Whilst our Christmas traditions today come in the forms of Mariah Carey, Fairytale of New York, glittery baubles, boozy hot chocolates and a tonne of tinsel, it hasn’t always been this way. So how did our ancestors celebrate the most wonderful time of the year?
From coffin-shaped mince pies to mythical beasts crafted from meat (gulp!), we take a look at the crazy, crafty and cool Christmas traditions of the past, slightly different but no less amped up than our festivities today!
Medieval & Tudor Christmas Trends
It is no secret that the Middle Ages and the Tudors was a time period that was dominated by Christianity, and for many years Christmas was simply just another date of festivities in the liturgical calendar. Yet, Christmas wasn’t just one day that we know today, but it was what is recognised today as the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Due to the seasonal lull in agricultural activity, this was first and foremost a time where Medieval and Tudor laymen could have time off work, so they have time to spend with family and time to dedicate to the church and prayer.
Source - Reading Museum
It was actually Pope Julius I (337-352 AD) who chose the date of the 25th of December to be the birth of Jesus. It is believed that he chose this date to incorporate the pre-existing pagan and Roman festival of Saturnalia (17th December - 23rd of December) and the birth of Sol Invictus (25th of December), the Roman Sun God and patron saint of Soldiers. Plus, there was the liturgical belief that Jesus died on the 25th of March, which was also the anniversary of his conception. And, 9 months after the 25th of March is the 25th of December. This combination of pagan ritual with Christian belief was so that everyone could celebrate Christmas and that it would become a widely-recognised international holiday.
Saturnalia, Antoine-François Callet, 1783, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The twelve days of Christmas would last from the 24th of December to the 6th of January. Holly and Mistletoe were vastly used in decoration, as the ancient Celts believed that holly was able to ward off evil spirits and the Mistletoe could bring both good fortune, fertility and keep pesky witches at bay too. A double-ring of Mistletoe was the centrepiece of a layman’s home.
For both the Medieval and Tudor persons, strict attendance at Church service, as well as participation in choir songs and carols was a must. At the Medieval and Tudor courts, elaborate performances called “masques” were the prime Court entertainment - slightly different from our classic Christmas films.
Illustration of a Masque costume, Source - Historic Royal Palaces
However, like today, food was at the centrepiece of celebrations. Both wacky and wonderful, the medieval and Tudor feasts were as pompous as the next. Of course, feasts were often reserved for the royalty and the gentry, but servants and peasants did splash the cash for their Christmas day meals too. Traditional minced pies were always served which consisted of 13 different fillings that represented Christ and the Apostles and huge game-heavy pies were also placed around the table. A typical Tudor Christmas pie would often be a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a partridge and stuffed with a pigeon! But of course at the centre was the most outlandish of all. Either a large peacock or a swan was front and centre or chefs would physically stitch together different meat cadavers to make comical and mythical beasts to inspire both laughs and awe. Of course, before all of this pageantry it was expected to people to fast on Christmas eve, with no meat, cheese or eggs allowed.
The Well-Stocked Kitchen, Joachim Bueckelaer, c.1566, Source - Rijks Museum
In fact, the earliest depictions of a Father Christmas like figure came from Henry VIII who dressed in green or scarlet robes trimmed with fur and typified the good cheer and spirit of Christmas, bringing revelry, wine and food.
And of course, we couldn’t forget the alcohol! Whilst ale and wine was common, a wassail or “good health” bowl was passed around the gentry which was spiced hot ale with sugar and spices. A piece of soaked bread was at the bottom of the bowl, which was considered a lucky token whoever drank the last drop. It is believed that this was why people now do a “toast” at Christmas!
But what about presents? Presents like jewellery, food, literature, cloth and livestock were given to the King and Queen by servants and the gentry to curry favour. It was also always custom to give money to the Church too. But, gifts were usually exchanged on New Years Day rather than Christmas day.
Stuart and Georgian Christmas Traditions
The Stuarts didn’t vary too greatly from the Tudor Christmas traditions, if anything they got louder and more pompous. So much so that in 1644 when the Puritans came into power Christmas was banned altogether.
After the reestablishment of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas came back in full swing and it was also the beginning of the Christmas pudding! It was during the Georgian period that we started to see and recognise much of the Christmas season, but they still had their own way of doing things! For instance, rather than 12 days, the Christmas season ran from December 6th of January 6th and was a whole month of elaborate celebrations and parties. For instance, in many of Jane Austen’s novels, her various characters threw gatherings and parties where gentlemen and gentlewomen would get dressed up in all of their finery.
Illustration of "The Mistletoe or Christmas Gambols", Edward Penny c.1796, Source - Yale University Library
In actual fact, it was December 6th where gifts were exchanged rather than Christmas day or New Years day. Plus, it was considered unlucky to decorate the house before Christmas eve, with boughs and wreaths crafted from holly, mistletoe, rosemary, ivy, spices, apples, oranges, candles and ribbons, ceremoniously placed around the home.
"Farmer Giles Establishment Christmas Day 1800", Source - All Things Georgian
On Christmas day, it was actually slightly more subdued than other events in the Christmas calendar, custom to attend church and have a celebratory dinner. Many of the dishes were prepared ahead of time and were often served cold rather than warm.
One of the many traditions was the yule log. As it was a cold time of year in big drafty homes, huge blazing fires were required to warm the hearth, the “yule log” was not a delicious chocolate cake that we eat today, but rather a huge log that was chosen on Christmas eve and it was considered lucky if it burned throughout the entire 12 days of Christmas.
H.M Paget, Hauling In the Yule Log, Source - Bettmann Archive
At the end of the Christmas period, a huge party would be held with games and loads of alcohol, this would have been considered to be a twelfth night party. A customary food that was served at these parties were the Twelfth Cake which contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The man who found the bean in his slice of cake was known as the “king” of the night and the woman who found the pea was the “queen”!
Illustration "At Home in the Nursery", c.1819, Source - All Things Georgian
Victorian Christmas Traditions
Most of our traditions that we have today come from the Victorian era, a culturally decisive point in western history. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign, the country wasn’t in the best financial position, which meant that for the first few years Christmas was fairly subdued. However, by the end of her reign, Christmas became the momentous, and much shorter, celebration that we know today due to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial revolution meant that mass-produced toys and clothes could be manufactured and made (changing the gift industry forever!), and the rise of the middle merchant classes, so there was more disposable income. That being said, it meant that Christmas was no longer a month or twelve days long, restricted to 3 bank holidays and option to have more time off if your employer was generous. This is because factory owners wanted their employees to work over the Christmas season to handle the mass of orders and increasing demand!
Illustration of a Christmas Market, Thomas Kibble Hervey's Book of Christmas, c.1837, Source - The British Library
The Victorian era also saw the establishment of three major Christmas traditions: Christmas cards, Christmas crackers and the Christmas tree. Christmas cards were invented by Henry Cole in 1843, which was around the same time of the “penny posts” where anyone could send handwritten letters for just a penny! Victorians would put images of dead birds and dead relatives on the front of their cards (classic) and with the improvements in chromolithographic printing, bright jolly cards became the norm.
Christmas crackers were also introduced in the 1840s by a confectioner called Thomas Smith. Thomas Smith was inspired by the inviting bright and colourful wrapping paper of traditional French bon bons so he created “bangs of expectation” which contained fruit, jewellery, and love messages inside.
The Christmas tree was actually introduced by Prince Albert as it was a German tradition. A illustration released to the public in 1848 showed the royal family gathered around a glittering Christmas tree, which instantly made a it a must for every family Christmas thereafter.
Illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Christmas, c.1848, Source - Royal Museums Greenwich
The Victorian era also saw the early emergence of what we now know as Father Christmas! The Dutch tradition of “Sinter Klass” was brought to America in the 17th century by Dutch settlers. Sinter Klass was a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children and secret-gift giving. Sinter Klass was celebrated on the same day as Saint Nicholas day on the 5th and 6th of December, but it eventually evolved into “Santa Claus” in the US and Father Christmas in the UK. However, as England no longer celebrated the Saint Nicholas holiday, Father Christmas ended up coinciding with Christmas day. This was further substantiated through Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” (1843) where a genial man wearing a green fur coat takes Scrooge through London on Christmas morning sprinkling the essence of Christmas cheer wherever he goes. Santa Claus illustrations were also frequented in American magazines like Harper’s Weekly.
Like the centuries before, food played a huge role in the Christmas celebrations. As previously mentioned, the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign was stricken with financial issues, so people couldn’t afford to have large birds like turkey, rather roast beef, goose or rabbit was served. That being said, huge turkey farms were established in East Anglia, so by the end of her reign it was far more affordable to have turkey on December the 25th! The Victorians though didn’t forget the minced pieces, and would have them created in coffin shapes to represent baby Jesus’s manger!
A common Christmas dessert was the plum pudding - plum puddings were as popular as far back as the medieval period and contained boiled beef and mutton with raisins, currants, fruits, wines and spices and thickened with eggs and breadcrumbs. Plum puddings were actually banned by the Puritans because of the myriad of indulgent ingredients, but they were a must in a Victorian household and were enjoyed by lowly servants as well as head of the household.
Of course, the elaborate and decadent Christmas party was hosted every year, with dressmakers and shops clamouring for the ladies to wear the latest fashions and designs at these court events. As illustrated in this Young Ladies Journal Christmas and New Year dress plate at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Christmas and New Years Party Fashion Plate, c.1875, The Young Ladies Journal, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
How do you celebrate Christmas? Do you have any must-have traditions?