you’re vegetarian, you may want to look away now…
The traditional dish for the rich, specifically associated with Christmas, was a boar’s head (so much so that even though boars were already extinct in England, they were periodically reintroduced so that there would be enough to be hunted and enjoyed at Christmas). Another popular dish was a meaty Christmas pie. Now, you might be reassessing my earlier judgement of “normal”. “What’s up with that, Amber? I love a good steak and ale!” Okay, but how about if it was a pie containing a turkey stuffed with a goose, which was stuffed with a chicken… which was stuffed with a partridge, which was stuffed with a pigeon. Oh, and for some reason, they were all baked inside, what was called, a pastry “coffin”. Yep. A little less normal.
You might also walk into a Tudor Christmas feast and be confronted by the sight of mythical creatures. Ever tasted a Cockentrice? This was the front end of a piglet which had been sewn onto the back end of a turkey and roasted like it was a real animal… As if that’s how they’d found it wandering about in the wild. Or, peacocks which were skinned, roasted, and then shoved back into their glorious display of feathers as a banquet centrepiece. There’s also my personal favourite, the Helmeted Cock (no. I know what you’re thinking. Get your mind out of the gutter). Imagine, if you will, a scene which wouldn’t be out of place in the chivalric tales of magnificent King Arthur or the ancient legends of vengeful Roman gods and brave heroes. You had a piglet, and on its back was a chicken… complete with a little helmet and brandishing a shield. The Tudors were nuts.
2) Twelfth Night Revelries
I’ve already alluded to the fact that Tudor Christmas was centred more around Twelfth Night than Christmas Day. You many currently be like me, lying under the Christmas tree, surrounded by presents, poised for the moment when you can tear into the biggest and most exciting gift (or maybe you already have!). No… just me? Well, anyway, I’m sure you’re still excited. In the sixteenth-century, you’d be waiting almost another two weeks to exchange presents.
I know. It’s unbearable to even consider.
While our Christmas is focused on 25th December, in the sixteenth-century, Christmas Day was just the beginning of Christmas. The 25th December marked the end of forty days of fasting during Advent (so basically no dairy or meat). True, Christmas Day was still a celebration, but it was the Twelve Days of Christmas after that which marked the true holiday and people from all levels of society downed their tools for an extended break. Women were relieved from their work maintaining the household, during which time there was absolutely NO SPINNING! Cue a furious mob of people outside Virgin Active who have been barred from their spin class (that joke would have been funnier if, you know, the gyms weren’t already closed because of Covid). No, I’m not talking about spin bikes, but spinning wheels. It became Christmas tradition to weave flowers in and around the spinning wheels to ensure that they couldn’t be used during the Twelve Days.
So basically, your Christmas would start on the 25th and then build until Twelfth Night (on either the 5th or 6th January, depending on when you start counting). In the Christian calendar, it marked the arrival of the wisemen or the Magi to see the baby Jesus in the Nativity story. It was on Twelfth Night that the biggest celebrations would take place – the last hurrah before everyone had to go back to work. Of course, things were always most extravagant at court. For example, if we look at Henry VIII, in 1509, during the first Twelve Days of Christmas that he was King, he spent an astronomical £7,000 over the festive period. For some context, his father Henry VII spent £12,000 on the royal household for an entire year.
Twelfth Night was full of feasting, drinking, dancing, and entertainment. In 1516, this involved a huge banquet (of course), an elaborate pageant and even a mock battle. These pageants and masques were a popular part of Christmas at court. In 1531, Henry VIII oversaw a Twelfth Night filled with “divers interludes [short plays], rich masques and disports, and after that a great banquet“. During Elizabeth I’s reign, it became tradition to go to the theatre on Twelfth Night as well (this was the heyday of Shakespeare, remember. You’d be ridiculous not to!).
A highlight of the Twelfth Night banquet was a very special cake, containing dried fruit, flour, honey and spices. Even more special than that, however, was the single bean and pea which were baked into it. Now, this wasn’t a Rachel Green beef trifle accident, this was a very deliberate decision. Slices were offered to guests as they arrived, men and women taking them from the right and left respectively. If you were the lucky person to find the bean or pea in your slice of cake, you would become the King of the Bean or Queen of the Pea. They became the ruling monarchs for the night! They would lead the entertainment and had to be obeyed in all matters, to the extent that if King or Queen drank, everyone drank; if they coughed, everyone coughed, and so on. This was a tradition which wasn’t just practised by the great and powerful at court, but in households from all different social backgrounds. An opportunity of people to let loose, vent some of the year’s stress, and temporarily turn social hierarchies on their head – not gonna lie, I think I’m gonna need some of that energy in 2020!
The Christmas festivities outside of Twelfth Night were normally presided over by a Lord of Misrule! A person picked from the ranks of us regular folk, someone who was probably known to enjoy a good laugh. They led the Christmas entertainment, surrounded by a mock court and even held mock-executions for those who displeased them. They were granted certain freedoms, even with the monarch. In 1509, the Lord of Misrule had the cheek to ask Henry VIII for £5 towards his expenses! He continued, “If Your Grace give me too little, I will ask more!” Luckily, the King found this entertaining and the mischievous Lord was not real-executed.
3) Boy Bishops
The church got in on some of this topsy turvy social blurring action as well, and had been since at least the fifteenth-century already. In churches and abbeys across the country, but also adopted in many of the major cathedrals, like York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster, a boy bishop was chosen from amongst the ranks of the choir boys. He was temporarily instated with real religious authority (which they would, of course, often use for mischief). They were kitted out with their own vestments and mini mitres and would lead all the services, except mass, and even deliver sermons. At Westminster Abbey, the boy bishop’s regalia was especially glitzy, with robes of fine silk, decorated with silver and gilt flowers. Accounts seem to differ and it was probably done slightly differently in each church, but some sources suggest that they only held this authority on special Christmas feast days, like St. Nicholas Day on 6th December and Holy Innocents’ Day on the 28th, while others say these boy bishops remained in power for the entire three weeks between those dates! I can’t imagine boy bishops being allowed to wreak havoc for all that time! Apparently, if they died in office, they would be also buried with the full honours of a real bishop.
Unfortunately this practice didn’t survive very long into the Tudor period. It was abolished by Henry VIII in 1542, briefly revived under Mary I in 1552, and finally ended for good by her successor Elizabeth I.
In stark contrast to the lifting up of a young boy to the lofty status of bishop, the alternative tradition on the Feast of the Holy Innocents was for parents to whip their children just after they woke up, while the poor sods were still in bed (possibly/hopefully only in play!)… A reminder of King Herod’s awful actions in the Nativity story, when he ordered the massacre of all boys under the age of two. The rest of the Holy Innocents’ Day, however, was given over to the children (fair enough, I think!). Sadly for the kids, this tradition outlived that of the boy bishops considerably, continuing right into the seventeenth-century!
Like I said, the Tudors were nuts.
❄️ Merry Christmas!! ❄️
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