In my story for the Paper Lantern Writers anthology, Beneath a Midwinter Moon, I tell how the English de Beauvais family celebrate Christmas in the year 1569 – despite an old enemy turning up, determined to destroy their happiness. I needed to do a fair bit of research in order to make my story (A Wicked Turn at Christmas) feel authentic, so I thought I would share with you some of what I learned.
One of the joys of writing in the English Tudor period (1485-1603), is that it was a time of great social and cultural significance; a time when so many of our cultural norms were established. This is particularly true of Christmas, when the Tudors brought together a rich mix of both religious observance and pagan traditions. In this article, I will take you through some of the ways Christmas was celebrated – and you might be surprised at how many of these you recognise!
Celebrating the Nativity
Let’s start with religion. As you might expect, it played a central role in Tudor Christmas celebrations, as the period was deeply rooted in the Catholicism that dominated before the English Reformation. Indeed, people were not prepared to let all their cherished practices fall away. Christmas Mass and church services held great importance, while Midnight Mass was the most significant event. These services were accompanied by elaborate processions, hymns, and sermons.
The Tudor Christmas was not only a time for religion, it was also one of indulgence and excess. Feasting during Tudor Christmas was a grand affair – at least in the better-off households. The centrepiece of the festive table was often a boar’s head. Apparently this symbolised the triumph of light over darkness (although I’m not exactly sure why. Anyone?). There were also roasted meats, pies, and rich desserts. Mulled wine, known as “wassail,” flowed freely, with plenty of toasting and merriment.
The Yule Log
This was (and still is) a large log traditionally taken from an oak tree. It was lit on Christmas Eve and burned throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Originally a pagan Germanic or Norse custom, it symbolized prosperity and good fortune for the coming year. In grand Tudor households, the Yule log was often decorated with ribbons, greenery, and even crowned with a figure representing the Lord of Misrule.
The Lord of Misrule
Ahh yes. The Lord of Misrule. He was a key person during Tudor Christmas celebrations. This appointed individual, often a servant or lower-ranking member of the household, was responsible for ‘lording’ over the revelries and ensuring a joyful and festive atmosphere. He would organize games, dances, and entertainments, sometimes involving disguises and masquerades. His elevation was both temporary and ‘trivial’ – perhaps a good way to highlight the ‘natural’ position of the ruling classes for the rest of the year!
Another popular activity during the Tudor Christmas was the Mummers’ Play. This was a form of festive street theatre, where amateur actors would perform humorous and often bawdy plays, usually based on folklore and legends. Maybe this has segued into the traditional English Pantomime – equally bawdy and also based on well-known folklore!
In my story, gift-giving was seen as unusual – which suited my narrative. But in truth, it was an important aspect of Tudor Christmas celebrations. Lavish presents were exchanged, including jewellery, clothing, and other expensive items. However, such generosity was not limited to the upper classes. Even among the lower classes, small tokens and treats were exchanged – to show the goodwill and camaraderie of the season.
While the tradition of the Christmas tree was not yet established, it did have a forerunner. Evergreen boughs, holly and mistletoe were all used to decorate homes, symbolising fertility and eternal life. They were also believed to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe was associated with peace, love, and romance – and just as now, couples would exchange kisses beneath it.
So the Tudor Christmas shows us how many of our own customs were originally influenced. As we enjoy our singing, feasting and pantomimes this year, as well as decorating our homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe, we can thank the Tudors that they have contributed so much to our cultural heritage. For me, it served as a fascinating backdrop to my story, and gave me lots of great material to work with!
If you would like to read A Wicked Turn at Christmas,
you’ll find in the Paper Lantern Writers anthology Beneath a Midwinter Moon.
Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.