Elizabethan Christmas

Yule logs were still used during Elizabethan Christmas
Yule logs were still used during Elizabethan Christmas

An Elizabethan Christmas continued with many of the celebrations from the Middle Ages and introduced traditions that would be familiar today. Holly, ivy and winter greenery decorated the homes and even traditions that possibly date back to Saturnalia. As in Saturnalia celebrations, the Elizabethans had a Lord of Misrule. Although slightly different as this person was responsible for organising the entertainment and revelry for the Twelve Days of Christmas. During the Elizabethan (Tudor) period the period of Christmas was reduced to the Twelve Days and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day played a more important role. Christmas Day was made a public holiday. The Yule log was still present and would be brought into homes on Christmas Eve and burnt for the Twelve Days. A tradition was introduced where the remains of the previous years log were used to start the fire. This was considered lucky.

Elizabethan’s and Christmas Carols

More traditions were introduced. Christmas carols became more popular and were traditionally sung on Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas Day. Carollers would sing around the parish and be rewarded with food, drink and even money. A tradition that is common today. Mumming performed by Mummers was popular. These were plays performed by troupes. Often the plays took place in the streets or visited homes to perform their folk plays. Originally the plays were mimes but dialogue was later introduced. Still performed today in parts of Britain, the common form now would be Morris Dancers. Wassailing was also common. One form was to bless the orchards, with singing and drinking of cider. It was to help drive away evil spirits although this was more of an Autumn tradition. The other form was to drink to someone’s health and this can be traced back to Anglo Saxon times.

Feasting At Christmas

It was the feasting though at Christmas, that the Elizabethans are more associated with. The most common meat would have been duck or goose as turkey had not been introduced. Goose was so common that for Christmas 1588 everyone was ordered to eat it to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada. At this time a vegetable now common to all was introduced to the Elizabethan Christmas, Brussels Sprouts. Another popular dish was wild boar and for the more wealthy, peacocks were also served at Christmas. Of the more common dishes Christmas Pudding was served. Unlike the modern day version the pudding of Elizabethan Christmas was a mix of meat, spices and oatmeal combined together and cooked in the gut of the wild boar.

Roast Turkey. No Make That Roasted Swan or Peacock

The rich of the day, the Lords, would put on magnificent Christmas banquets. Roasted swans or peacocks would make a dramatic centrepiece. So magnificent that the bird would be roasted and then redressed with its feathers. Along side would have been a boars head. From the New World, exotic fruits and vegetables would be served. These included food taken for guaranteed today, potatoes, tomatoes and pineapples. From Southern Europe, citrus fruit, melons and apricots would also be imported. It was a feast for the eyes. The servants though would have had ‘humble pie’. A mix of various choice cuts, usually for a deer, its intestines, kidneys, heart, liver and brain. Boiled into a stew, along with suet, currants, apples and finished off with sugar, spices and salt.

Introduction of Marzipan

The highlight of a banquet was the marzipan or marchpane. Like today made from almond flour and sugar it would have been moulded into various shapes. So extravagant that some of the shapes were even decorated in edible gold leaf. Another popular dish amongst the wealthy was ‘leech’. A sweetmeat, made of rosewater, sugar and almond milk that was cut into cubes and arranged in the shape of a chess board. It was a grand opportunity for the host to demonstrate his status and wealth.

A Drop of Mulled Wine

Drinking was also a major part of the festivities. Mulled wine was a popular drink. Like today a hot wine infused with sugar and spices. Syllabub was a spiced hot milk flavoured with wine or rum. A drink called ‘lambswool’ was a blend of hot cider or ale with spices and apples. It would be heated until it formed a woolly head.