History in the Making

History Bite: Tudor and Stuart Christmas Traditions

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!

Tudor and Stuart Christmas Traditions

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.

                                                             Via Pinterest

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…

                                                                                      Via Historic Royal Palaces

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?

The Historian
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6 thoughts on “History Bite: Tudor and Stuart Christmas Traditions”

  • So, we basically have Henry VIII to blame for feeling like we need to provide a massive, exhausting feast to a large number of family and/or friends on Christmas Day, eh? Thanks a lot, Hen. Whilst you had servants to prepare said feast, we peasants have to deal with the stress now! lol

    I wish we (in the U.S., at least) still celebrated the 12 days of Christmas. Not because I want 12 days of presents, but because I like the idea of celebrating Christmas for more than just one day. Most people informally celebrate until New Year’s, but in the U.S., work starts again the day after Christmas, so we don’t have off Boxing Day like the Brits do (does Canada have this day off??), and it always makes Christmas feel rushed when it falls on a weekday like this year. It would be fun to celebrate a bit longer and leave the decorations up for a bit longer after Dec 25. I’m all for the 12 days that take us into Epiphany! 🙂

    • I remember learning in my History of Christmas course that for the US, Thanksgiving is the big holiday- people will absolutely make sure that they are home for Thanksgiving but Christmas really doesn’t matter as much, and that many businesses will even shut down for multiple days for Thanksgiving but just th e one day for Christmas. AND THAT IS INSANE TO ME. I don’t “get” US Thanksgiving because we always learned that it is to celebrate the harvest, hence why ours is in October (when the majority of harvesting is done), and everywhere else in the world, the December holiday season is much more prominent. We do have Boxing Day off, as well as usually at least the afternoon on 24th (if not the day), and January 1st. I work at a university, so we are closed from the 22nd the 2nd, and a lot of businesses also close if they know that many of their employees or clients are taking that time off. A lot of people will also just use vacation time to take it off We all have our holiday parties between Christmas and New Year’s (well, a lot of us), and the merriment very much continues throughout. I am also Ukrainian, so Ukrainian Christmas finishes it up on January 7th! I think that is why I love the holiday season so much, it’s essentially 2-4 weeks of merry people celebrating together 🙂

      • Ha! No wonder I like you. My family background is Ukrainian, too, though we’ve sadly lost a lot of traditions over the years.

        I also work for a university, and we are closed from 12/22 to 1/2 this year, too. THANK GOODNESS! I cannot wait for the break. 🙂 Yeah, Thanksgiving gives a lot of companies two days off (Thanksgiving and the day after), but Christmas is just the one day. My poor husband has to work the day after Thanksgiving AND the day after Christmas, plus he doesn’t always get out early on Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving Eve. Most American companies are very stingy with time off for holidays.

        I think Christmas is only big here because of commercialism, honestly. We’re not given more time off to celebrate it because it’s technically a Christian holiday, and everyone here is very PC about that part — you can’t get more time off for certain religious holidays than for others, etc. But, when it comes to the COMMERCIAL aspect….they want everyone to “celebrate” Christmas as much as possible, lol. That’s why Thanksgiving is a more important holiday in terms of time off, I think — it’s an American holiday without religious affiliation, and everyone celebrates it. Though, a lot of stores have started opening on Thanksgiving now, which I think is wrong. People need time off! Put your shopping off for one day!

        • It is so weird to me that the US as whole puts so much emphasis on essentially be a workaholic. A little bit of time off doesn’t hurt anyone, and even leaves you feeling refreshed for when you go back!

          The super crazy thing to me is that I would guess that there are far more people identifying as religious in the US than in Canada, and Christmas is a secular as well as religious holiday nowadays. (Gerry Bowler has done some fantastic work, but I think that much of what we all experience is not religious at the holidays now.) And if we want to be technical, it is actually pagan, given that it was co-opted lol. What has the world come to??

          Here everything closes on Labour Day in September (because it is literally meant to be a day off from labour lol). Nothing closes on Thanksgiving though, the stores are open as normal!

  • I attended a “Tudor Christmas Fayre” on Saturday, so it was interesting for me to read this post and get some background information. Thanks for sharing.

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