Christmas the Elizabethan way

PUBLISHED: 11:03 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:10 20 February 2013

Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle

Thousands of visitors descend on Kenilworth and Stratford-upon-Avon every year to visit the famous castle and Tudor houses.

Christmas the Elizabethan way

Thousands of visitors descend on Kenilworth and Stratford-upon-Avon every year to visit the famous castle and Tudor houses. Kenilworth Castle would have been the scene of some of the countrys most extravagant Christmas celebrations while the households of Shakespeares parents would have held much humbler, but just as fun, celebration as Juliette Kemp reports.

If anybody knew how to party it was the Elizabethans behind all those stiff ruffs and farthingales was a capacity to eat, drink and be merry like there was no tomorrow, and it didnt matter whether you lived in a castle or a cottage, come Christmas it was time to party like it was 1599.

Contemporary writing gives historians an insight into Tudor Christmas celebrations and they certainly prove that the emphasis was on fun, no how big your status or budget. Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) was an English author, poet, musician and farmer, best known for his instructional poem Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, written in 1553:

At Christmas we banket, the rich with the poore, who then (but the miser) but openeth [h]is door?
At Christmas of Christ many Carols we sing, and give many gifts in the joy of the King.
Good husband and huswife now cheefly be glad, things handsom to have as they ought to be had;
They both do provide against Christmas doo come, to welcome good neighbour, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and goode drinke, a good fier in the hall, brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall.
Beefe, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best, pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well dressed;
Cheese, apples and nuts, joly Carols to heare, as then in the countrie is counted good cheare.
What cost to good husband is any of this?
good household provision onely it is.
Of other the like I do leave out a menie, that costeth the husbandman never a penny.

Celebrations were much the same across all households but, as Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Museums curator Ann Donnelly points out, then, as now, it was the degrees of extravagance that differed according to the budget and familys place on the social scale. As is usually the case, its the rich and powerful who get most of the historical limelight much is known about the feasts they had, the entertainments they gave and who was present, but its harder to discover the details of celebrations in households like that of Shakespeares father John.

Its the painstaking trawling of ancient documents such as household accounts and books and contemporary writings that provide a window on the more ordinary lives. Everybody celebrated, everybody decorated and everybody feasted whether they were Robert Dudley, owner of Kenilworth Castle which, with Warwick Castle, were the countys, even the nations foremost households, or a yeoman family in a small property.

It was all about show, how much money you had, and your status your hospitality was part of that, says Ann. Christmas at a place like Kenilworth Castle would have been a very busy occasion; you would have had your retainers and probably half of the village there if they were your tenant farmers.

Most of the celebrations would take place in the big hall and the family would have the table on a raised dais across the room with tables for everyone else at right angles to it.

The food
Food was of the very best possible this was a time to indulge and, again, to show off to the best of your ability.

For the aristocracy it was all part of the general jostling for power and status andthe tables of Kenilworth and the upper classes would have groaned under the weight of cygnet, boars head, roasted peacock, haunch of venison and fowls stuffed within fowls. They were also particularly keen on small songbirds such as larks and robins.

There were lots of different courses removes - it was all about show, how much money you had, and your status, says Ann. One gets the impression with the number of removes they had, they must have been completely stuffed at mealtimes.

Another status symbol was sugar. The more sugary items you had was a real bonus as it was really expensive and could be fashioned into elaborate shapes, explains Ann. Sweetmeats were very popular but even in more modest households you would probably get marchpane, which is marzipan. Yeoman families would use vegetable dye to decorate it, the top families had gold leaf.

All classes carried their own knife and spoon with which to eat the food but the very poor tended to have a horn or wooden implement. Further up the social scale it would be made of pewter or a copper alloy, becoming silver gilt even higher up the pecking order.

The decorations
Whatever your social status, greenery was the key decoration the English were renowned for using it to adorn their houses throughout the year, says Ann, but the Christmas tree didnt arrive until about 300 years later.

The Yule Log, often kept and seasoned throughout the year, would have been a huge feature, burning in the hearth through the entire 12 days for, unlike today, Twelfth Night was at the heart of Christmas and when the nation really did become Merrie England.

The fun and games
Twelfth Night was a time of japes and general larking about. The upper classes could pay for a masque to be performed in front of them or have one especially written, they would have their own musicians to provide music for dancing and could lay on other entertainment such as hunting and falconry although, says Ann, sport was banned, except archery, on Christmas Day.

Other fun included Mummers plays (short verse sketches performed in pubs and houses in return for cash and refreshments), wassailing, masques, juggling, dancing and a host of seasonal characters such as the Lord of Misrule, Plum Pudding, Gambol, Post-and-Pear, Babycake, Roast Beef and Mince Pie and the reversals of traditional roles when masters would become servants and played out across the classes.

The characters were basically a forerunner of pantomime, something that ordinary people could enjoy, says Ann.

They would have been people within the community and theyd have gone from household to household, begged a drink or some sustenance and been part of the overall 12-day feast.

Boxing Day
St Stephens Day now Boxing Day was when gifts were given to family members and servants.

You get the sense that the servants were very much part of the family, especially in middling class households, says Ann. This was a period when 14-year-olds would be sent away to a slightly better status family to serve, to learn manners and become part of that household.

At least they didnt have to worry about Gift Giving Day, as did Kenilworth owner and Queens favourite Robert Dudley and others in the court circle. This was on New Years Day when Queen Elizabeth expected to receive gifts, like jewels, perfumed gloves and preserved fruit, from her courtiers.

Much fun was probably had by all, not least the Queen, but theres no doubt that this was probably another occasion for political posturing and status-grabbing that really seems to separate the differences between an aristocratic Christmas and that of ordinary folk

Going to Church
All would mark the 25th with a visit to church, whether Protestant or Catholic, and all saw it as a family occasion with celebrations aimed at having fun and building to a peak on Twelfth Night but, it seems, the more money you had, the heavier the social necessity of displaying it to guests.

Its the simpler celebrations which the trust is recreating this month when it decorates Ann Hathaways house for both an Elizabethan and Victorian Christmas and lays on a Tudor feast at Nashs House and New Place.

Ask Ann whether shed prefer to attend an aristocratic celebration or a more ordinary one and shes definite: If you had your own business like John Shakespeare with your own property then youd have celebrated with your family and your extended family, your servants.

I would have enjoyed that kind of celebration when we first re-enacted a Tudor Christmas at Palmers Farm on Mary Ardens site at Wilmcote it was fantastic, just great simple pleasures.

Tudor Christmas

In Stratford-upon-Avon
Anne Hathaway's Cottage is decorated for an Elizabethan and Victorian Christmas from 1st December to 5th January, and over the weekend of 18th-19th December The Holly and the Ivy is a weekend of music, storytelling and Christmas refreshments (11am-4pm)

Theres a Tudor Christmas Quiz at Halls Croft throughout December.

The garden at Shakespeares Birthplace will be decorated for Christmas. Tudor players will be performing seasonal songs at Shakespeares Birthplace on Thursday 16th December (5-9pm) and wintery excerpts of Shakespeares plays will be performed in the house and garden (admission 1)

From 18th December to 2nd January Nash's House and New Place will be celebrating A Merry Tudor Christmas, with Tudor feast and lots of Tudor games, including Forfeits (at 12pm and 2pm).

Full details of these events are available from 01789 204016;

At Kenilworth Castle
There are Christmas Weekends on 27th-28th November, 4th-5th and 11th-12th December with storytelling and Christmas crafts in Leicester's Gatehouse and a treasure trail around the castle. Winter tours run until March.

Carols at the Castle hosted by Kenilworth Lions on 18th December (5.30pm for 6pm start), admission is 3 for adults (free for children). More details are available from (click on events).

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