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A Tudor Christmas By Karen Davies

Written by: Peter Fishlock : 24 Dec 2019

The timing of Christmas has its roots in paganism. Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, believing that in the darkness of winter, the sun would return to the earth, bringing warmth and light so a new cycle of life could begin. Over time, many of the traditions of paganism were absorbed into the Church. We tend to think of Christmas traditions as having their origins in the Victorian era, which gave us many of the things we recognise about Christmas today, but many of the old traditions such as eating mince pies, singing carols, kissing under the mistletoe, Father Christmas, and even Christmas trees date back to the Renaissance or even earlier. Legend has it, that the reformist monk Martin Luther was walking through the forest near his Wittenburgh home when the sight of the stars twinkling in the clear sky above the trees inspired him to set a tree in his house, lit with candles to acknowledge the starry heavens from which Christ came.

A Tudor Christmas

A Tudor Christmas

Pagans believed in the Green Man, known as Ing, who represented fertility and rebirth. Occasionally we see Father Christmas dressed in green. Playing on the tradition of fertility, in the Christmas of 1533, Anne Boylen gifted Henry VIII a golden fountain flanked by three naked women whose nipples spurted water. Legend has it that kissing under the mistletoe originates from the story of the Norse goddess, Frigg, whose son, Baldur, died from being stabbed with a sprig of mistletoe. Frigg’s tears transformed into the tiny pearlescent berries. Frigg then commanded that whoever met under the mistletoe must kiss in the spirit of friendship and that enemies must lay down their arms and observe a truce. Thirteen ingredients went into mince pies in honour of Christ and his twelve apostles, along with the leftovers of shredded meats. Unlike the small mince pies we know today, Tudor mince pies were large. The youngest person present got the first slice and had to make a wish.

Food and Drink

Food and Drink

Music was a big part of Christmas entertainment in Tudor times. Town waits, as they were known, went from house to house singing carols for money and food. Some of our oldest carols originate from the Tudor period. Christopher Tye, musical advisor to Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son wrote While Shepperd’s Watch Their Flocks by Night. The Feast of Stephen, mentioned in Good King Wenceslas, originated in the thirteenth century in honour of Saint Stephen and took place on 26th December, Saint Stephen’s Day. On Christmas Eve in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, you would have woken to a day of fasting that would end at noon with a meal of fish. Leading up to Christmas Eve, devout Christians would have fasted for forty days, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, to prepare themselves spiritually for Christmas. Because of this, people didn’t decorate their houses until Christmas Eve when they would go out into the woods to collect holly, ivy, and evergreen. The Tudors believed these plants possessed magical powers. Evergreens also represented everlasting life. Holly was symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns as well as being thought to give protection against witches and goblins at a time of year when dark spirits roamed free. A yule log was bought home on Christmas eve to burn for the twelve days of Christmas.

Henry 8th

Henry 8th

The Tudors decorated their churches, porches, and spinning wheels, which they set in the windows of their houses, with boughs of holly. The kissing bough was a fashionable decoration, made from two pieces of cane with evergreens and holly wrapped around it and a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the bottom. People would kiss under it for the twelve days of Christmas, removing a berry every time someone claimed a kiss until there were no berries left.

The King kept a lavish Christmas court. The celebrations lasted for the twelve days of Christmas, from 25th December to 6th January. Over a thousand people celebrated Christmas at court.

Christmas dinner was served in the great hall. Each course carried in accompanied by the blast of trumpets and drums. In 1500, one hundred and four peacocks were served at a Christmas feast. Jellies and sugar sculptures of castles, coats of arms, ships, and chess boards were made for Christmas.

Imagine the great halls of Greenwich and Richmond palace on a cold night, where the Tudors spent Christmas. The yule log is burning, and the woody smell of firs and evergreens is thick in the air. The walls are hung with tapestries, the glass windows catching the light, and silver and pewter glisten on the trestles. Everyone is bright and merry, dressed in beautiful clothes.

The Tudors exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day. For her first Christmas, Princess Mary received four gowns trimmed with ermine fur. In 1532, Anne Boleyn gave Henry VIII a set of Pervinian boar spears. Cardinal Wolsey gave Henry VIII a gold cup each year. The monarch also gave gifts. Everyone at the court of high and low rank received a present.

On 6th January, the yule log burnt out, and the Christmastide celebrations ended with the feast of Epiphany. To get a real sense of what a Tudor Christmas was like, I suggest visiting the Hampton Court Palace Festive fayre where you can eat, drink, and make merry as you browse the stalls for gifts and listen to carols in the Royal Chapel.

This article was written by Karen Davies, writer, and historian. https://www.karenldavies.com.

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