12 Days of Tudor Christmas
Did you know that many of our favourite Christmas traditions actually date back to the Tudor period? Festive activities such as carol-singing, present-giving and consuming vast quantities of mulled wine and mince pies were all part of a proper Tudor Christmas! Check out our 12 days of Tudor Christmas below to find out more!
1 Lord of Misrule – The Lord of Misrule was a character who was appointed to manage the Christmas festivities at court during the late medieval and Tudor period. His reign as the Lord of Misrule could last between 12 days to three months and he was responsible for coordinating and directing all Christmas entertainment, which included huge masques, processions, plays and feasts, and making sure everyone was merry!
2 Wassail Bowls – Another much older tradition inherited from the Anglo-Saxons was that of Wassailing, similar to modern traditions of drinking mulled wine at Christmas time. A wassail was a large wooden bowl containing hot ale, flavoured with apple, sugar and spices. This bowl was taken door to door, while the bearers sang festive songs. A crust of bread was placed at the bottom of the Wassail bowl and offered to the most important person in the room – hence why people today toast at ceremonies and special occasions.
3 Ghost Stories – One strange Tudor Christmas tradition was to tell ghost stories! The Tudors would tell ghost stories by the fireside at Christmas, especially on Christmas Eve. They did this because they believed that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest on the Winter Solstice (21st December) and that spirits could walk on the earth at that time.
4(0) Days of Advent – Some Tudors did penance and participated in fasting – particularly avoiding meat, cheese and eggs, for Advent – the 40 days before Christmas. This was the way that good Christians were meant to spiritually prepare themselves for the coming of Christ on Christmas morning. On Christmas day, feasting would then begin in earnest around the country.
5 Christmas Carols – Carols grew in popularity over the Tudor period as a way to celebrate Christmas and spread the story of the nativity. Many 16th century carols are still sung today including The Holly and the Ivy, We Wish You a Merry Christmas and Good King Wenceslaus.
6 Yule Logs – Yule logs would be found in every Tudor household over Christmas. Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve and brought home. It would then be decorated with colourful ribbons and put on the hearth. After the Yule log was lit, it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was also thought to be lucky to keep some of the charred remains of the chosen log to kindle the Yule log the next year.
7 Kissing Boughs – Most Tudor houses were decorated with a ‘kissing bough’ at Christmas– a wreath woven from ash, hazel or willow and covered in evergreens, especially holly and bay. Sometimes apples were stuck in the bough, but there was always a sprig of mistletoe and often an effigy of the baby Jesus. This bough would be hung from the ceiling using a wooden frame and visitors who walked underneath it would be embraced as a sign of goodwill. This led to the custom of kissing underneath mistletoe.
8 Christmas Presents – In the Tudor times, presents were not given at Christmas, instead they were given at New Year. For monarchs this giving of gifts was very political. In 1509 – his first year as king – Henry VIII spent £400,000 in today’s money on presents. On New Year’s day, servants would come bearing gifts, with the queen’s coming first. Giving generously would gain favour with the king or queen, while refusing gifts was a highly effective way of communicating contempt.
9 Minced Pyes - During the 12 days of Christmas, people would visit their neighbours and share a traditional ‘minced pye’ or Christmas pye. The pyes would have thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his 12 apostles; typically this was dried fruits, spices and some chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds. Minced pyes were served at the beginning of the meal and the loaf shape was meant to represent baby Jesus’ crib.
10 Turkeys (and other assorted birds) - Henry VIII is credited with making turkey the official Christmas bird following its introduction to England in the 1520s. It quickly became fashionable among the Tudor nobility and was often served in a Christmas pie, where it was stuffed with many other game birds. The demand for turkeys became so great that flocks of turkeys had to be herded to London on foot from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with the migration starting as early as August each year!
11 Boy Bishops – Following a medieval tradition, ‘boy bishops’ took over the duties of high ranking members of the clergy from 6th December until 28/29th December. They were chosen from cathedral choirs and dressed with expensive miniature vestments. In this strange tradition, they enjoyed the same power as the clergy and took all the services that bishops would have (apart from Mass). When they preached sermons they were given gifts. However many of the ‘boy bishops’ were very mischievous and extorted people during their reigns!
12 Days of Christmas – The 12 Days of Christmas lasted from Christmas Eve (24th December) to Epiphany (6th January). During this period work was forbidden and to keep women from doing their chores, it was common to decorate spinning wheels with flowers and ribbons.