Due to quite a few requests, I will be covering royal Christmas traditions for the month of December in my History Bites! These in no way will be in depth studies but rather a brief overview of each dynasties notable Christmas and holiday traditions. This week we will be looking at Tudor and Stuart Christmas traditions, as both dynasties were made up of strong characters who certainly made the holiday season their own. Beginning with William I’s coronation on Christmas Day in 1066, the medieval English monarchs took Christmas very seriously and hosted lavish and expansive celebrations!
Even to this day, the British Royal Family still attends church on Christmas Day (currently at Sandringham). Because this is a constant throughout the centuries, I won’t be discussing religious celebration unless they are quite notable and out of the ordinary.
Tudor Christmas Traditions
Like much of the rest of the Tudor year, the Christmas season centred largely around feasting. One established feasting tradition in Henry VIII’s court was the presentation of a boar’s head to the monarch’s table, with singing and ceremony of course. (I’ve never had boar’s head, but maybe it makes it taste better?…) In Elizabeth I’s time, the boar’s head was presented in a procession that featured this carol, “The Boar’s Head in hand bring I /With garlands gay and rosemary, /I pray you all sing merrily”. (Archer, A Royal Christmas, “Tudor and Medieval Christmases”) Because Henry VIII and his children were all incredibly concerned with the image of the monarchy, providing a sumptuous and lavish feast to the court was a necessary medieval PR move.
Gifting was also the other prominent Tudor Christmas tradition- subjects would presents their gifts to the monarch, who would present his or her gifts in return. The King/ Queen would receive incredible gifts from their nobles, including jewels, intricately bound books, weapons, tapestries and more. “It was in the reign of Henry VIII that the formal court ceremony of giving New Year’s gifts developed” (Cooling, A Royal Christmas, p.33), which shows that the festivities did truly span the holiday season, rather than simply Christmas Day itself.
Stuart Christmas Traditions
The Stuart dynasty is my favourite, and sadly, they are always overlooked for their earlier, Tudor cousins. (THEY ARE JUST AS INTERESTING, GUYS, EVEN MORE SO.) The most notable holiday tradition was that of the Christmas masque, what we now know as pantos or holiday plays. James I/Vi was known for his elaborate masques throughout the year, the holiday masques were the biggest and best! “… the court poet Ben Jonson and the architect and designer Inigo Jones collaborated on the production… Members of the royal family would frequently take part in masques, which were usually staging at the Banqueting House at Whitehall”. (Cooling, A Royal History, p.85) Yes, the same Banqueting Hall, I am very excited to visit. In case you are wondering, I will be asking them about it…
Sadly, the traditions largely died with the grump himself, Oliver Cromwell. They were somewhat revived at Charles II’s Restoration court, but not to the same degree as before. I like to think of the Stuart dynasty as Stuart Part A, and Stuart Part B, as the Commonwealth under Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the middle really cut through royal traditions.
Would you have enjoyed these Tudor and Stuart Christmas traditions?