A Tudor Christmas was starting to resemble something we in the C21st might recognise even if there were some parts to a Christmas we would not!
The first record of a turkey being brought to Europe was in 1519. It was to be many years before this bird had reason to fear the Festive season. For the rich, the traditional meat on Christmas Day remained swan, goose etc as in a Medieval Christmas feast. In fact, in 1588, Elizabeth I ordered that everybody should have goose for their Xmas dinner as it was the first meal she had after the victory of the Spanish Armada and she believed that this gesture would be a fitting tribute to the English sailors who fought off the Spanish. However, it is not known how many of the poor of the land could carry out this order as goose remained an expensive luxury – though Christmas was seen as a special celebration.
Peacocks were also on the menu for the rich. However, it became a Xmas tradition to skin the bird first, then cook it and then place the roast bird back into its skin as a main table presentation. Therefore, on the table would be what would appear to be a stuffed and feathered peacock, when, in fact, it had been thoroughly cooked !! This practice had also taken place in some Medieval households.
The homes of the wealthy also used to cook a wild boar on Xmas Day and its head was used as a dinner table decoration. However, cooking made the head’s fur go pale and so it was covered in soot and pig’s grease to make the cooked head looked more natural.
Christmas puddings were made of meat, oatmeal and spices. However, cooking this combination meant that if would fall to bits once it was ready to serve. The Tudors got over this by wrapping the mixture in the gut of a pig and cooking it in a sausage shape. It was then served by slices being carved from it and being served…….with the boar’s head !!
It was also the fashion in Tudor times for mince pies to be shaped like a crib. The rule of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-C17th ended this practice as it was seen as bordering on blasphemy.
1587 is the first recorded date we have of brussel sprouts being used in cooking.
With all this eating taking place, it would be difficult to imagine anyone in Tudor times wanting to do anything energetic at all. In this sense, Henry VIII helped them as in 1541, he had a law introduced (the Unlawful Games Act) which banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery. All dangerous sports were banned but archery was seen as essential to maintaining the country’s military strength. This was later joined by “leaping and vaulting” which kept young men fit and strong.
In 1551 a law was passed by Edward VI that everybody had to walk to church on Christmas Day when they attended a church service. Technically this is still the law today though it is difficult to imagine anyone getting into trouble for using their car etc.
In the mid-1550’s a law was also passed by the church that banned all pictures of the baby Jesus having a bath. It had been a tradition for years for artists to paint Jesus having his first bath but the church stated that Jesus was so pure that he did not need a bath – hence it was illegal to paint a picture of Jesus being bathed by Mary and Joseph.
Legends abound about Christmas. One involves where and when candles were first associated with Christmas. One of the more popular stories concerns the great Protestant leader Martin Luther. It is said that on a journey home in the winter of 1522, he was struck by the beauty of the stars shining through the fir trees that were common where he lived in north Germany. He cut off the top of one of the smaller trees and took it home. Once indoors the beauty disappeared as the stars were not there. To impress his children, he put small candles on the ends of the branches to resemble stars – hence candles at Christmas which were eventually to be replaced with Christmas tree lights. Even so, the modern Christmas tree lights are meant to represent the stars seen by Martin Luther as he journeyed home that winter’s night. In that sense, Luther made his mark on our society by leading the Protestant movement in Germany in the C16th and, so legend has it, lightning up Christmas with candles.
But Tudor England was still many years away from Christmas cards, Christmas turkey, Christmas crackers, Father Christmas in his red costume and even the common use of Christmas trees.