Christmas and New Year traditions in Medieval and Tudor England

Nowadays most of us are familiar with Christmas celebrations being centred mainly around Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve,  but what were these celebrations like in centuries gone by? Let’s look at some of the Christmas traditions of our medieval and Tudor ancestors – many of which are still around today.

Christmas – a full 12-day affair:

1) During Medieval and Tudor times, Christmas Day itself marked an end to fasting which had begun on Advent Sunday – four weeks earlier – during which time certain foods such as meat, cheese and eggs were not allowed to be eaten.

Much as today, the Christmas period was one of rest; by order of law, work on the land was forbidden, except for tending animals. Spinning, which was mainly a woman’s occupation, was banned and flowers were placed on the spinning wheels to prevent their use. Work re-commenced on Plough Monday – the first Monday after Twelfth nigh (usually 6th January).

A watercolour of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree (Royal Collection Trust)

2) Christmas trees first made their appearance in Germany in the early 1500s, but in England where they were not introduced until German Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) had a yew tree branch put on display at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December 1800.

It was Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, however, who brought the custom of the fir tree over from his native Germany. Homes were decorated with holly, mistletoe, ivy, box, laurel and yew.

3) Christmas Carols became popular during Tudor times and were seen as a way of spreading the word of the nativity. The earliest recorded Carols were from Winken de Worde’s ”Christmasse Carolles”, published in 1521, that includes the “Boars Head Carol,” describing the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a yuletide feast.

4) Food:  Turkey as a bird to eat at Christmas was first introduced into England in the 1520s, and Henry VIII was among the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. Its popularity quickly increased and large flocks of turkey were soon to be seen walking from Norfolk to London.

christmas was a time of feasting. (Steve Brace)

The Tudor Christmas Pie was an extraordinary dish consisting of a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a partridge, stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin, and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.

The Tudors also enjoyed ‘minst pyes’ that held religious significance and included 13 ingredients representing Christ and his apostles. The ingredients typically consisted of dried fruits, spices and mutton – not the sweet kind we enjoy today!

5) The Burning of a Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, the tradition involved selecting a large log from the forest on Christmas Eve, decorating it with ribbons and then dragging it home to the hearth.

The log was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas and it was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to help light the fire the following year.

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Embed from Getty Images

6) Wassailing was a popular Christmas tradition practiced throughout all levels of society and derives from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘your good health’.

The word as we know it today first appears in ‘Beowulf’, an 8th century poem; here, it is not a drink, but a salute to warriors.

“Forlorn he looks on the lodge of his son,
wine-hall waste and wind-swept chambers
reft of revel. The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in courts no wassail, as once was heard.”

This tradition took numerous different forms across the isles, developing over time, but all focused around a ‘wassail’ bowl  – often wooden – and a communal drink. The bowl contained hot ale, wine or cider, with sugar, spices and apples.

Apple farming communities in the south would wassail their crops in the mid-winter to ward off evil spirits and ensure a healthy harvest the following year. For others, tenants would gather at the lord’s manor house, holding up a bowl of steaming spiced alchol, crying “Wassail!” with the crowd replying, “Drink hail!” before devolving into Christmas revelry.

Another take on this is that the most important person in the household would take a drink and then pass it on. There was å crust of bread at the bottom of the wassail bowl – the origin of a modern day ‘toast’ when celebrating.

Wassailing was popular in the medieval period. (Magic Foundry)

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Some wassails, however, were a bit more grand. Although most of the descriptions of how wassail was performed date from post Tudor times, there is one surviving description from the reign of Henry VII. It paints a very formal picture; the steward and treasurer were present with their staves of office and then the steward enters with the wassail bowl, calling out “wassell, wassell, wassell” and the court responds with a song.

7) The tradition of the Boy Bishop took place on the 6th of December, the feast of St Nicholas or on Holy Innocent’s Day, the 28th December and involved a boy being selected from the Choir to lead the community for a short time. The Boy Bishop would perform all duties except for celebrating mass. This tradition had been around since the tenth century, and proved so popular that many London parishes provided them with elaborate vestments.

The tradition continued until 1541 when Henry VIII banned Boy Bishops altogether. The Boy Bishop reappears again under Mary I and Elizabeth I and interestingly, is still practiced in a few churches, including both Hereford and Salisbury Cathedral today.

New Year:

8) New Years’ gifts: The main feature of the 1st of January then was the giving and receiving of New Years’ gifts. In the upper classes, gift giving was of great political significance and undertaken with much ceremony, evident in the fact that all royal gifts were recorded in a New Year’s Gift list.

(The Tudors believed that the new year began on March 25th and on this day held the Feast of Annunciation which celebrates the day when Mary was first told of the forthcoming birth of Jesus. This old form of dating is known as Lady Day dating, and is the reason you might see dates written as ’10th February 1673/4′; we would consider it to be 1674, but contemporarily, it was 1673.)

Instructions for the reception of royal gifts in Henry VIII’s court survive today: “The King would finish dressing on New Year’s morning, and just as he put his shoes on a fanfare would be sounded and one of the Queen’s servants would come in carrying a gift from her, followed by the servants of other important courtiers bearing their master’s gifts. The Queen, meanwhile, also received gifts in her own chamber.”

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If the King accepted your gift you were held in favour – but if the King rejected your gift things were not looking good for you. Perhaps the best example of this occurred in 1532 when Henry VIII accepted an exotic set of richly decorated Pyrenean boar spears as a New Year’s present from Anne Boleyn, but rejected Katherine of Aragon’s gold cup. Henry and Anne would go on to wed the following year.

In 1571, the Duke of Norfolk, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London for his involvement in the revolt of the Northern Earls, sent Queen Elizabeth I a very lavish jewel as a New Year’s gift. Although impressive, Elizabeth rejected the gift as a sign of her displeasure with his actions; the Duke was executed on 2nd June 1572.

The New Year’s gift could also be a way of regaining royal favour. In 1580 Sir Philip Sydney angered Queen Elizabeth by writing to her and imploring her not to marry the Duc d’Alencon. But in 1581, after presenting Elizabeth with a jewelled whip to show his subjection to her will, he regained royal favour once more.

After being presented with a gift, the Monarch would give a gift in return and demonstrate their generosity by ensuring their gift  was of more monetary value than that which they received. In 1532 after receiving Anne Boleyn’s gift, King Henry VIII gave her a matching set of hangings for her room and bed, in cloth of gold, cloth of silver and richly embroidered crimson satin.

The messengers that presented the gifts on behalf of their masters were also rewarded with money. A sliding scale determined how much the messenger received and depended on whether they were a knight, an esquire or an ordinary messenger.

The Queen was also expected to give gifts to her ladies-in-waiting. In 1533, Anne Boleyn gave her ladies palfreys and saddles. The Queen’s ladies also gave the King gifts; these were generally personal items such as embroidered shirts. In 1534, Elizabeth Boleyn, Anne’s mother, gave Henry VIII a velvet case embroidered with the royal arms, containing six collars, three worked with gold and three with silver. Anne’s sister in law, Lady Rochford, presented the King a shirt with a collar of silver work.

Another gift worthy of mention is Anne Boleyn’s New Year’s gift to Henry VIII in 1534. On this occasion, Anne gave the King a silver gilt table fountain almost certainly designed by Holbein. The fountain was a pumped device which circulated rosewater into a basin so that diners could rinse their hands.

The custom of exchanging gifts at court served a political purpose. It was a way for the upper class to gain royal favour, to assert their status and show off their wealth by giving incredibly lavish gifts. It was also a way for the Monarch to show their pleasure or displeasure by accepting or rejecting gifts.

Twelfth Night: 

Epiphany is the day on which the three wise men visited the infant Jesus, but it also marked the end of a winter time festival that began on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) and was widely celebrated with feasting, parties, games and pranks. It was tradition for roles in society to be reversed for this short time, with the gentry and rich taking on the roles of servants, and serving the food at feasts to their staff.

To this day there is still come confusion as to the exact date of Twelfth night – some believe it to be Epiphany Eve, 5th January and some Epiphany itself – 6th January. The confusion seems to arise from the fact that in medieval times the day ended at sunset, meaning Twelfth night would begin on the 5th and end on the 6th.

9) A Twelfth night cake was prepared for the occasion with a bean and a pea contained within. (See a photo of a modern recreation here) The person who had the bean in his slice became ‘King’ of the Twelfth night celebrations and whoever had the pea in became the ‘Queen’. By Samuel Pepys’ time in the 1660s, the tradition remained, although people began to not put the tokens in the cake for fear of it being spoiled…

“(Twelfth day). Up, and to look after things against dinner to-day for my guests, and then to the Office to write down my journall for five or six days backward, and so home to look after dinner, it being now almost noon,” wrote the famous diarist. He lists all the guests who were invited to his house for the celebration. “These were my guests, and Mrs. Turner’s friend, whom I saw the other day, Mr. Wicken, and very merry we were at dinner, and so all the afternoon, talking, and looking up and down my house; and in the evening I did bring out my cake — a noble cake, and there cut it into pieces, with wine and good drink: and after a new fashion, to prevent spoiling the cake, did put so many titles into a hat, and so drew cuts; and I was the Queene; and The. Turner, King — Creed, Sir Martin Marr-all; and Betty, Mrs. Millicent: and so we were mighty merry till it was night; and then, being moonshine and fine frost, they went home, I lending some of them my coach to help to carry them, and so my wife and I spent the rest of the evening in talk and reading, and so with great pleasure to bed.”

10) Masques and plays: In ‘Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England’, Alison Sim describes how the 6th of January started with a church service and would end with ‘some form of feasting and entertainment’. The King would dress in his royal robes and crown, and a masque or other similar form of entertainment would take place.

The Lord of Misrule, also known as ‘King of Christmas’, was a person who supervised entertainments and generally caused chaos.
Tudor monarchs often appointed their own personal Lord of Misrule. Henry VII appointed both a Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason. In 1525, Henry VIII appointed one for himself and one for Princess Mary’s household.

a twelfth night ‘corontation’ (Jonas Evertsson)

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The entertainments they supervised were often rowdy and chaotic and it was the fear of public disorder and mayhem that led to the institution being discouraged during Elizabeth’s reign.

Plays were also put on and Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ was written as a Twelfth night entertainment around 1601-2. The plot uses elements of Twelfth night frivolities, such as the female character disguising herself as a man, and includes musical interludes and riotous disorder.

11) Music: It was also traditional for different types of pipes to be played, especially bagpipes. Lots of games were played including ones with eggs. These included tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw – drop it and you lose; and passing an egg around on spoons. Another popular game was ‘snapdragon’ where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy!

These days by the time Twelfth night comes along, most of us are back at work or school, and the only remaining tradition is that the Christmas decorations must be taken down to ensure no bad luck for the coming year. This Christmas, Twelfth night falls at a weekend, so why not take the opportunity of extending your Christmas a little more, ward off the January blues and have some fun with family and friends by bringing back to life some of the lost traditions of this once important festival?

Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.
Sim, A. Food and Feast in Tudor England, 1997.
Sim, A. Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England, 2009.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys

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