Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An Elizabethan Christmas

Christmas is a time to believe, a time to rejoice, and a time to love. It is a time when every ornament we hang on the tree becomes a memory and part of this magical season. 

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

There was much celebration in England when Elizabeth I came to the throne. Elizabeth was a vibrant young woman replacing her half-sister Mary I who brought nothing but persecution, cruelty and hardship to England. Her court was solemn and serious, whereas Elizabeth's court was extravagant, luxurious, and full of dancing and entertainment. This carried over into the Christmas celebrations.

The Christmas Feast

Christmas was a time to "eat, drink, and be merry", a time to celebrate and enjoy a little luxury. Those families who could afford a Christmas feast would celebrate it in style with foods like roast goose, turkey, or beef, and Brawn and Mustard (roast wild boar with mustard). Turkey had been eaten at Christmas by some people during Henry VIII's reign, as it was introduced into England at that time, but it had not yet superseded goose which was still the traditional meat of Christmas Day for those who could afford it.

In 1588, Elizabeth I ordered the whole of England to eat goose for their Christmas Dinner to celebrate England's victory over the Armada because it was the first meal she at after the Navy had defeated Spain's ships.

Accompaniments to the roast meat included plum porridge, mince pies and frumenty, a pottage made from boiled, cracked wheat. The Christmas meal was washed down with beer, a popular drink in Tudor times when water as not fit to drink.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Richer households would have a more luxurious Christmas banquet, which could include roasted swan or peacock displayed as table centerpieces with their feathers and skins put back on. A boar's head may also be used as a table decoration. These centerpieces showed the wealth of the householder.

With the discovery of the New World and the Elizabethan voyages to America, the rich were also able to make use of new and exotic fruit and vegetables in their Christmas banquet. Tomatoes and potatoes were mixed with foods like citrus fruits, which were specially imported from Southern European countries.


The Banqueting

This course was another way in which the host of the Christmas feast could flaunt their wealth, their status, and their creativity. Sugar was a luxury cooking ingredient in Tudor times and was rather expensive, so an array of sweet delicacies (such as gilded fruit and collops of bacon) would impress guests. 



Other Christmas Food and Drink

As well as the roast meats and sweet delicacies, the well-to-do Elizabethans would have enjoyed:
  • Christmas pudding – A “pudding” made from meat, spices and oatmeal and then cooked in the gut of a boar.
  • Brussels Sprouts – The wonderful Brussels Sprout made its debut in England in the late 1580s.
  • Gingerbread – Made from bread, ginger, spices, sugar and wine. This made a stiff paste which was then molded.

Image: The Tudor Tattler, Pinterest
  • Mulled wine – Wine heated and infused with sugar and spices.
  • Syllabub – A hot milk drink flavoured with rum or wine and spices.
  • Lambswool – A drink made from mixing hot cider, sherry or ale, apples and spices. The mixture was heated until it “exploded” and formed a white “woolly” head.
  • Tarts and custards for dessert.
  • Quince marmalade.

Elizabethan Spiced Beef Stew

Humble Pie

The phrase “to eat humble pie” means to apologize or to face humiliation for your mistake or blunder, but it has its roots in Tudor and Medieval times when servants or lower-class people would use offal (kidneys, intestines, brain, heart or liver) and left-overs to make a pie. The “humbles” would be boiled in a stew with dried fruit, apples, suet, spices, sugar and salt, and then baked in pastry.

Humble Pie

 Christmas Traditions

Traditions enjoyed at Christmas in Tudor and Elizabethan times included:
  • The Lord of Misrule – A commoner would be chosen as “The Lord of Misrule” and would be in charge of organising the entertainment and revelry for the Twelve Days of Christmas.
  • Mummer’s Plays with music and morris dancing.
  • Decorating with greenery – Holly, ivy and other winter greenery would be brought inside the homes to decorate it.

Image: Pinterest

  • The Yule Log – A Yule or Christmas log would be brought into the home on Christmas Eve and burned throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to start the fire with the remains of last year’s Yule Log.
  • Christmas Carols – Christmas carols were sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning around the parish and carollers would be rewarded with money, food or drink.
  • Wassailing – The enjoying of a communal cup of spiced ail. Wassailing has also been linked to blessing the orchards and land, and going round the parish in groups with an empty bowl for householders to fill with spiced ale.
  • Twelfth Day and Night – This was celebrated with a church service commemorating the coming of the Three Kings. A special cake would be baked and then given out to members of the family and household. This cake would contain a bean and whoever found it would be pronounced King of the Bean.


This tradition still exists in countries like Spain, where a Roscon filled with cream and decorated with glace fruit is shared. This cake has little gifts and novelties mixed in with the cream and also contains a bean. Whoever finds the bean is crowned King with the crown that comes with the cake and is considered lucky.


I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for following my posts over the years! May all of your Christmas wishes come true.

 -- Courtesy of The Elizabeth Files --


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