How to have a 'Merrie' Christmas
It’s no secret that the Tudors liked a party. Henry VIII was infamous for his expensive and lavish tastes, and ability to throw a good soiree - and Christmastime was no exception. At a time of year when everything was sparse, cold, and dark, Tudor homes across England were filled with light, laughter, feasts, and fun. The celebrations that took place during the 12 days of Christmas, however, were unlike any other celebrations seen in the Tudor court.
Nowadays, you’ll find people starting to get into the Christmas spirit as soon as Halloween has ended, but for the Tudors, Christmas celebrations took place strictly between the 25th of December and the fifth of January. But what the Tudors lacked in time, they certainly made up for in rigorous Christmas spirit.
In Tudor England, the 12 days of Christmas were a time of great spiritual and personal importance. After a gruelling year of toiling hard, working-class families would have these 12 days off to celebrate their faith and families. At the same time, the upper classes would observe the period through hospitality and kindness to their poorer neighbours and subjects.
Many of the Christmas traditions that we still celebrate today have evolved from the practices of the Tudors. Pantomimes, carolling, eating and drinking a little too much, and spending much valued time playing games with your family: here’s how the Tudors celebrated the 12 days of Christmas.
What are the 12 days of Christmas?
Preparation for the 12 days of Christmas started four weeks ahead of the event. Whether you were in the court of Henry Tudor or a working-class family living in the middle of nowhere - a four-week fast was a way to prepare spiritually and mentally for the holy days that were to come.
Families would start to decorate their houses with plants like holly and ivy on Christmas eve. Bringing these plants into your home in the winter was considered good luck as they were still green and full of life, even when the rest of the forest had died away for the winter.
If you or your family worked with particular tools of the trade, these would often be used as part of the Christmas decorations. Spinning wheels, for example, would be adorned with plants and ribbons to ensure that they remained unused throughout the 12 days of Christmas.
The first day of Christmas
The first day of Christmas, December 25, started with a midnight mass, which everyone was expected to attend dressed in their very best clothes.
After another church service in the morning, people would break their fast with a Christmas feast. While nowadays we might tuck into our favourite sweets and chocolates on Christmas morning ahead of a large roast dinner, Tudors would have sat down to meals featuring luxurious spiced meats, steamed plum puddings, pies, and stuffing.
The second day of Christmas
While today we celebrate Boxing Day on December 26th, the Tudors would have celebrated St. Stephen’s Day. Known for his charity and kindness, St Stephen was honoured with a day of charity. The upper classes would often open their doors and host dinners and entertainment for their poorer neighbours, who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to Christmas celebrations traditions.
Henry VIII himself would host feasts that were so lavish and large for his poorer subjects that they would have to build a temporary kitchen in the courtyards of his palace to cater for the additional 1,000 guests. Entertainment would include overly caricatured folk plays (not dissimilar to our modern-day pantomimes), wassailing (carolling) and music.
The fourth day of Christmas
Childermas, AKA The Feast of the Holy Innocents, was a celebration dedicated to remembering the children who were slaughtered by King Herod in Bethlehem. The day, although dedicated to honouring children, started with a bizarre tradition. Children were whipped in the morning by their parents to make them empathise with the suffering of the children of Bethlehem. Their suffering was rewarded, however, as they would be in charge of their parents for the rest of the day.
The seventh day of Christmas
New Year’s Eve was a day dedicated to playing games and sports with friends and family. Thanks to a law by Henry VIII that stated that working men could only play certain games during Christmas, most working people had to make the most of the short time given to them. As typical Tudor families worked hard throughout the year and didn’t have time for play, a chance to engage in games like blind man’s bluff and hide and seek was a very welcome escape.
The eighth day of Christmas
New Year’s Day was traditionally the day when people exchanged gifts. In the Tudor court, it was expected that everyone would offer gifts to the king which included money, food, gold cups, and paintings. One year he was even gifted a pet marmoset!
All the celebrations had been leading up to this important final night - the last night of celebration before the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. Signalling the end of Christmas and the return to normality, the Twelfth Night was typically celebrated with more feasting, drinking, and merriment.
The most exciting part of any Twelfth Night celebration was a Twelfth Night cake. Similar to the Victorian tradition of hiding a silver sixpence in Christmas pudding that is more commonly practised today, in Tudor times, a bean would be hidden inside the Twelfth Night cake.
Men would take slices from one side of the cake, while women took slices from the other. Whoever found the bean was declared King or Queen of the Bean and would be charged with hosting the evening's entertainment. Parlour games, music, and alcohol were an important part of the Twelfth Night celebrations as well.
The feast of Epiphany would mark the official end of the Christmas season. Starting much like the first day of Christmas, the Epiphany festivities would begin with a church visit for the Epiphany service. Families would then return home to a feast of roast lamb and an Epiphany tart - a star-shaped tart filled with a fruit jam. They’d also take down any remaining Christmas decorations and return their homes to normal, ready for the year ahead.