On the first day of Christmas…
We all know the popular Christmas song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', with its ‘partridge in a pear tree’ and ‘Five gold rings!’, but which ones are the twelve days of Christmas? They don’t match up with our 24-day advent calendars, so where do they come from? Are they just made up for the song?
The answer is no! The original twelve days of Christmas were a series of religious feast days celebrated as part of the Roman Catholic religion in medieval and Tudor England. Starting on Christmas Day, there were 12 days of religious celebrations, feasting and entertainments that lasted all the way up to 5 January.
On this page, we’ll explore some of these traditions, and discover how the Tudors celebrated Christmas.
24 December – Christmas Eve
While today many people enjoy chocolate advent calendars to count down the days to Christmas, Tudor people fasted for four weeks leading up to it. They also fasted on Christmas Eve. This meant not eating meat, cheese or eggs – and it must have made the thought of a big Christmas Day feast even more exciting!
Everyone, even poorer people, stopped working for 12 days starting on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, people decorated their homes with whatever greenery they could find growing, including holly, ivy, mistletoe and other evergreens that are still popular at Christmas today. The green plants, still growing even in winter when other plants had died, were thought to symbolise eternal life. It was considered good luck to bring them into the home on Christmas Eve, but bad luck to do it any earlier. Because people were not meant to work over Christmas, women would decorate household items like spinning wheels, so that they would be unable to use them until after the 12 days.
25 December – Christmas Day
Christmas Day, the first day of Christmas, began with Midnight Mass. Church bells rang, candles were lit, and at last the celebrations could begin! Everyone wore their best clothes. At court, Henry VIII wore new clothes on Christmas Day, and new things were given to royal attendants and servants too.
After going to church in the morning, people sat down to their Christmas feast. Plum porridge (a thick meat broth made with plums, spices, dried fruits and wine) was served first. Then, there were roasted meats like boar, venison and birds, as well as brawn, a Tudor Christmas favourite. It was made using pork or boar meat, served sliced and decorated with herbs and fruits. It was so popular at court that at Greenwich Palace, extra cooking space had to be added to make more! For poorer people, meat was a luxury that they often could not afford, but at Christmas, they would have goose as a festive treat.
Alongside the meat, both rich and poor people ate pies, stuffing, frumenty (a kind of sweet porridge made with wheat, eggs, milk, spices, fruits and sugar) and puddings. Brussels sprouts might even have been on the Tudor Christmas Day menu – the first reference to them is from 1538. They also enjoyed mince pies and gingerbread.
26 December – The Feast of St Stephen
The second day of Christmas in Tudor England was the Feast of St Stephen. He was the first Christian martyr (a person killed defending their Christian faith) and was known for helping the poor. Today, most people might have heard of St Stephen in a Christmas song – 'Good King Wenceslas':
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
In the song, King Wenceslas goes out into the cold snowy night with his servant to deliver food and firewood to a poor man. The words to this song might have been written by a Victorian many years after the Tudors lived, but the idea is the same – The Feast of St Stephen was a day for charity and giving to those in need. At the time of the Tudors, Alms (charity) boxes in churches were opened, and the money was shared out to poor people.
27 December – The Feast of St John
The third day of Christmas was the Feast of St John, who was said to have miraculously drunk a glass of poisoned wine without becoming ill. Because of this, people celebrated by drinking a lot of wine. Imported European wines were very expensive, and rich people bought lots of wine for Christmas as a way to show off their wealth. Everyone drank ale, which was much cheaper, as well as a drink called ‘Lambs Wool’, which was made by adding spices and apples to beer.
Wassailing was an important Tudor Christmas tradition, and both rich and poor people took part. A large wooden bowl was filled with hot ale or cider, sugar, spices and apples, with a crust of bread at the bottom. It was offered to the most important person in the household first, who would make a toast by shouting ‘Wassail!’ (meaning for your health), then have a drink and pass it on. The next person would then shout ‘Drinkhail!’ before having a sip – and the bowl would be passed around everyone.
28 December – Childermas
Childermas, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents, was on the fourth day of Christmas. On this day, people remembered the children murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, as he tried to kill the baby Jesus. Tudor children were often whipped in the morning to remind them of the suffering of the children in Bethlehem, but for the rest of the day, they were in charge rather than their parents!
This role reversal happened in the church too. Members of the choir were chosen to be ‘Boy Bishops’ on 6 December and they were given the same powers as a real bishop. They had new robes, took church services and preached sermons. They were often given gifts or money as a reward for doing the job, and if a Boy Bishop happened to die, they would be given a full burial as a bishop. Some people complained that they misused their power, but Boy Bishops were protected by a law. Their rule came to an end on 28 December, and the real bishops were in charge once again.
In another popular tradition, boys would shut their schoolmasters (teachers) out of schools, not letting them in until they agreed to hand out fewer punishments or give them more school holidays.
31 December – New year's Eve
New Year’s Eve, the seventh day of Christmas, was traditionally a day for playing games and sports. Rich people hunted and played cards and dice at all times of the year, but Christmas games were livelier than ever! Some ‘parlour games’ that we still play today were also enjoyed by the Tudors, including Blind Man’s Buff and Hide-and-Seek.
For poor people who worked very hard during the rest of the year, Christmas was a chance to relax and have some free time. In fact, Henry VIII even made a law that working men could only play certain games (including football, tennis, dice and cards) at Christmas – so they had to make the most of their opportunity! He also decided that to make sure England’s army always had good archers, the only sport people could do on Christmas Day was archery. Because of this, it became very popular.
During this time the weather was much colder than it is today. This lasted for about 200 years and was known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. In winter, it became so cold that the River Thames regularly froze, and people held fairs and markets, called ‘Frost Fairs’ on the ice. In 1564, courtiers practised their archery, shooting at targets on the ice, and people even played football on the frozen Thames!
1 January – New Year's Day
In Tudor England the eighth day of Christmas or New Year’s Day, not Christmas Day, was the traditional time to give gifts. Evidence suggests that it was mostly upper and middle class people who gave gifts, and these included items of food, expensive spices or money. Medieval people usually gave a gift to their lord on New Year’s Day. In a similar way, it was expected that everyone at the Tudor court would give a gift to the king or queen. These gifts were presented to the monarch in a ceremony, and then each item was displayed on a sideboard for everyone to see. Gifts to Henry VIII included gold cups, paintings, purses of coins, foods and even wild animals – one year he was given a pet marmoset (a type of small monkey)!
It wasn’t all one way, though. Monarchs gave gifts back to their subjects, and one year, Henry VIII spent over £800 (£400,000 today) on Christmas presents! In Christmas 1540, Hans Holbein gave Henry a painting of his young son Edward (the future Edward VI). Henry was so pleased with the gift, that he commissioned a silver-gilt cup (silver that has been covered with a thin layer of gold) to give back to the painter as a thank you.
5 January – Twelfth Night
The twelfth day of Christmas was known as Twelfth Night. It marked the night before the feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the wise men to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Twelfth Night might have signalled the end of Christmas, but people celebrated it with great feasts, games and plays. At the Tudor court, there were masques (a kind of play) and huge banquets. In 1532, a temporary kitchen was set up in the grounds of Greenwich Palace, to help make the 200 dishes which were served up to the guests!
Included in the feasts was a Twelfth Night cake. It was a huge fruit cake, tasting a bit like a giant brioche, and was baked with a coin or dried bean hidden in the mixture on each half of the cake. Men and women took slices from opposite sides of the cake, and whoever found the bean or coin in their piece became the king or queen of the bean. It was their job to host the evening's entertainment, of singing, dancing and games.
The next day, people celebrated the final feast of Christmas – the Epiphany. After church services, they ate roasted lamb, and Epiphany tart, a kind of giant jam tart made in the shape of a star. While people left up their decorations until Candlemas on 2 February, the twelve days of Christmas were over for another year.
OTHER TUDOR CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
Christmas was a time for hospitality, and many people had visitors on feast days from Martinmas, on 11 November, until Candlemas on 2 February. Rich people served food and held entertainments for their guests, who could include servants and poorer people. This made sure that everyone could enjoy celebrating. Henry VIII hosted more than 1,000 people over Christmas. Everyone at the royal court followed strict table manners, although some evidence in The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII tells us about a time when Henry got bored and started throwing sugared plums at his guests!
The Lord of Misrule
A Lord of Misrule was chosen to be in charge of all of the Christmas entertainment. They would organise plays, processions, games and feasts, play pranks on people, and generally encourage everyone to relax usual rules and have fun.
Mumming and Masques
Christmas plays were very popular. ‘Mummers’ (masked actors) put on traditional folk plays, which were very exaggerated, like today’s pantomimes. Masques were a new type of play in England, that focused on music, poetry and dancing, and were often performed by members of the court.
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