Some 500 years ago, Christmas was the time where communities outside of politics came together to celebrate; in the Tudor court, greater emphasis was placed on what we call today – networking! Generally, however, it was a time to be with the family, visit neighbours and entertain your tenants or social equals. It was also a time for fasting and on Christmas Eve you were not permitted to eat meat, cheese or eggs. On Christmas day, after three masses were said, the genealogy of Christ was sung and all present would hold lighted tapers before departing for home and enjoying “their first unrestricted meal since Advent Sunday, which was four weeks earlier”. It was also a time for rest when all work on the land stopped, with the only exception being to look after the animals. Spinning, the prime occupation for women at the time, was banned and ceremonial flowers were placed on the wheels to prevent their use. All Work recommenced on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
However, the root of this particular midwinter ritual go back long before the birth of Christ for midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. We have to go back to the shortest day, which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’.
For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in the sixth century by Dionysius, an ‘innumerate’ Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.
Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice appears both logical and shrewd – blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.
One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.
The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the period starting with St Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop’s regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII abolished Boy Bishops, however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.
The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word ‘Yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative term for Christmas. Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.
Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same – a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories, normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the Boars Head Carol.
Carols became very popular during Tudor time and were seen as a way of celebrating Christmas and spreading the word of the nativity. Winken de Worde’s ‘Christmasse Carolles’, published in 1521, is the earliest recorded published collection and includes the Boars Head Carol describing the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a yuletide feast; the head being garnished with rosemary and bay before being presented to diners. However, celebrations came to an abrupt end in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits – Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem – to mention but a few.
Twelve Days of Christmas:
The twelve days of Christmas themselves (25th December- 6th January) were all celebrated but not equally. The main three days of celebration being Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, these twelve days would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels to prevent their use. During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional ‘minced pye’. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds.
Serious feasting would have been the reserve of royalty and the gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.
A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted 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.
This popular Christmas tradition was practiced throughout all levels of society and derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. Essentially it involved a wassail bowl and a communal drink.
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. The bowl was a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples with a crust of bread at the bottom. The most important person in the household would take a drink and then pass it on. The crust of bread at the bottom of the wassail bowl was reserved for the most important person in the room, the origin of a modern day ‘toast’ when celebrating. Some believe that most wassails of the time were probably more fun and less grand. Today, communal drinking may sound alien, but it was very common in Tudor times.