Episode 35: A Tudor Christmas

Join Hazel as we goback to a Christmas before industrialisation, even before the reformation and Puritan rule, before Christmas trees, Christmas crackers and yes, even Santa Claus.

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Show Notes

A Tudor Christmas

It does seem that each year Christmas in the shops gets earlier and earlier. And especially with COVID, Christmas decorations, even in my house, went up a little earlier than usual.

And while I’m on the subject of Christmas getting earlier; why oh why do marketors not know when the 12 Days of Christmas are? It seems I am being bombarded by emails and social media posts about them as if they are happening right now.

I’m sorry to burst anyone's bubble but we are currently in the period of advent (29 Nov - 24 Dec). The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day! (hence its name). Perhaps many of us nowadays are too far removed from the real meaning of Christmas to notice this faux pas? But these days meant something to the Tudors.

We are going back to a Christmas before industrialisation, even before the reformation and Puritan rule, before Christmas trees, Christmas crackers and yes, even Santa Claus. 

A Tudor Christmas time had clearly defined rules for living. It dictated what they could or couldn’t do and what they could and couldn’t eat. A Tudor Christmas wasn’t so alien as we may believe; Tudors ate mince pies and sang Christmas carols. They even kissed beneath the mistletoe.

‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ as in the coming of Jesus and covers the four Sundays and weeks before Christmas. If we were devout Catholic Tudors, then during this period of Advent we would now be fasting. That meant no meat, dairy or eggs. And that meant very different things to the rich and the poor. For the rich, it meant supplementing their diet with fish and other aquatic delights such as porpoise or beavers’ tail rather than your usual beef and venison. For the less fortunate there was little change, they wouldn’t have been able to afford much meat anyway. About 80-90% of Tudor England are believed to have been vegetarians; not because of their ethics of lifestyle choice, but simply because they couldn’t afford meat. It’s estimated that a third of the population lived in poverty. Life for regular Tudors was tough and often isolated.

Overwhelmingly, England was a society of small farming communities. People worked and lived on the land six days a week with Sunday being their day of rest. A small proportion of people in the 1500s lived in towns, probably less than 10%.

Traditional roles for Tudor women were looking after livestock, preparing meals, making clothes, candles and medicines. Tudor men would typically do the ploughing and carting. A quarter of country households had servants. Tudor winters were more severe (as they were going through a mini ice age). Life expectancy in Tudor England was c. 40 years.

And now with me approaching my 41st year I feel like I have achieved something. 

 

What was Christmas like for normal Tudors?

Advent Fast

The advent fast was broken on Christmas Eve with a meat or fish dish. Perhaps if regular people couldn’t afford that they added eggs / dairy back into their meal instead? 

 

Decorations

Decorating your home would begin on Christmas Eve too, using bay, holly, ivy and rosemary. 

“Every mas house as also their parish churches were decked with green”

And then onto midnight mass…

 

Christmas Day

Christmas Day is the first day of the twelve days of Christmas, known as the twelfths. And these twelfths had strict rules. One of those rules was the banning of spinnin, the primary role of the women of the house, and so the spinning wheel, along with the house would be decorated, so it couldn’t be used.

It was understood that these holy days, Christmas Day to Twelfth Night, was to be taken by all and for work to resume on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. There was an exception to this rule; key workers. The animals still needed to be fed and this was a woman’s work. Meals needed to be prepared. Woman’s work. So really, what we can say was that the twelve days of Christmas was a holiday for men.

Food plays a big part of a Tudor Christmas, as it does today. During the Twelve Days, people would venture out and visit their neighbours and enjoy a traditional ‘minced pye’. Minced pyes were made from 13 ingredients (representing Christ and his 12 apostles). Recipes vary but most would include dried fruits (raisins, currants and dried prunes), spices (ginger and saffron). A little chopped mutton would be added to the mixture (in remembrance of the Shepherds who watched their flocks by night). If you were wealthy then perhaps you would have splashed out on some imported figs and dried prunes. Spices were an easy Ebay to show your peers how much money you had, or more realistically, how much money you had spent!


The first printed cookery book “A Book of Cookrye necessary for all such as delight therein” Edward Allen, 1591 Long Shop, Poultry, adjoining St Mildred’s Church and four doors away from a London prison; the Poultry compter. He himself had spent time in the Poultry Compter in 1568 for printing Pro-Catholic text. 

Allen printed early editions of plays by Shakespeare including part of the 1st quarto of Romeo and Juliet (1597) and the third quarto of Titus Andronicus (1611). He also printed Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris c 1594.

Carols, carula in latin, meant a dance with a song. Carols were a popular way to celebrate Christmas in Tudor times and spread the story of the nativity. They weren’t, however, sang in church, but in taverns and homes instead.  The earliest recorded published collection of carols is by Wynken de Worde, 1521, which included the Boars Head Carol.

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