Local Heritage · Uncategorized · Whitehall Historic House

A Very Merry Whitehall Christmas

For our last post of the year, we’re delighted to share a piece by Whitehall volunteer Imogen Easton, who reflects on what Christmas might have been like in Tudor times in the court of Henry the VIII. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank Imogen and all our volunteers for their support this year, they are essential to helping us share Whitehall with our local community and wider audiences.

Thank you volunteers, you are fab! And a very merry Christmas to all.

Christmas With Henry VIII

Christmas time is here again. As Whitehall celebrates with their festive Millie the Mouse trail and their second online volunteer Christmas party in a row, we thought it might be interesting to look back on how the holidays would have been celebrated in Henry VIII’s time.

The majority of traditions that we associate with Christmas, such as decorating Christmas trees and sending Christmas cards started off in Victorian Britain. However, Tudor England had its own Christmas traditions, some of which have survived well into the modern times.

During the Christmas period, people were expected not to work. Women in particular were not supposed to spin thread or yarn, so spinning wheels would often be decorated with flowers so that they could not be used. Instead, people spent time with their neighbours, often sharing food with one another and singing songs.

Christmas meals in Henry’s court were very extravagant. The first course for instance was a wild boar’s head. As wild boar was becoming extinct in Great Britain, only noblemen could afford to arrange a hunting party and track it down, and as such it became an important status symbol. Its head would be dressed in herbs, stuffed with forcemeat and have an apple placed in its mouth, with some boar’s heads even being painted in bright colours. Often as it was carried to the table, a carol would be sung in its honour, with one example being “The Boar’s Head Carol”.

We’re not sure how the boar would have felt!

Henry and his court would have enjoyed swan and peacock with their Christmas dinner, birds that you would never see at the dinner table nowadays! Turkey was first made the official Christmas bird in the Victorian era, with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being credited for making it popular. That said, turkey was eaten by nobility during the Tudor times, and Henry was the one to make them popular following their arrival from America (a.k.a. the “New World”) around 1526. Whilst it never quite reached the same popularity as swan and peacock during Henry’s time, it became popular enough that they would be walked to London on foot as early as August.

Mince pies, or mince pyes as they were known then, were quite different to the modern variations that we are familiar with. Rather than having a small round shape, they were instead rectangular, almost like a coffin. This was because they were meant to resemble a manger, with a pastry baby Jesus often in the centre. Inside were thirteen ingredients representing Jesus and his apostles. Fruits included raisins, prunes and figs and, in contrast with today’s mince pies, they contained meat such as lamb and mutton.

On Christmas Eve, families would select a log from the forest and bring it home to be decorated with ribbons. The log would then be set alight and kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas, with the charred remains of it being kept for good luck. This tradition is thought to have originated from Viking invaders, who celebrated the winter solstice by lighting bonfires.

Henry banned the tradition of the boy pope in 1542, which had been associated with the Catholic Church that he had turned against. The tradition of the boy king, most famously known as the Lord of Misrule, on the other hand continued. This was someone, usually a peasant or young boy, who was appointed to rule over the Christmas festivities at court. Even the king was expected to follow their rules. On one occasion, the appointed Lord of Misrule cheekily asked the king for £5 towards his expenses, something that the king found surprisingly amusing!

Rather than on the 25th December, Christmas presents were exchanged between people on New Year’s Day. This was a particularly big deal in the royal court, in which the exchanging of gifts, or even the refusal of them, often had hidden messages behind them. For instance, during his separation from Katharine of Aragon, Henry refused to accept gifts from her, but was happy to exchange gifts with Anne Boleyn, who he would later marry.

Christmas carolling was just as common then as it is now, often involving dancing. Famous ones we remember nowadays that would have been sung then include “Good King Wenceslas”, “The First Noel”, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. Strangely enough, many Christmas carols were originally written for a form of open-air religious theatre known as Mystery Plays, which were banned during Henry’s time.

A particularly common tradition in Tudor times was “wassailing”. The term “wassail” means “you good health” and people would go around from door to door with wassail bowls. These bowls contained a punch consisting of spices, apples and ale and would be shared with neighbours. This tradition had its own carols, with arguably the most well-known being “Here We Come A Wassailing”. Another kind of wassailing took place in the countryside, in which people would visit orchards and bless the fruit trees there.

Imogen Easton



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