“They do both provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbors, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear!”
–Thomas Tusser, “500 Points of Husbandry” (1573)

I loved researching Elizabethan Christmas traditions, because it just sounded like such a fun time! They really knew how to party, those Tudors. We might have Christmas decorations in the stores from Halloween on, but they celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas, from Christmas Eve on December 24 to Twelfth Day on January 6, and each day was filled with feasting, dancing, plays, fox hunts, gift-giving, and general silliness.

Many of the trappings of the holiday we would definitely recognize from our own deck-the-hallsing. Anything that was still green was used in copious amounts, such as holly, ivy, yew, and bay (hence the rhyme “Holly and ivy, box and bay, put in the house for Christmas day!”). The wreaths and swags would be tied up with ribbons and hung around the house, with the Yule log kicking things off on Christmas Eve. The men of the house would trek out into the woods to find the largest log possible and it would be paraded into the Great Hall, decorated with wreaths and ribbons. A bit of last year’s log was always saved to light the new one, and it was a tradition to sit around the fire and tell tales of Christmases past on that night.

We would also recognize the food! (Though maybe not all of it–how many of us have roasted peacock, redressed in its skin and feathers, on our holiday tables?) Roasted meats were big, of course–pork, beef, chicken, and the boar’s head of the song, along with stewed and spiced vegetables and fine white manchet bread. Queen Elizabeth, unlike her father, was a light eater, but she did love sweets, which were prominent on her Christmas table. Candied flowers, hard candies in a thick syrup called suckets (eaten with special sucket spoons), Portugese figs, precious Spanish oranges, fruit tarts, gingerbread, and the famous figgy pudding. The grand feasts ended with the parade of the subtlety, a sugar art sculpture. (In 1564, it was a candy Whitehall Palace, complete with a frozen sugar Thames). All this was washed down with rivers of wines (malmsey, Gascon, and Rhenish wines were the most popular at Court), beer, and ale, with lots of singing and goofiness predictably ensuing. In 1564, though, they could work off all this eating by skating, sledding, and hunting, thus keeping their fine figures to attract the Queen and other courtiers.

On my website I have a few Elizabethan-era recipes for the holidays, but this was my favorite (the famous roasted peacock):

“Take a peacock, break its neck and drain it. (Super easy, right?) Carefully skin it, keeping the skin and feathers together with the head still attached at the end of the neck. Roast only the bird with its legs tucked under. When it is roasted enough, (how do we do this without pre-heating??) take it out and let it cool. Sprinkle cumin on the inside of the skin, then wind it with the feathers and the tail about the body. Serve with the tail feathers upright, its neck propped up from within, and a lighted taper in its beak. If it is a royal dish, cover the beak with fine gold leaf. Carry the bird to the table at the head of a procession of lower dishes for to be sampled first by the monarch. Serve with ginger sauce.”

What are your favorite holiday traditions??? Any special foods you like to serve (besides peacock?). Would anyone else besides me like a time machine to go back and have Christmas in Tudor England (or any other period), just once?