Search

A Merry Elizabethan Christmas

Welcome to our two-part series on the Elizabethan holiday season! This week, we’ll tap into Elizabethan Christmas, as this holiday was shared by both dominating religious groups of the time: Protestantism (England’s official religion) and Catholicism (not the official religion but still maintained a strong presence).


Topics include:


Twelve Days of Christmas

Lord of Misrule

Decorations

Yule log

Mistletoe

Food

Recipes

Caroling

Shakespeare Quotes

 

Twelve Days of Christmas

Back then, Christmas celebrations spread across 12 days: December 25 - January 6. During this time, people of all classes enjoyed merry activities, from games to music and devouring fun foods!


Lord of Misrule

From plays to feasts, the Lord of Misrule (AKA: Abbot of Misrule or King of Misrule) organized much of the excitement. This person served as a clown or jester figure, representing the temporary withdrawal from the strictness of proper society.


John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London claims the Mayor and Sheriffs “had their several Lords of Misrule, ever contending without quarrel or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the beholders.”


Not-So-Fun Fact: The English Court stopped appointing Lords of Misrule after Edward VI’s death in 1553.


Click the button for a short, exciting video on the Lord of Misrule from Lucy Worsley's 12 Days of Tutor Christmas on PBS!


Decorations

Homes were decorated with lots of green! Holly and ivy were perhaps the hugest hits. But yew, bay, holm oak, and box were still common.

Holm Oak with Acorns


Chruches were also filled with greenery. Additionally, a Christ Child would sometimes sit atop the altar. The Italian’s now-famous nativity scene has not popularized itself in England yet.


In A SURVEY OF LONDON, Stow wrote, "Against the feast of Christmas every man's house, as also their parish churches, were decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and the standards in the streets were likewise garnished. Amongst which I read, that in the year 1444, by tempest of thunder and lightning, on the first of February at night, Paul's steeple was fired, but with great labour quenched, and towards the morning of Candlemas day, at the Leadenhall in Comhill, a standard of tree, being set up in the pavement fast in the ground, nailed full of holm and ivy, for disport of Christmas to the people, etc."


Yule Log

As for the Yule log, a log or wooden block would be taken from the central trunk of a tree on Christmas Eve. The men of the family would then drag it into the hall, where each family member would sit atop it and sing a Yule song. Next, it was thrown into the fireplace where it would be lit along with a piece of the previous year’s log. Together, they were to burn through the night.

Bringing in a Yule Log


Mistletoe

Regarding mistletoe, it was supposedly first mentioned in relation to Christmas in 1622. But in that reading, it appears to have already been a custom - not new. So… we don’t have the full story :)


HOWEVER there was something similar: the Christmas Bough! It was a wreath or globe under which people embraced as a sign of goodwill.


Here’s a short video if you want to make your own!


Food

During this season, the more financially fortunate were expected to provide for the lower classes. For instance, estate owners provided their tenants with at least one very generous feast!


As Thomas Tusser put in his 1573 Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, “At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor. / Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door.”


Now… onto the specific foods!


Goose

Let’s start with goose since it was the most traditional.


Fun Fact: Historians believe that in 1588, Elizabeth I told all of England to include goose in their Christmas meal, as it was what she had eaten after the country’s miraculous victory over the Spanish Armada.


This meat was expensive, so not all citizens could comply. But still, a touching tribute to the Royal Navy - you can’t get much better than eating goose… apparently.


Turkey

There honestly isn’t much to say for this. Basically, turkey was first brought to Europe from America during Henry VIII’s reign. It became a popular Christmas food since it was cheap. Simple and cheap. What more could one ask for?


Beer

Ok so this isn’t a food but anywhoo…

  1. Water was not considered safe to drink.

  2. When you can’t have water, what do you have? Capri Suns didn’t exist yet so they had to go to the best alternative: beer, of course ;)

  3. Across classes, beer was a staple.

  4. At Christmastime, they had more beer. No biggie.


Humble Pie - Deer

The best of the deer went to the wealthy, per usual. For a treat, servants baked humble pie made from the animal's remaining cuts--kidneys, livers, etc. Yummy brains and intestines and hearts... And don’t forget a little bit of spice! If you want a more detailed recipe so you can show off your supreme cooking skills at the next office party, just let us know ;)


Recipes

Now for some recipes more of you might want…Taken from the 1609 edition of Delightes for Ladies:


To make a Marchpane. - SO VERY POPULAR back then.

Take two pounds of Almonds being blanched and dryed in a sieve over a fire: beat them in a stone mortar; and when they bee small, mix with them two pounds of sugar being finely beaten, adding 2 or 3 spoonfuls of Rose-water, and that will keep your almonds from oyling. When your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling ping, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers: then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it: then yce it with Rose-water and sugar: then put it into the oven once again, and when you see your yce is rise up, & dry, then take it out of the oven, & garnish it with pretty conceits, as birds and beasts, being cast out of standing moulds. Stick long comfits upright in it: cast biskets and carrowaies on it, and so serve it: gild it before you serve it: you may also print off this Marchpane paste in your molds for banquetting dishes: and of this paste our comfitmakers at this day make their letters, knots, Arms, Escocheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies.


To make Ginger-bread

Take three stale Manchets, and grate them: dry them, and sift them thorow a fine sieve: then adde unto them one ounce of Ginger being beaten, and as much Cinamon, one ounce of Liquorice and Anniseeds beeing beaten together, and searced, halfe a pound of sugar; then boil all these together in a posnet, with a quart of claret wine, till they come to a stiff paste with often stirring of it; and when it is stiffe, mould it on a table, and so drive it thin, and put it in your moulds: dust your moulds with Cinamon, Ginger, and Liquorice, being mixed together in fine powder. This is your Ginger-bread used at the Court, and in all Gentlemens houses at festival times. It is otherwise called dry Leach.


To make Leach of Almonds.

Take halfe a pound of sweet Almonds, and beat them in a mortar; then strain them with a pint of sweet milke from the cow; then put to it one graine of musk, 2 spoonfuls of Rose-water, two ounces of fine sugar, the weight of 3 whole shillings of Isinglass that is very white, and so boyle them; and let all run thorow a strainer: then may you slice the same, and so serve it.


FUN FACT: Before you move on to the next section!! Every December evening, a 15th century-themed Christmas Banquet is held at Hatfield House, where Elizabeth I grew up. Check it out next time you’re in Hertfordshire (in December)!

Hatfield House


Caroling

Yes, there was caroling. In fact, two main kinds!

One was wassailing. According to Historic UK, “the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health,’ to which his followers would reply drink hael, or ‘drink well’.”


Here’s a common wassailing carol in case you feel like singing:


“Wassail, wassail all over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown,

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,

With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.


So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek

Pray God send our master a good piece of beef

And a good piece of beef that we may all see

With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.”


The other kind of carol was… the Christmas carol!


Want to sing some more?! This next one is about the bringing in of a boar’s head for the feast. It was written in the 15th century and sung in Shakespeare’s time - also still today!


“The boar’s head in hand bear I,

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.

And I pray you, my masters, be merry

Quot estis in convivio.


Caput apri defero

Reddens laudes Domino.


The boar’s head, as I understand,

Is the rarest dish in all this land,

Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland

Let us servire cantico.


Caput apri defero

Reddens laudes Domino.


Our steward hath provided this

In honour of the King of Bliss;

Which on this day to be served is

In Reginensi atrio.


Caput apri defero

Reddens laudes Domino.”

The Boar's Head Carol


Shakespeare Quotes

Shakespeare mentions Christmas all of three times in his plays. And they’re short. Even in Twelfth Night. Why? Maybe he hated it. Maybe he didn’t care. Or maybe it’s because Easter was a much bigger deal in Elizabethan England than Christmas. Either way…

 

Discussion

Do you have any more questions about the Elizabethan winter holidays? Don’t worry, we’ll discuss New Year’s next!








Photography:

Holland, John.

Szoenyi, Michael. Science Photo Library.