The history of Christmas is long and complicated, but by the 16th century, when Henry VIII ruled England, it was beginning to resemble the holiday we know today in some important ways. It may surprise you to learn that some of our favorite traditions of the Christmas season date back to Tudor times, including singing carols, giving gifts, eating turkey—and even kissing under the mistletoe. Take a look back at eight holiday customs from the Tudor period.
12 Days of Christmas
During the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day (known as Advent), most people observed a period of fasting up to and including Christmas Eve. Then the celebrations began, and continued for 12 days, from December 25 to January 6. The three biggest celebrations fell on Christmas Day, New Year’s and Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, on January 6, which honors the arrival of the three kings or three wise men (Magi) to see the baby Jesus.
Though people in Tudor times marked the beginning of the year on March 25 (when they held the Feast of the Annunciation), celebrating and exchanging gifts on January 1 was a holdover from Roman times, when that date was considered the beginning of the year. All work (except taking care of animals) would stop during the 12-day stretch, as everyone from laborers to noblemen devoted themselves to the enjoyment of the Christmas season. Work began again on the first Monday after Twelfth Night, known as Plough Monday.
Today we may recognize the word from classic Christmas carols like “The Wassail Song” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” but what did it mean to go wassailing in Tudor times? During the Christmas season, and particularly on Twelfth Night, groups of people traveled from house to house singing to their neighbors and wishing them good health. As they did, they passed around the communal wassail bowl, a vessel filled with warm ale, wine or cider mixed with spices and honey. The word “wassail” is believed to come from the old Anglo-Saxon toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health.”
Another type of wassailing took place mostly in the country, and involved the blessing of orchards and fruit trees, rather than people, though it also prioritized communal drinking. A holdover from pagan times, this version of wassailing is still around today in cider-producing areas of England and Woodstock, Vermont, among other places.
Over time, the custom of wassailing would become tied up with another Christmas tradition of the Tudor period: caroling. Christmas carols at the time were mostly religious in nature, based around the Nativity story, though some covered themes like hunting or feasting. Some Christmas carols popular during the Tudor period have endured to this day (in different forms): “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “The First Noel.” In the 17th century, Puritans in both England and America would ban all Christmas festivities, and caroling didn’t become customary again until Victorian times.
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Though ordinary citizens of Tudor England may have simply given gifts on New Year’s Day in the spirit of Christmas, royal gifts took on a wider political significance: On the first day of 1532, for example, King Henry VIII accepted a gift from Anne Boleyn (a set of “Pyrenean boar spears”), but rejected the gold cup given him by his then-wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom he was trying to divorce at the time. In 1572, Henry and Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was forced to refuse an impressive jewel given to her by the Duke of Norfolk. At the time, Norfolk was imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly conspiring to replace Elizabeth on the English throne with Mary, Queen of Scots; he was executed later that year.
The “Kissing Bough”
The Christmas tree tradition as we know it likely began in Germany during the 16th century, but it didn’t become widespread in England until some 300 years later. Before then, the most popular decoration in people’s houses during the Yuletide season was the kissing bough, write the authors of A Tudor Christmas (2018). Kissing boughs were woven wooden hoops hung with evergreens like holly and bay leaves and suspended from the ceiling. Of course, a sprig of mistletoe was a must for any kissing bough. The tradition of kissing under that parasitic plant goes back as far as ancient Greece, due to mistletoe’s association with fertility.
After fasting for four weeks, and abstaining from all meat, eggs and cheese, Tudor-era Britons would have been ravenous come Christmas Day. Mince pies (or “pyes”) were such common fare during the 12 days of celebrations that they were known as Christmas pies. Stuffed with meat—particularly mutton, which signified the shepherds who visited the infant Jesus—the pies were also made with suet, sugar, spices and dried fruit. Ideally, they were supposed to contain 13 different ingredients, to symbolize Christ and his 12 apostles.
Tudor Christmas Pie (the Original “Turducken”)
According to Weir and Clarke, the historical record shows the first turkeys arriving in England from the New World in 1526, or right in the middle of Henry VIII’s reign. Though the most common celebratory fare for Christmas during Tudor times remained the boar’s head, usually displayed on a platter with an apple stuffed into its mouth, wealthier diners could enjoy a particular delicacy of the time: the Tudor Christmas Pie. This creation, which was not for the faint of heart, consisted of a turkey stuffed with a goose, which was stuffed with a chicken, which was stuffed with a partridge, which was stuffed with a pigeon—all baked inside a pastry “coffin.”
The Yule Log
The tradition of burning the Yule Log, which would spawn a tasty cake and thousands of YouTube videos, is thought to have originated with Viking invaders, who made bonfires to celebrate the winter solstice. The word “Yule,” which actually comes from the Old Norse jól, a heathen midwinter festival lasting twelve days, has long been used in English as a synonym for Christmas.
In the Tudor period, many families would head to the woods on Christmas Eve and select a log, which they would decorate with ribbons and set ablaze. After keeping it burning during the 12 days of Christmas, they would keep a charred remnant of the log. This was considered good luck for the year to come, and could be used to help kindle the next year’s Christmas fire.