According to Claire Ridgeway:
[A]advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, was a time of fasting which did not end until Christmas Day. Alison Sim, in “Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England”, writes of how Christmas Eve was particularly strict and Tudor people were not allowed to eat eggs, cheese or meat. On Christmas Day, the festive celebrations began early with a mass before dawn and then two further masses later in the day. Church congregations held lighted tapers as the genealogy of Christ was sung and then they went home to enjoy a well-deserved Christmas Day feast.
The Twelve Days of Christmas started on Christmas Day and finished on Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night. Of course, the majority of the extravagant food and entertainment was for the rich, but even the poor got to celebrate. According to James Hoare, ” … tools were downed and work was forbidden between Christmas Eve (24 December) and Epiphany (6 January).” Of course, it was easier for the men to stick to this rule: they worked in the fields etc. But women worked at home. So one tradition was to cover the spinning wheels with flowers so that they could not be used. Work was resumed on the first Monday after Epiphany and was known as Plough Monday.
Today, the Yule Log usually takes the form of a yummy cake. But James Hoare tells us that it comes from:
A pre-Christian tradition thought to have been introduced by the Norse and maintained by the Tudor gentry, a large log from the base of a tree would be decorated with ribbons and dragged home. Laid upon the great hearth of the manor on Christmas Eve it would be kept smouldering over the full ‘12 Days of Christmas’. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains for next year’s fire.
The Christmas carols ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, ‘The First Noel’ and ‘Good KingIt Wenceslaus’ were born in the Tudor period. Christmas Carols in the Tudor period also involved dancing as well as singing. It was at this time that Christmas carols branched out into secular topics as well as religious material.
It is believed that the minced pie (or pye as it was called then) came from the Tudor period. It was certainly used then. It was made with thirteen ingredients (prunes, raisins, dates, powdered beef, butter, egg yolk, flour, suet or marrow, and minced mutton and seasoned with salt, pepper and saffron). It is said that it contained thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles – although why it wasn’t served at Easter in that instance is a mystery to me.
The ‘kissing bough – or wreath’ was another tradition borrowed from the pagan past. Today, of course, we just have mistletoe, but in the past, the bough was made from “… mistletoe, ash, hazel or willow, covered in evergreens and supporting an effigy of the baby Jesus in the centre.” I imagine that this is where our traditional Christmas wreath also came from.
Gifts were also exchanged during the Twelve Days of Christmas – but on New Years Day.
Let’s not forget food! Sandra Byrd sets it out nicely:
In Tudor Times the most sumptuous feasts were held on 25th Dec, 1st Jan and 6th Jan. In 1532/33, the preparation for the 12th night feast at Greenwich palace required the building of a temporary boiling and working house. Up to 24 courses would be served, much more than was needed for the guests, but it was a status symbol. Leftover food was always used to feed the poor.
Now – why was food and feasting become so important? Advent, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends Christmas Day, was a time that ” … consisted of fasting and a limited range of foods which were allowed to be eaten … Christmas Eve was particularly strict and people were not allowed to eat eggs, cheese or meat.” (Claire Ridgeway on Sarah Bryson’s post).
But the feasting began Christmas Day. All kinds of meats: swan, boar, turkey, goose, partridge, peacock – nothing was too extravagant for a Christmas feast. But why tell you about it when I can show you. This excellent documentary is well worth watching: A Tudor Feast at Christmas.
With that, I leave you to a Merry Christmas, with blessings for you and those you love at Christmas.
Featured image from tudortutor.com