The Christmas of the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England is somewhat similar to Christmas of the early 21st century. It is celebrated in December, Christmas carols are sung, there’s usually a big, celebratory meal, and some people celebrate by going to Church. There is a lot about Tudor and Stuart Christmas that is different from Christmas today.
In the Tudor and Stuart time period, the weeks leading up to Christmas, known as Advent, were a very austere time of year. Many days were fast days, where there was a government prohibition against eating certain foods. Christmas Eve was a fast day, and no meat, cheese, or eggs were allowed to be consumed. Once Advent was over, on Christmas day itself, the celebrations began!
Christmas was a great festival in this time period. The festivities lasted the entire twelve days of Christmas. Beginning on December 25th, all work stopped and was not picked up again until after January 6th, Epiphany. Families and friends visited with one another and the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany were seen as a time for everyone, be it the monarch or the lowliest peasant, to blow off steam by eating, drinking, gaming, gambling, and just reveling in the time of year.
As this was the time of year to celebrate, the strict societal norms regularly present during this time period were somewhat blurred. A Lord of Misrule was elected in many towns and cities and this person was in charge of entertainments and celebrations. New and old plays were performed as well as masques. People played sports and games. Old and young alike gambled.
Two very important Christmas-time traditions were caroling and Wassailing. The singing and dancing of caroling was a physical way to celebrate the holiday season while spreading the meaning of the season. Christmas carols that date back to the 16th century that we still sing today include “Ding dong merrily on high,” and “We wish you a merry Christmas.” Wassailing is also a singing and walking type activity but there is a drink added into the mix. The Wassailers would go from house to house, singing the Wassail song, which varied by geographical location. The Wassailers also carried a bowl of wassail—spiced ale or cider, sugar, spices and apples—that they would share with the audience.
Gifts were not presented on Christmas day, but instead on New Year’s Day. There was, oftentimes, a hidden meaning behind the gifts, especially those meant for the reigning monarch. Everyone was given a gift, be it food, jewelry, money, books or fruit. The poorest of the poor were given money from the alms boxes in the churches.
When we think of Christmas, we often think of the Christmas tree. Trees were around in the 16th century, but they were still mainly a Germanic tradition. The English decorated with greenery such as holly and ivy, boxwood and mistletoe. A ‘kissing bough’ would be hung from the ceiling.