12 weird and wonderful Tudor Christmas traditions, from boy bishops to Plough Monday

Though romanticised by later generations longing for the heady merriment of pre-Cromwellian “Merrie England”, Christmas in the 16th Century period was an nonetheless an extravagant affair – a mixture of older folk practices, Christian ritual and emerging excesses that saw many modern Christmas rituals emerge. The Tudors being the Tudors of course, these traditions would ebb and flow to match the waxing and waning power of the church and crown.

But those are concerns for another day. It’s Christmastide, so gather your friends and sing: On the 12th day of Christmas, my Tudor love brought to me…


A Spinning Wheel Covered in Flowers

The Tudor ‘12 Days of Christmas’ was a period in which tools were downed and work was forbidden between Christmas Eve (24 December) and Epiphany (6 January). To keep women from their chores (unlike the menfolk, the home was their workplace after all), it was customary to decorate the home’s spinning wheel with flowers.


Two Boy Bishops

The ecclesiastical answer to the Lord of Misrule – a playful fool-king who presided over the secular Christmas celebrations – choirboys would elect one of their number to the role of Bishop from 6 December, the Feast of Saint Nicholas, until Holy Innocents’ Day on the 28 December. The boy would be dressed in full bishop’s regalia (the Boy Bishop of Westminster Abbey had particularly fine silk robes decorated with silver and gilt flowers) and would conduct all ceremonies except mass with his fellow choirboys.

Reflecting turbulent Tudor attitudes to the ‘idiosyncrasies’ of the church, the practice was abolished by Henry VIII in 1542, revived by Mary I in 1552 and finally ended for good by Elizabeth I.


Three Yule Logs

A pre-Christian tradition thought to have been introduced by the Norse and maintained by the Tudor gentry, a large log from the base of a tree would be decorated with ribbons and dragged home. Laid upon the great hearth of the manor on Christmas Eve it would be kept smouldering over the full ‘12 Days of Christmas’. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains for next year’s fire.


Four Carol Singers

Made popular in Italy in the 13th Century and first recorded in English in 1426, Christmas carols involved dancing as well as singing. Secular themes such as feasting, hunting and general merry-making became more popular under the Tudors, although carols remained predominantly religious. Many carols – such as the Coventry Carole, recorded in 1534 – were composed for Mystery Plays, a form of open-air religious theatre that was banned under Henry VIII and restored under Mary I, before eventually declining in popularity sometime around 1600.

16th Century Christmas carols still sung – albeit with revision – today, include ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, ‘The First Noel’ and ‘Good King Wenceslaus’.


Five Boars’ Heads

The centrepiece of the Christmas banquet from at least the Medieval period, the presentation of the boar’s head is rooted in pre-Christian tradition but came to signify Christ’s triumph over sin – the Wild Boar being a subject of fear to rural folk and a more than worthy quarry for hunters. Though supplanted by more fashionable fare in the royal court, it was subject the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’ published in 1521:

“The boar’s head in hand bring I
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio [As many as are in the feast]”


Six Marching Turkeys

Henry VIII is credited with adopting the turkey as a Christmas bird following its introduction to Britain from America in the 1520s. It quickly became fashionable among the Tudor elite and often served in the coffin-shaped Christmas pie, where it was stuffed with numerous other game birds. The demand was so great that flocks of turkeys were driven to London on foot from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, with the trek starting as early as August.


Seven “Minced Pyes”

Rather than a sweet snack, the “minced pye” was served at the beginning of the meal. Baked with prunes, raisins, dates, powdered beef, butter, egg yolk, flour, suet or marrow, and minced mutton and seasoned with salt, pepper and saffron. A total of 13 ingredients represented Christ and his Apostles, while the loaf-like shape echoed the crib of the infant Christ and was sometimes adorned with an image of the babe in pastry.


Eight Cockenthrices

The Tudor lust for meat reached peculiar heights at Henry VIII’s dining table, with chefs stitching together cadavers to create a whole new beast – the cockenthrice, which was the front-end of a piglet with the hind-quarters of a turkey. Another oddity was the Helmeted Cock, in which a chicken was mounted on the pig wearing a little helmet and carrying a shield. For fans of meat feast without the theatre, the Rôti Sans Pareil was 17 birds stuffed one inside the other.


Nine Wassail Bowls

Another much older tradition inherited from the Anglo-Saxons (Wassail comes from the Old English “Wass Hal” meaning “You good health”), a large wooden bowl containing hot ale, spiced with apple, sugar and spices, was taken from door-to-door. Strangers were offered a drink in exchange for a donation, while royal Wassails were more formal and the steaming bowl was brought into the court by stewards with staves, before being passed around with the king saved for last.

Commoner or courtier, singing and call-and-response were a big part of the Wassail Bowl ritual.


Ten Kissing Boughs

A wreath or double-hoop with roots in earlier pagan folklore, the Kissing Bough was woven from mistletoe, ash, hazel or willow, covered in evergreens and supporting an effigy of the baby Jesus in the centre. The Medieval and Early Modern English were infamously “kissy” (as recorded by travellers from continental Europe, an ironic reversal of modern stereotypes) and visitors would be embraced under the bough as a sign of goodwill, leading to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.


Eleven Servants Bearing Gifts

Gift-giving in the Tudor court took place on New Year’s Day. After the king had finished dressing, the fanfare would sound and servants would march in with gifts, with the queen’s coming first. To give generously was to curry favour with the king or queen, while refusing them was a brutally effective way of communicating disdain.


Twelve Vindictive Ploughmen

On Plough Monday the ‘12 Days’ were officially over and peasants returned to their toil. It was customary for the communal plough to be blessed and then dragged door-to-door by the men of the village to collect funds for the parish. Those who refused to make a donation had the ground outside their door ploughed up. The practice was banned under Edward VI.

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