On Wednesday I was making a mincemeat pie from the Tudor recipe book A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary For All Such Delight Therein. But what would the Tudor Christmas festivities where this pie was eaten be like? Would they be as unrecognisable to modern eyes as their mince pie compared to ours?
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the traditional Christmas period began with Christmas Day and ran through the 12 Days of Christmas to Epiphany. The Advent period in the countdown to Christmas would certainly not have involved the kind of chocolate Advent Calendars we know today, or gingerbread like mine, as this was a time of fasting only broken with a big feast on Christmas Day itself. In other ways, however, the Tudor Christmas was quite familiar.
In terms of Christmas food in the Tudor period, pies were very much part of the menu. One tradition allowed for a Christmas pie with thirteen ingredients, one each for Jesus and his apostles (my 1584 pie recipe had 9 ingredients, although if you count the flour, lard, milk and water in the pastry then that makes 13), while another Tudor festive pie introduced the recently renewed concept of the multi-bird roast. These pies would have contained within them a pigeon inside a partridge inside a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey.
On the subject of turkey, the Tudors were the ones to first utilise this, what has become the standard Christmas roast, as it is not native to this country. Like the potato, another key ingredient to the modern Christmas dinner, turkeys came over to Europe from America, but, by the reign of Henry VIII, they were already being eaten on feast days such as Christmas.
The boar’s head (pictured prominently in the photo that I took at work, displayed at the top of the page) remained a popular Christmas feast choice, probably dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. It was immortalised in song when The Boar’s Head Carol in the first printed collections of Christmas carols published by print pioneer Wynkyn de Worde (he was the first person to print English books with italics, Hebrew or Arabic letters) during the reign of Henry VIII in 1521. Other popular carols already in existence at the time include While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethelehem and The Holly and the Ivy.
This last gives some indication of how evergreen plants had long since come to be associated with Christmas. While the Christmas tree as we know it would have to wait for the 19th century and the influence of German culture popularised (albeit not introduced) by Prince Albert, the use of plants that remain verdant through the cold winter months as decoration pre-dates Christian Christmas and would have been used in such earlier pagan mid-winter festivities as Saturnalia and Yule. As can be seen in the picture above, there was no shortage of holly, ivy and mistletoe in the Tudor Christmas.
While there was no tradition of Christmas gift giving, there was a tendency to mark the New Year with gifts (or at least, according to lists in gift rolls, to give one to the monarch). Officially New Year in England occurred on March 25th (Lady Day, the feast of Annunciation, essentially the celebration of Jesus’ conception) until 1752, but that didn’t stop January 1st being celebrated as well.
Robert Dudley, played in very fictionalised form by Joseph Fiennes in Elizabeth, gave the Queen as wristwatch, not unlike the gift that many will give this Christmas, only in his case it is notable as being the very first wristwatch around and, therefore, something of a novelty. Another year he bought her silk stockings, while the noted poet Sir Philip Sidney (author of Astrophil and Stella and Arcadia) gave her a jewel encrusted whip (one can assume the Elizabethan equivalent of Ann Summers was doing a roaring Christmas trade).
The festive merry-making, however, during Tudor Christmas was something that has been less enduring, only preserved in a twee Renaissance Faire-esque fashion these days. The Twelve Days of Christmas were the one point in the year when the prescriptive social order of Tudor society could be messed around with a bit. Twelfth Night was a time in which the servants and masters experienced some playful role reversal and this topsy-turvy scenario is the inspiration for the crossdressing romantic farce of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Lords of Misrule would be tasked with organising popular fun and entertainments of the day including football (not all that similar to today’s version), mummers plays and wassailing.
One Tudor Christmas tradition that continues in my childhood home town and almost nowhere else is that of the Boy Bishop. During Henry VIII’s reign this practice was apparently banned for mocking church authority (now that Henry himself was head of the church), but it clearly still went on afterwards. An altar boy would be elected to assume the role of Bishop over the Christmas period and would carry out the Bishop’s roles including preaching sermons.
While the many bird roast, mince pies, holly, ivy, watches and stockings are still going to be part of a reasonable few people’s Christmas Day, this sort of subversion of traditional societal roles probably won’t. And you have to think that that’s probably a good thing if only because it indicates 21st century society is not typically so constrained in what role we can assume for the rest of the year!