How the Tudors Celebrated Christmas

A Tudor Christmas

Have you ever wondered what Christmas looked like for the Tudors? Maybe you would like to celebrate Christmas like Shakespeare or Henry VIII. In this post, we describe how the Tudors would have celebrated Christmas. Let’s start with the general Christmas season.

What did the Christmas season look like for the Tudors?

For the Tudors, actually celebrating Christmas didn’t start until Christmas Eve. Prior to that point, they would have gone through Advent, which takes place over the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Advent for the Tudors was not a time of celebration. In fact, it was similar to Lent in that they had to fast and refrain from eating animal products such as eggs, meat, and cheese. So definitely no Christmas cookies then. On Christmas Eve, people would begin decorating. Then, they would celebrate Mass before beginning the Twelve Days of Christmas. Yep, the Twelve Days of Christmas from the famous carol.

The Twelve Days of Christmas went from Christmas Day until January 5th, which is the day before Epiphany. During these 12 days, there was no work allowed except for necessary tasks such as cooking and taking care of the animals. They partially enforced the rule about working with their decorating.

How did the Tudors decorate for Christmas?

While today we have Christmas trees decked out with lights and baubles, the Tudors didn’t have such things. They didn’t even have Christmas trees as that would come much later with the Victorians. What they did and could do was bring in greenery such as evergreens, holly, and ivy. Mistletoe was also used in the form of the Kissing Bough, which served the same function as Christmas mistletoe does today. So how did they enforce the no work rule? Well one way that they did this was by wrapping up spinning wheels with the greenery and decorations so that it wasn’t possible to use them. So, with decorating done, onto the food.

How the Tudors Celebrated Christmas
A Bit of Holly

What would you eat for a Tudor Christmas?

No matter their place in society, the average Tudor would make a feast to celebrate. For the less wealthy, this might mean just focusing on eating some meat as it wasn’t a large part of their diet. However, for the wealthy and nobility, the Christmas spread could be quite elaborate.

The main dish for the wealthy, especially the royal family, would have been boar’s head. In addition, there would have been multiple other meats on the table. For Henry VIII, one of these was turkey. Turkey was introduced into England in the 1520s during Henry’s reign. While we may have a turducken today, the Tudors had their own version in a Christmas pie. This pie would include a pigeon stuffed into a partridge, into a chicken, into a goose, into a turkey, and finally into the pastry case called a coffin. Other fowl on the dining table could have also included peacock.

Christmas Sweets

In addition to the meat, there would have been an expanse of desserts. They were especially fond of making elaborate gilded desserts with marchpane. Marchpane is the English word for marzipan, a confection made with ground almonds, sugar, and honey. The Tudors loved their sugar and spices as they were expensive to get and were a way of showing off their wealth. They would also mix sweet and savory foods. The best example of this was the mince pie. While today they are strictly sweet, for the Tudors, mince pies would have included minced meat.

How the Tudors Celebrated Christmas
A plate of modern mince pies

Another popular Tudor treat was the Twelfth cake. This cake was eaten on, you guessed it, the twelfth day. In England, it would include a coin or bean inside. It was considered lucky if you found them. A similar tradition is still in existence today in multiple countries. If you are curious about what such a Tudor feast could have looked like, the BBC did a TV movie about this very topic called A Tudor Feast at Christmas.

What else would you do for a Tudor Christmas?

Besides feasting and decorating, the Tudors would have had a few fun activities such as caroling. The earliest published collection of carols was in 1521 by Wynken de Worde. However, many carols have origins earlier than that. A later collection from 1582 includes songs still sung in some forms, such as Good King Wenceslas.

Over the Twelve Days, there were multiple activities. Two activities were the Lord of Misrule and the Boy Bishops. The Lord of Misrule would govern over the festivities and general partying. Meanwhile, the Boy Bishop focused on the idea of role reversal that was common during Christmastide. Basically, a boy would take over the role of presiding over the mass. However, this English tradition didn’t last long into the Tudor period as it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived briefly, and then fully abolished by Elizabeth I. Regardless, there was a common theme of role reversal in Tudor Christmas activities where masters would serve their servants, and vice versa.

Twelfth Night

For the Tudors, their feasting and revelry would culminate in Twelfth Night. This day would usually have some of the loudest and most boisterous celebrating of the whole season. A Shakespeare play is named after this celebratory day and features elements of role reversal. According to legend, it was originally intended to be performed on Twelfth Night as a part of the entertainment.

How the Tudors Celebrated Christmas
Twelfth Night by David Teniers

So, what do you think about how the Tudors celebrated Christmas? Do you like their food or do think that maybe they would go a bit over the top? The Tudors, just like us today, enjoyed feasting and partying during this festive season, even if their celebrations looked a bit different.

Sources and Image Notes:

A Bit of Holly: Creative Commons

Modern Mince Pies: Creative Commons

Twelfth Night: Created in the 1650s, in the Public Domain

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